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Old Quebec separatist tensions die hard

The province's motto, "Je me souviens," rings true on the anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

The movement to make Quebec an independent country has dominated Canadian politics for much of the last four decades. It’s mainstream manifestation is the Parti Quebecois, a political party that twice held referendums when in power provincially — one in 1980, when separatist forces were soundly defeated, and another in 1995, when 49.4 percent of Quebecers voted for independence and Canada came within a breath of breaking up.

The party has been out of power since 2003 and polls indicate that separatist aspirations have been placed on the back burner. But nationalism in Quebec runs deep. Much of it is fueled by a struggle to protect the French language and a sense of historical grievance and victimization. On every license plate in the province, like a subtle threat or remonstration, is written "Je me souviens" – "I remember."

And so, it surprised no one that on Sept. 12, an outdoor event was organized in Quebec City to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when British forces routed the French army and turned the territory into a British colony. More surprising was the decision by organizers to include a reading of the FLQ manifesto in the event.

During the October Crisis, the manifesto was broadcast across the country on Radio Canada, the state’s French-language television network, to satisfy an FLQ condition. It railed against the “big bosses,” usually Anglophone, who turned Quebec into a “society of terrorized slaves.” It vowed to use all means, “including dynamite and weapons,” to achieve its goals.

Separatist politicians, who prefer the term “sovereignists,” defended using the manifesto in the commemoration, arguing it was part of the history that unfolded after the British conquest. They noted it was only one of many readings in the weekend-long event, including a passage by the late Mordecai Richler, the acclaimed novelist who lambasted the nationalist movement every chance he got. These same politicians remained curiously stoic about the cancellation of a proposed re-enactment of the 1759 battle. Hard-line nationalists deemed the re-enactment an offensive glorification of French Quebec’s defeat. They vowed to disrupt it, thereby forcing organizers to drop it from the schedule.

The reading of the FLQ manifesto resulted in Quebec’s Liberal government, which wants to keep the province within Canada, boycotting the commemoration. Some ministers described the diatribe as too upsetting to many Quebecers. Others accused organizers of being apologists for terrorist.

The event went off peacefully, attended mostly by nationalists and sovereignists, and largely boycotted by federalists. History in Quebec is contested territory — any kid paying street hockey could tell you that.