Remembering on the Plains of Abraham

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QUEBEC CITY, Canada -- One thousand and three hundred men died on the Plains of Abraham on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 1759, and most of them, English and French together, were buried in trenches dug and forgotten on the spot in which it took less than 30 minutes for them to shoot, bayonet and hack one another to eternity.

Now, atop their bones, families picnic, college girls brown themselves under a Canadian sun and lovers twine like vines, with only a blanket and grass dividing them from abandoned bones of their forebears.

Most Americans know the story through the glancing blow junior high school history takes at how the French ultimately lost control of their North American colony in the French and Indian War. The two generals, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm and James Wolfe, both died from stray shots. A year earlier, Montcalm had been driven out of Fort Duquesne by the British and now, retreating to the gates of Quebec, a musket ball took him down.

Wolfe was returned to England, his coffin paraded through the streets of Greenwich and then buried in honors. Behind the stone walls of Quebec, the French had run out of coffins. Montcalm was tucked into a box and buried in the crater left behind by a shell.

The calm of the present day covers a slow boil. License plates on the cars inside the park still carry the provincial motto, "Je me souviens" -- "I remember." It has been Quebec's motto since 1939.

What, I asked Zachary Cloutier, is it they remember?

"Le division," he said.

"L'Anglais et Francais?" I asked. Between English and French?

"Oui."

Zachary was dressed in the blue woolen uniform of a French musketeer. With no English at his grasp, he entertained my children with a pantomime of shooting, marching, and bayonetting. He had stopped for a visit at one of three stone towers the British built decades after securing their hold on the city. An upstart former colony to the south had managed to secede from Britain and occasionally talked about annexing parts of Canada, but its troops never reached Quebec during the War of 1812.

Canada's French-speaking population seems less to remember than to feel a sense of colonization. Officially, the nation has two languages, but when Quebec passed its own language laws in the 1970s, immigrants who did not already speak English were required to attend French schools, contracts and business were to be conducted in French. Kentucky Fried Chicken is sold beneath signs with the smiling face of Col. Sanders and initials that sound like the name of some liberation army, "PFK." It means Poulet Frit Kentucky. In Swaziland, it's KFC, but in Quebec even acronyms must conform to French, so fragile is the culture after 200 years.

"Le division" must, indeed, be remembered. Sometimes, it need only be the Patrick Division.

At a cafe called Le Challenge, Sidney Crosby's Number 87 shirt, from the days he played for Rimouski, a city on the other side of the St. Lawrence River, hangs in a glass case.

"Ah, Pittsburgh," the waiter told us. "You are lucky. Sidney Crosby."

On at least five occasions throughout my week there, word that I was from Pittsburgh was met with two words: Sidney Crosby.

"He is Quebecois?" I asked the waiter.

"No, no. Nova Scotia."

"But he is popular here?"

"He is a great player."

This generosity of spirit has not always been returned. The Hockey Hall of Fame looks, in truth, like the Wayne Gretzky Hall of Fame. His display swallows much of the hall, with Mario Lemieux given one case and, perhaps the greatest scandal in sports, Maurice Richard, the greatest player of his day and maybe the greatest man in the game, is consigned little more space than an ordinary player.

This life of "two solitudes," as author Hugh MacLennan described it, leaves French Canadians culturally distinct and politically adrift.

"They know Florida better than they do the west of Canada," said Sylvie Arend, French-born professor at York University and an authority on the politics of this place.

Quebec history texts, Arend said, seem to end at the Battle of Quebec while English texts seem to begin Canadian history at the city's conquest. The space between, signified by a long, rolling plain overlooking the river, takes what meaning it will for its visitors. One day, 246 years ago, it was a charnel field. Today, people sun themselves in the summer, cross-country ski in winter and remember. Depending on their language, those lovers are remembering very different things.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-262-1965.


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