Not Everyone's Happy about Quebec's Birthday Party

In QUEBEC, Dan Gélinas has come to realize, you can never have a big party without someone ending up in tears.

Gélinas is the president of the Société du 400e anniversaire de Québec, the group charged with organizing one of the grandest and most important celebrations in the country's history. He is fit, frenetic and blessed with seemingly unyielding optimism - which is a good thing, since criticism and controversy have dogged the event pretty much from day one.

No less than 10 senior directors of the society have left in the last year, including president Pierre Boulanger, whom Gélinas replaced. Event planning and public relations work, Gélinas admits, was woefully behind schedule. Organizers even managed to flub the official inauguration of the festivities on New Year's Day by firing an impressive array of fireworks into the sky over Quebec City - three minutes late. "What a symbol that is," mused Le Soleil columnist François Bourque. "The citizens are ready for celebration, but the organization isn't."

Gélinas, who moved into the president's office the day after the fireworks fiasco, was hired to get as many rear ends into Célébration 400 events as humanly possible. Under his guidance, the society has heavily promoted big-ticket (and notably non-Québécois) acts like Linkin Park, Stone Temple Pilots and Wyclef Jean, some of the biggest attractions in the year-long celebration. None other than Van Halen will usher in the city's official founding on July 3 - on the PLAINS OF ABRAHAM, no less.

He is more likely to mention CIRQUE DU SOLEIL and Céline DION than the number of history- themed events throughout the nine-month celebration. Many typically nationalistic acts like Paul Piché and Gilles "Gens du Pays" Vigneault have either been herded together into one big show or, in the case of Vigneault, been given what amounts to second billing in the wilderness of October. "It's not fist-in-the-air Vive le Québec Libre," Gélinas told Maclean's recently. "I'm here to deliver a show."

Which would be fine were this the CALGARY STAMPEDE, say, or Nova Scotia's annual Wild Blueberry Harvest Festival. But the past speaks very loudly in Quebec, and a large chunk of its population believes the various levels of government, as well as the organizing committee, is deliberately ignoring Quebec's contentious history for the sake of a good party. Samuel de CHAMPLAIN's landing at Quebec City in 1608 was a relatively straightforward event. What it signifies - the founding of a city? A people? A country? - is anything but.

Historians, such as Université de Laval's Martin Paquet, have derided the celebration's lack of historical context and emphasis on flashy multimedia displays and big names. "Many people from Quebec City get the feeling they are partying for the sake of partying." Letter writers in Le Devoir have suggested a federal conspiracy to expunge the fleur-de-lys blue from the official programming (it's too Maple Leaf red, they say). "Ottawa's millions" - the $110 million the federal government has given Quebec for programming and infrastructure - "certainly has a colour!" read a typical missive.

"We have removed every allusion to identity in this celebration," Sébastien "Biz" Fréchette, of the rap group Loco Locass, told Média Matin last February. "What are we supposed to be celebrating, exactly?"

Frechette, along with a host of nationalist luminaries, have organized Commémoration Québec, an "off 400" festival focusing on the history of Samuel de Champlain and the French language. "We are seeing the falsification of history" in the official celebration, says Commémoration host Luck Mervil, a well-known singer and activist.

Similarly, PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS culture critic Pierre Curzi says the whole spectacle is part of a "federalist vision" that glosses over the defeat and subjugation of the French in the name of national unity. If this is the case, though, the federal government has at least acknowledged the power of symbols in Quebec by neglecting to invite arguably the most powerful of them all, Queen Elizabeth II, even though local organizers desperately wanted the pleasure of Her Majesty's company - if only because she would attract world attention to the celebrations.

Without a Queen-sized major draw (unless you count Céline), it seems a lot of Canadians outside of Quebec aren't even aware anything is happening: according to a Decima Research poll conducted for the federal government, less than a third of Canadians know about Quebec's anniversary celebration; a scant 12 per cent of Atlantic Canadians had any inkling of what all the fuss is about.

Gelinas says it isn't his fault there've been fewer RSVPs than expected. As populist as it may be, the product he is offering doesn't hide the fact that this is Quebec City, which is far away and as French as can be. "In my opinion, you can't force someone to buy something they don't want to buy," he says.

It might turn out well in the end, though. Occupation rates for Quebec City hotels this summer, while not as high as hoped for, don't reflect the ignorance or general indifference suggested in the Decima poll. Similarly, Via Rail officials say ridership to Quebec City is up noticeably this summer.

There is also a hopeful flip side to the poll illustrating Canada's obliviousness to the goings-on in Quebec City. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents believed "the Quebec City 400th anniversary celebrations will provide them with the opportunity to learn about the history of Canada." So they might not yet know about the celebrations, but you can't say they're not interested.

Even the graffiti seems somewhat positive. In an exhibition at Espace 400, where visitors are invited to scrawl whatever they like on the walls, one renegade soul wrote "Vive le Québec Libre" in big bold letters. In response, someone wrote this beside: "I'm not sure I like you, Quebec, but I'll try."

And lest this kerfuffle over what it is, exactly, that is being celebrated dampen Quebec City's 400th anniversary, it's worth remembering that organizational quandaries, dissatisfied voices, and chicanes between various levels and factions of government is nothing new. Roughly the same thing happened 100 years ago during the 300th anniversary of Quebec.

Quebec City's Tercentenary, as the 300th anniversary was officially known, was an expensive bonanza in which municipal, provincial and federal governments rained money on the city in a game of now-familiar one-upmanship. Competing visions over what exactly was to be celebrated came to a head in the spring of 1907, and the federal government only agreed to fund a large part of the festivities when and if, as H.V. Nelles notes in his 1999 book about the event, "the festival would represent a truly national character in the broadest sense of the word."

Quebec's nationalist movement, then dominated by the Catholic Church, saw the 300th as an imposition on the Québécois - the transformation, as Nelles writes, "of the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of French Canada into what they believed to be a British Empire festival."

Despite the uproar, it all went off fairly splendidly, with Canadians visiting from all corners of the country. Part of the ceremony included a re-enactment of the 1759 battle between the French and English on the Plains of Abraham, easily the most contentious event in Quebec's nationalist history.

As Nelles notes, though, the two sides didn't even pretend to fight. Instead, English general WOLFE and French general MONTCALM shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and paraded their intermingled armies around the Plains to strains of God Save the King and O Canada - for the first time as a national anthem. Children released a flock of white doves. History was sacrificed for the sake of spectacle on the Plains of Abraham long before Van Halen was ever invited to play there.

The monarchy, meanwhile, remains as big a bone of contention as it was 100 years ago. This time around, though, the feds blinked. Queen Elizabeth, the Harper government pronounced last December, wouldn't be invited. The Monarchist League of Canada was the first to be unamused. "To not invite the Queen to an event like this is an insult to the Queen," league head Robert Finch told reporters. A bevy of politicians, with the notable exception of the Bloc Québécois, lined up to protest the decision.

The Tory government, however, was far more worried at the spectre of angry protests and riot police, both of which were out in force when the Queen visited in 1964. (Her last visit in 1987 was far more civil.)

It isn't altogether clear that she would be run out on a rail. Quebec City may well be 97 per cent French and Catholic. It may be the hub of Quebec's civil service, whose union is militantly sovereigntist. And there are enough of the wounds, real or perceived, to ensure an audience for the PQ's Curzi and his ilk.

Still, Quebec City's citizens voted overwhelmingly "No" during the 1995 referendum. It is also an old port town through which an estimated five million people have flowed since 1608. English-French intermarriage has dulled the edges of history, creating an undeniable (though often overlooked) federalist-sovereigntist duality. And that will ultimately make things easier for the celebrations this summer. "People in Quebec will usually recognize themselves more or less regardless of what is in front of them," says Université de Laval's Paquet. "Those who have a more nationalist bent will see it as the foundation of Quebec. Those with a federalist side to them will see it as the foundation of Canada."

These days, the offices of the Société du 400e seem to be part beehive, part sweatshop. In Gélinas' estimation, the various management departures of the past year, mostly because of internal squabbling and what the government of Quebec perceived as a lack of transparency, set the society back by several weeks, and things have yet to return to normal. Other people - federalists, nationalists, historians, musicians, politicians - have complained about any number of shortcomings in the programming; the viewing public, meanwhile, wants more Céline. There has been a phone-jamming frenzy for the chance to see the lithe songstress from Charlemagne, Que., who, Gélinas notes, will perform her set entirely in French. Scalpers have demanded upwards of $700 for the supposedly free tickets on eBay. Organizers are giving out 100,000, but are worried that 400,000 people will show up.

Samuel de Champlain established the French presence in North America 400 years ago; now, over 100,000 people are clamouring to hear one of its most popular exports warble away in their native language. Why, then, bother with the past? "Céline Dion has almost replaced history," Gélinas says, eminently happy with the fact.

Maclean's July 7, 2008