Today the Plains of Abraham serves Quebec City well as a city park, though strangely it is still run by a National Battlefields Commission established by Ottawa 100 years ago. Two hundred fifty years ago last Sunday, the Plains were the site of the Battle of Quebec, where the forces of the King of France, commanded by the Marquis de Montcalm were defeated by the British Army headed by General James Wolfe. This past weekend, the Plains hosted the Moulin à Paroles (Chatterbox) a public reading of poetry and prose, to mark the historic battle that changed the direction of Canadian history.
The Plains of Abraham extend along the North Bank of the Saint Lawrence, high above the river valley. At its Eastern end stands the fortified Quebec Citadel: Canadian Armed Forces garrison, tourist stop and summer home to the Governor-General of Canada. At the Western tip are sports fields, next to the Quebec Museum of Fine Arts. Visitors to the park can see a headstone marking the spot where Montcalm received his fatal wound. There is a newly installed monument to all who died in the seige of Quebec in 1759, soldiers and civilians. Wolfe perished on the Plains as did his second-in-command and third-in-command. Just outside the park (near the Joan of Arc gardens), overlooking the Grande Allée, there is a statue to Montcalm, France and Canada.
As described by the great historian, Guy Frégault, the battle of Quebec ended when British frigates took control of the St. Lawrence river in the Spring of 1760. For Frégault, the ultimate winners were the 13 American colonies, soon (1776) to be independent from Britain. With the continuing threat of the French, Indian alliance diminished, the American seaboard settlements would turn their attention to the mastery and domination of the continent, as foreseen by Benjamin Franklin.
The Moulin à Paroles was a 24-hour festival of readings from significant texts chosen from across over 400 years of Quebec history. A descendant of Wolfe read a letter from the General to his mother composed on the battlefield; one of Montcalm read from his dispatches to his troops. The landmark text by Marcel Trudel on the positive elements that followed the English conquest stood out among nationalist voices highlighting oppression, tyranny and treachery. Of the latter the 1755 English declaration deporting the Acadians, separating the children from their parents, and confiscating all of their lands and possessions was particularly chilling. It is hard to imagine a speech today from a head of government the equal of the 1885 speech by Honoré Mercier, premier of Quebec, mounting a passionate attack on Sir John A. Macdonald, and his Quebec ministers for hanging Louis Riel.
Mostly, the Moulin was a joyous festival of words. Appropriate pride of place was given to aboriginal languages (Huron, Inuu, Micmac). Mordecai Richler (The Street) was read in English, and Leonard Cohen (Suzanne).
The 400 plus of texts starred the French language, thanks to the professional artists, some public figures (Pauline Marios, Gilles Duceppe, Bernard Landry, Benoit Bouchard), and the occasional celebrity (Robert Lepage, Julie Synder) donating their time to read to a few thousand people seated on the grass, in the natural bowl surrounding the Edwin Belanger bandstand, enjoying an exhilarating experience.
Though it is not well known, French has been spoken in Quebec continuously as the common language for much longer than in France, where up until the 20th century, it was understood by only one in three French residents.
French did not flourish in Canada because of any guarantees offered to the language by London. As noted by the esteemed historian Ramsay Cook the French language received no legal protection in Canada before 1867, and equality of English and French was not guaranteed until the Official languages Act of 1969 and the Charter of Rights of 1982.
In Quebec today, what happened a few centuries ago is experienced as if it happened recently. It is a historic community, and like in Ireland, another English colony, past injustices and grievances are remembered, and can be called up pretty quickly. A culture grows deep roots when history is always present. Language keeps memory alive.
Quebec can give others lessons on how best to mark a military defeat: speak about it, out loud. Shout where necessary, and sing together, as people did concluding the festival last Sunday, the song of loss after the fall of New France and the anthem of the 1970s Gens du Pays.
Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.