Free speech besieged on Plains of Abraham?

The controversy over marking the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham has crossed over into freedom of expression territory. Though there hasn’t been an actual attempt to prevent a reading of the manifesto of the Front de liberation du Quebec as part of the event, federalists are complaining that the reading endorses terrorism, while event organizers want an apology for that accusation.

Originally a re-enactment of the battle was to mark the anniversary (Sept. 13), but organizers dropped that idea when Quebec sovereigntists threatened to boycott it. The new plan is for a reading of poetry and prose, including a number of historical documents, this weekend. One of the many documents to be read is the 1970 manifesto of the violent separatists group that kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte in the fall of 1970. Laporte was found murdered.

Quebec’s provincial government has criticized the event. The Globe and Mail reports that the provincial cabinet minister responsible for the capital region, Sam Hamad called the manifesto’s inclusion an attempt to vindicate the kidnappings. “Talking about terrorism is not history,” he was quoted as saying.

Organizers of the event, called Moulin a paroles, which translates as “chatterbox,” have asked Hamad for a public apology. “When you accuse someone of fomenting violence, it’s serious,” The Canadian Press quoted artistic director Brigitte Haentjens as saying. “This team is profoundly insulted by the comments.”

Some of the most interesting comments in the controversy focus on where to draw the line. If the readings shouldn’t include the FLQ manifesto, what about the writings of Lord Durham? As a Canwest News report notes, Quebec nationalists consider Durham’s 1839 proposal to unite Upper and Lower Canada an attempt to assimilate Quebec.

The Globe notes that the readings will also include texts from Louis Riel invoking the Metis Red River Rebellion and tests from Louis Joseph Papineau, leader of the 1837-38 Lower Canada Rebellion.

Despite the uproar, it appears the event will proceed. According to a Canadian Press report, the federal National Battlefields Commission, which has jurisdiction over the Plains of Abraham, said Tuesday it will allow Moulin a paroles to proceed  – while stressing that this does not mean the commission supports the event.

Anyone interested in knowing what the FLQ manifesto contains, meanwhile, doesn’t have to travel to Quebec City this weekend to find out. It’s readily available online, including both the original French version and English translations. One place to find it is the Marianopolis College online collection of Quebec historical documents.