As one of the most historic spots in Canada, the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City has long maintained a strict policy to ban commercial, for-profit activities from its hallowed ground.
But come September, it will be making an exception – and for none other than the Material Girl.
Madonna, as part of her global tour, is being given access to the federal park so that the Plains of Abraham can be turned into what concert promoters are calling “a giant dance floor.” And while other federal parks charge for the use of their grounds, the administrators of the Plains are handing over the space to Madonna gratis.
Now the deal is raising questions about the National Battlefields Commission’s handling of the issue.
The Plains, site of the epic 1759 clash between generals Montcalm and Wolfe, has welcomed big-name performers before – but under different conditions. Paul McCartney’s 2008 performance for Quebec City’s 400th anniversary was free to the public, and stars like Elton John played for non-profit festivals that demanded no direct entry fee.
Madonna will be the first to charge paid admission to the Plains, turning the site of Canada’s most decisive battle into a private concert playground.
The policy of the National Battlefields Commission stipulates that it is “generally forbidden” to hold commercial activities on the site “when they are not an integral part of an activity whose primary character is non-commercial.”
Critics say that if the commission decided to make an exception for the Queen of Pop, it should have at least asked for payment.
“It isn’t right,” said André Juneau, a former head of the National Battlefields Commission. “I would never have agreed to do it for free.”
“You can make an exception for one case, but then they should have to pay,” said Mr. Juneau, who stepped down from the job in 2009 after a 14-year term. “Otherwise, you open the door to anyone who wants to organize something commercial on the Plains.”
He said a $2- or $3-a-ticket fee would allow the park to reinvest in upkeep and improvements.
“If we had ever received a request like this, we would have taken advantage of it so there were benefits for the park,” Mr. Juneau said. “We don’t want commercial activities. … We could have a McDonald’s any time, we’d just have to ask them.”
Luci Tremblay, a spokeswoman for the Festival d’été de Québec, the non-profit group that brought Elton John, Sting and other major artists to the Plains, said her group was surprised by the commission’s decision.
“They always told us the Plains were reserved for non-profit organizations or exceptional events like the 400th anniversary [of Quebec City]” she said. During the Festival d’été, concerts on the Plains are accessible with a festival pass that also includes a range of other activities; there is no charge for each show.
A spokeswoman for the National Battlefields Commission said Madonna’s Sept. 1 concert marks the first time the site would be handed over to private interests. Joanne Laurin said the promoters will have to cover the cost for security and to restore the site to its pre-concert state.
“It’s really an exceptional case. We accepted it because we presume there will be major economic benefits for Quebec City,” she said. Ms. Laurin didn’t know whether the board of the commission, a federal agency that operates under the Department of Canadian Heritage, asked for payment from local concert promoter QuébéComm.
Other activities on the Plains have stirred controversy in the past. A plan in 2009 to re-enact Britain’s military victory over France was scuttled after protests by Quebec sovereigntists, who said it glorified the conquest of French Canada. Millions in tourist revenue were lost.
Some other federal parks, meanwhile, do seek a fee for renting their grounds. The Garrison Grounds at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, which operates under Parks Canada and welcomed a Metallica concert last summer, charges a minimum $10,000 for concerts plus a per-ticket fee. Concert revenues are poured back into the site to support programming.
Tickets to the Madonna show in Quebec City range from $55 to $250, excluding fees and taxes.