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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 ...

That, at least, was true. In Northern Armageddon , Peter MacLeod, the pre-Confederation historian at the Canadian War Museum, quotes literate Canadians of the day who felt enraged and betrayed by the 1763 Treaty of Paris, in which the France ceded all claim to Canada as part of an agreement to end the Seven Years' War. But those Canadians blamed the French, not the British.

Mr. Bégin admitted that he also wanted to block the re-enactment as revenge for the way the federal government had "stolen" the 400th anniversary of Quebec last year. Stephen Harper publicly compared Samuel de Champlain to Governor-General Michaëlle Jean, and said they were the first and latest in a long line of Canadian governors.

"They used the 400th anniversary to make politics for Canada and the federal option. So, many militants and French-Canadians in general said, 'We will not let them do that again with the Conquest.'"

The Plains of Abraham, in other words, may or may not be the site of a significant battle. Historians disagree. But the present-day park (a gift to Quebec City from the federal government and the British House of Commons on the city's 300th birthday in 1908) is certainly a central symbol of the sovereigntist cause - big, green, unavoidable and always there to remind everyone that this is where Wolfe beat Montcalm.

V. 'Go forth and sin against the English'

At Ogdensburg, most of the French-speaking re-enactors were sovereigntists. They cared about preserving the French language and culture - a challenge they were addressing by showing people what French culture was like in the 18th century.

In that regard "the cancelling was a catastrophe," said David Lafond, a Montreal civil engineer in the 2nd battalion of the Régiment du Sarre.

"When you don't know your history, it's not important to keep it. But when you know it, you know how much you want to keep it," he added. Then he went off to be blessed by the priest, who exhorted him and his troops to "go forth and sin against the English."

At the English end of the camp a guy named Bob McGowan was demonstrating the use of a tomahawk as a slashing tool. Mr. McGowan was dressed as an Abenaki Indian. He was 54 years old and made his living running robot cameras through pipelines. But today he was wearing a nose ring of 18th-century Abenaki design, three earrings, tanned shin leggings and moccasins (which he pronounced "mucksins" to be historically correct) and a loincloth made from trade wool ("dries faster than the brain-tanned deerskin - even the natives realized that, as early as the 1760s").

And that was about all he was wearing: Mr. McGowan's bare behind was there for all to see, and tinted a coppery red. But he was a human Swiss Army knife as far as weapons went: 1747 Dutch flintlock rifle (80 calibre), vicious-looking maple-burl war club, belt knife, neck knife, the aforementioned tomahawk.

"I ran through that arch in the fort at Fort Carillon," Mr. McGowan said, to explain why he re-enacted. "That arch that Montcalm himself went through. And the closer I got, the more I got a feeling I'd never had before."

"You'd been there before," another re-enactor said.

"I don't like to say it like that," Mr. McGowan said, "because it sounds corny. But it just gets a hold of me."

"It's like going back home," the other man said. "It's a spiritual feeling. It's a reincarnation. You go to a place you've never been before, and you feel you have."

Which is one way of describing a sense of history.

VI. Re-enactment and its opposite

A quarter-million young Québécois were streaming onto the Plains of Abraham when Harry Hunkin dropped me off after our day of Wolfe. It was the eve of the feast of St. Jean Baptiste, Quebec City's biggest night of partying.

Guys were lugging entire fridges' worth of beer around in their knapsacks. They kept stopping to open the knapsacks and count the beers, then reshouldering the load without taking one. So many people were teeming across the Plains it was hard to move.

I made my way toward Wolfe's Hill. It was not crowded.

In front of the bandstand where the biggest crowd gathered young men and women waved their fleur-de-lys flags above their heads as one, as if a quarter-million thought bubbles had suddenly appeared. It seemed like the same thought over and over again, but "it's just a celebration of being French-Canadian," a young woman assured me.

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