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William Johnson

What if Montcalm had won? Add to ...

What if, 250 years ago, the Marquis de Montcalm had defeated James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham? Would French-speakers today be more numerous on this continent, more socially and culturally developed, more prosperous and secure? Would the Québécois be happier?

That assumption has been cherished by generations of nationalist weepers. Their lamentations will fill the air this weekend on the anniversary.

But is it justified? On the contrary, if you study the fate of each of France's American colonies in the years after 1759, it emerges unquestionably that only Quebec has prospered, and in French.

Of course, tragic myths die hard. None is more seductive than that of Paradise Lost. Laval University historian Jocelyn Létourneau asked 3,000 students to write, in 45 minutes, an overview of Quebec's history. Overwhelmingly, they saw New France as a golden age, followed by a fall into the struggle for survival and emancipation, until the rebirth of hope with the Quiet Revolution.

And the reality? New France was a stunted two-dimensional society kept as " une colonie à fourrures ," according to historian Marcel Trudel, the foremost expert on New France. France followed a mercantilist philosophy. So the King of France decreed in 1704: "Whatever could create competition with the manufactures of the Kingdom must never be done in the colonies." While beaver pelts were welcomed, the King ordered closed a nascent colonial industry to manufacture beaver hats. Similarly, a local industry to fabricate linen cloth was outlawed.

And the colons were ordered, under severe penalties, not to trade with nearby New Englanders, whose prices were lower. So a diversified economy, or even a commercial agriculture, could never develop in New France.

Demographers Réjean Lachapelle and Jacques Henripin estimate that, during the entire period of New France, it received on average fewer than 70 immigrants a year, while the British colonies received on average 1,400 immigrants a year - although France, in the 17th century, had three times the population of England. The New England colonies were fairly concentrated geographically, while New France soon extended over an area larger than Europe, from Acadia to Hudson's Bay to beyond the Great Lakes and down to Louisiana. The British colonies thrived in numbers, in trade, in commercial agriculture, in wealth, in complexity. New France remained overextended, underdeveloped, authoritarian, primitive. It never published a newspaper. Literacy was scarce.

That 160-year contrast, not the Plains of Abraham, determined that North America must eventually speak English.

Nationalist historian Lionel Groulx recognized that the fall of New France was inevitable because, a century before 1759, Louis XIV chose to starve the colony in order to pursue his continental ambitions. For Groulx, not just Louis XV, but especially Louis XIV "renounced America," starving it of immigrants and investment. "New France, nourished by all too little blood, was destined to become like a member that, deprived of blood, must some day be amputated." The inevitable happened in 1759.

But what if Quebec had not fallen then? Look at what happened to France's other American colonies, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Louisiana, Sainte-Lucie, French Guyana. In none is French today the first language spoken by the majority of the population. Even where French is the official language, some form of Creole is the language of the people.

Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803. Guadeloupe revolted against the French Revolution and refused the governor sent by France. Napoleon sent an army to quell Guadeloupe's uprising and thousands were slaughtered.

Haiti was ravaged first by wars between French and occupying British armies. Then the slaves revolted and Haiti gained independence in 1804, but only after tens of thousands of its people had been slaughtered.

Sainte-Lucie, between 1793 and 1815, changed hands seven times in the battles between the French and the British. St. Lucia was finally ceded to Britain in 1814. Martinique also swung between French and British rule until Napoleon's downfall.

Meanwhile, Quebec's French population soared in the 19th century as it never had under French rule. Starting from a low base, Quebec developed politically, culturally and socially. Almost everything recognized today as characteristically Québécois emerged after 1763.

In January, when plans were revealed to recreate the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, nationalists exploded. Réjean Parent, president of the federation representing 180,000 teachers and other public-sector employees, declared: "It is as unreasonable to ask the Québécois people to commemorate the worst defeat in its history as to ask the French people to do likewise to underline their defeat against Nazi Germany."

In January and February, Guadeloupe was paralyzed by a general strike. Do Quebeckers truly envy the fate of Guadeloupe? It was not defeated on the Plains of Abraham.

William Johnson is an author and a former president of Alliance Quebec.

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