Perhaps this will come as no surprise: To finance his new documentary about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, director Brian McKenna had to travel all the way to France. "There is no French broadcaster in Quebec who would touch it with a fork," McKenna says. "Not a one."
Two years in the making, the 90-minute docudrama - Battlefield Quebec: Wolfe and Montcalm, airing on the History Channel at 9 p.m. tomorrow, the 250th anniversary of Canada's most historic dust-up - aims to be a straight-arm to the political correctness of Quebec nationalism. That's the least one expects of McKenna, the older, more salacious half of the brother team whose infamous 1992 series, The Valour and the Horror, incited a national screaming match and a $500-million lawsuit from infuriated Canadian veterans who felt the McKennas impugned their honour (the case was thrown out of court).
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham has just as much power to offend. General James Wolfe's defeat of the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm's French troops on the highlands of Quebec City is still known there as the Conquest - a battle still so controversial that this summer's much-vaunted re-enactment was cancelled due to pressure from Quebec nationalists.
That kind of touchiness makes McKenna reach for his camera. The Plains of Abraham are well-worn ground for historians and nerdish devotees of the Seven Years' War. But McKenna emphasizes stories less well-known to the average Canadian. (The cash-strapped CBC, the McKennas' usual display case, told them the subject had been covered in the Corp.'s Canada: A Peoples' History series, which is why Battlefield Quebec is a CanWest project.)
"I think we dug up some fresh material," McKenna explains. "One was our discovery of Wolfe, in his own handwriting a few days before the battle, writing out the terms of Quebec's capitulation in the event of a British victory - terms which centred on the protection of French institutions, notably the French language and the Catholic Church. And that at a time when Catholicism was still illegal in England."
Such details offered McKenna an opportunity to turn the notion that the English oppressed les Canadiens on its ear. "Wolfe is reviled here," he says from his home in Montreal, "not to put too fine a point on it. My conclusion was, France lost the battle, but Quebec won the war."
McKenna has made a filmmaking career out of Canada's wars. In 2007's The Great War, he enlisted the services of 150 descendants of soldiers from the First World War. His interest in the Plains of Abraham was nudged along by his research for Big Sugar, a four-hour dissection of the global sugar trade: When it came time to negotiate the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France happily traded all of New France for teensy but more profitable Guadeloupe and Martinique. In McKenna's view, France abandoned New France more than Britain conquered it.
To make Battlefield Quebec, in addition to his usual mix of archival footage and re-enacted scenes, McKenna added interviews with historians and experts - including William Moss, the chief archeologist of Quebec City, and General Jean-Pierre Poussou, a historian from France. The McKenna crew was given a tour of Quebec City's famous Ursuline convent, the site of Quebec City's sombre monument to the French soldiers who died on the Plains.
"Then we asked where the English soldiers were buried," McKenna adds, "and the archeologist said, well, and led us out to a traffic intersection. Five feet under the intersection is a mass grave of English soldiers. Obviously the English had so little power" - in the city they had allegedly just conquered, no less - "that they couldn't control where their soldiers were buried."
A wave of recent scholarship in Quebec and elsewhere has challenged the Quebec nationalist view of the so-called Conquest, and McKenna has never been afraid to poke a rhetorical giant in the eye. Battlefield Quebec features experts from around the world who pick apart the Québécois claim that Wolfe committed war crimes against the people of Quebec City (not true, they had been evacuated, and he expressly protected women and children); who denounce the view that Wolfe was suicidal, reckless and a lousy tactician; and who deny that the deck was stacked against poor little Quebec.
The film also focuses on one of the less-discussed reasons for the British victory: the brilliant landing of 4,500 British soldiers at the foot of the cliffs of Quebec City after a 34-kilometre drift down the St. Lawrence by tide and moonlight, all charted and mapped by James Cooke, who would later find Australia and Hawaii for Europe.
McKenna's other major claim is that the French finally lost the battle, when they still might have won, because Colonel Antoine de Bougainville, one of Montcalm's subordinates, didn't show up in time with 2,000 reinforcements; he was too busy doing reconnaissance work with another man's wife. The conquest of New France was at least partly caused by the conquest of a pair of underpants. De Bougainville later became the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe, and has a well-known shrub named after him.
McKenna admits there are debates to be had on all these points. What he refuses to alter is his conviction that Canadian federalism has been a saviour of Quebec more than its scourge. Tomorrow, the same day his film airs, Quebec City's nationalists will perform a public reading of the manifesto of the Front de Libération du Québec, with its famous reference, McKenna points out, to " 'that faggot Trudeau.' " The actual word the manifesto uses is tapette, which translates as "pansy" or "poof" - the difference between a faggot and a pansy is a good measure of the tweak a McKenna documentary gives to historical fact.
But however it is translated, the glorification of the FLQ manifesto disturbs McKenna. Like a lot of Canadians, he recently read Adam Gopnik's profile of Michael Ignatieff in The New Yorker, and was struck by Ignatieff's descriptions of how ethnic nationalism overtook the civic variety in the former Yugoslavia, with genocidal consequences.
"Discovering that the French language was guaranteed by Wolfe, and then realizing that we live in this corner of the world where French is still freely spoken - my own kids often can't decide which language to speak - was huge," McKenna says. "We're just enormously lucky here in Quebec. What struck me reading about Ignatieff, though, was how quickly you can lose that situation. People here are intimidated by the nationalist movement. But if you fight them back, you quickly realize they don't have a foot to stand on."