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Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)
Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)

Globe Focus

In Wolfe's clothing Add to ...

Another popular topic was how Tentsmiths, a well-known maker of historically correct canvas tents, was making a killing selling to "settlers," as non-soldier re-enactors refer to themselves. Re-enacting's an expensive hobby: a starter officer kit runs $3,000, which is why a lot of newbies begin as French-Canadian militia. The fancy marquee tent the Dreslers use when Horst plays General Wolfe (big enough for a double rope bed and carpets and travelling chests of drawers and a desk) cost $1,500. Ms. Goodman flat-out refused to say how much she paid for her handmade, whale-baleen stays.

The one consolation of the cancellation was that by the time Ogdensburg rolled around, Mr. Dresler had been working up his Wolfe persona for three years. He'd lately been scouring The Life and Letters of James Wolfe , a biography from 1909, and was finally beginning to understand the whack-job British general.

"As a commander, I would say Wolfe was stupid, but he was lucky."

"There's speculation Wolfe committed suicide," someone said.

"Well," someone else replied, "suicide by cop." Wolfe insisted on standing up directly behind his men. As short as the skirmish on the Plains of Abraham was, he managed to take three hits - in the wrist and the hip, then a double ball to the heart.

"I wanted to incorporate how he treated his men," Mr. Dresler said. "The group was very divisive. He treated someone very well if the respect was there, but not if it wasn't."

Ms. Goodman looked over at her husband and rolled her eyes. "I don't know what Wolfe was like," she said. "But sometimes he thinks he's Wolfe."

That afternoon, in full Wolfean garb, Commander Horst Dresler led his troops toward their pretend Quebec. Albeit small and somewhat conceptual, the re-enactment was an accurate replay of the battle as it unfolded on the Plains of Abraham 250 years ago.

The British held their fire, a long thin string of red jewels against the green grass. The blue-and-white French advanced too far, and paid for their haste. Still, the natives and Canadiens sniping on the right held the British back, managing three musket shots a minutes - top speed, back in 1759. But Wolfe had been drilling his men all summer, and they were faster.

One of the native re-enactors was fighting with his 10-year-old son at his side: I wanted to go out with them in the long grass, and pretend to live or die for the country I loved. If I were a re-enactor, I suddenly realized, I would have to be a local Canadian milis , fighting for the French. It was an unexpected thought.

Historically accurate rain began to drizzle, but the crowd stayed put. Then Commander Dresler assumed Wolfe's last pose, splayed like a geisha against a tree. Everyone watched him die. There was applause.

IV. The making of politics, symbolism and sausage

One night in Quebec City I hailed a cab. The driver, a Quebecker named Hannibal who was born in Marseille, asked me why I was there.

"The cancelled re-enactment," I said.

"Oh, yes, the separatists," Hannibal said. "Fuck.Why? Why separate? Look at this city." He gestured at the scene in the street around us - well-heeled couples going out to dinner, speaking French, driving expensive cars, shopping, prosperous. "Why?"

"Well," I said, "a young country that needs you is always attractive. Especially if you're young yourself, and looking for an identity."

"Fuck," Hannibal said again. "They have two identities already - Quebec, Canadian. What's wrong with them?"

Pierre-Luc Bégin answered that question the next morning. Mr. Bégin is deputy director of the Réseau de Résistance du Québécois, and one of the people who masterminded the media campaign that kiboshed the re-enactment. He was a thin, pale man with a narrow face and short haircut parted almost in the centre - he had an old-fashioned, almost Victorian air.

His objection to the re-enactment was its lack of seriousness. "First of all, this actually was supposed to be a celebration. Second, it was organized by the federal government, that clearly had a political vision of the thing. There was the poster with Montcalm and Wolfe shaking hands, with these big smiles.

"Our objection was not that we talk about the Conquest. It was important to talk about it. The problem was the federal government wanted to do something happy - but it was a sad event."

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