On the radio: CBC Radio’s “Sunday Edition”, finally back from a long summer holiday, featured an interview with Winifred Gallagher, author of the new Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, who writes, “Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time.” I was busy concentrating on the discussion and so didn’t write anything down, but afterwards found something similar from her New York Times interview in May,
“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.
“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”
During her cancer treatment several years ago, Ms. Gallagher said, she managed to remain relatively cheerful by keeping in mind James’s mantra as well as a line from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”
“When I woke up in the morning,” Ms. Gallagher said, “I’d ask myself: Do you want to lie here paying attention to the very good chance you’ll die and leave your children motherless, or do you want to get up and wash your face and pay attention to your work and your family and your friends? Hell or heaven — it’s your choice.”
On the streets of Canada: the Terry Fox annual run. Laura sang O Canada before the run, and she’s pleased and proud to have been asked. Terry Fox was 18 in 1977 when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and his right leg amputated six inches above the knee. He decided to begin a “Marathon of Hope” across Canada to raise money for cancer research, one of the first such cross-country charity efforts. He began his marathon in April 1980 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. But after 143 days and 3,339 miles, of running, Terry Fox had to stop on September 1, at Thunder Bay, Ontario, because the cancer had reappeared in his lungs. Terry was forced to stop running outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario because cancer had appeared in his lungs. He died 10 months later at the age of 22. But the marathon continues. Terry Fox would have been 50 this year, the same age as Tom.
On the Plains of Abraham: This weekend marks the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Quebec in the Seven Years’ War (aka the French and Indian War). The province weaseled out of a planned re-enactment of the Battle when separatists threatened to disrupt the proceedings, which I wrote about here back in March. Then the province weaseled out of the replacement activity, a weekend “Moulin a paroles”, a 24-hour readathon of 140 documents about the province’s history since 1759, because one of the documents was the FLQ’s 1970 manifesto. Much scope for all sides in rewriting history in Quebec and making a mockery of the provincial motto, Je me souviens. From yesterday’s editorial in The Globe & Mail,
If it wasn’t for the controversy, tomorrow’s 250th anniversary of the Battle on the Plains of Abraham might go entirely unnoticed. There have been no stamps, no coins and almost no recognition from Ottawa that anything important might have happened on Sept. 13, 1759.
This official disregard for the Battle of Quebec, born of a fear of angering a few perpetually aggrieved separatists, is unfortunate. Not only does it represent a crucial moment in the modern history of Canada but, more importantly, it marks the birth of the great Canadian spirit of cultural accommodation.
From a purely historical perspective, it is impossible to ignore the significance of the battle. It settled, once and for all, the question of which crown would control Canada. Further, the cost of winning the war proved so onerous for the British treasury that it necessitated a host of new taxes on American colonies — setting in motion the events of 1776. The trajectories of both Canada and the United States were determined that day.
More than the historical fact of Canada was decided on the battlefield, however. Our character was defined there as well.
In draft articles of capitulation drawn up before the battle, the victor, Major-General James Wolfe, sketched a new model of British occupation. Despite his reputation as a brutal military leader, Maj.-Gen. Wolfe was prepared to preserve Quebec’s unique cultural character and population.
“There shall be no innovations in religious matters or any interruption of Divine Service, as it is now preach’d in the Colony,” he wrote. Such generosity had not been found at the fall of Louisbourg a year earlier, where the British razed the city and expelled the citizenry. Maj-Gen. Wolfe’s more liberal position has proven enduring. It defined the official surrender of Quebec City after his death, as well as the capitulation of Montreal a year later. It found its way into the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and, later, Canada’s Constitution.
This was not an arrangement inspired entirely by generosity. The British army hoped to avoid the hassle of becoming an occupying force. Co-operation was far more appealing than further confrontation. After the battle, French hospitals served the wounded from both sides, with bilingual British soldiers conscripted as orderlies.
Of course not every French habitant willingly accepted British rule, just as today many Quebec nationalists still cling to an emotional connection with the Conquest, in spite of more rational arguments.
Nonetheless, the events of Sept. 13, 1759 and its immediate aftermath marked the origin of minority rights and religious freedom in Canada, as well as the acknowledgment that governing this diverse country requires an appreciation for what may be possible, given the circumstances. It is certainly cause for commemoration.
You can help commemorate the battle by watching the 1957 National Film Board production, Wolfe and Montcalm, here; watching the CBC documentary Battle for a Continent; and by reading the current issue of the Canadian history magazine, The Walrus. In his introduction to this month’s issue, Editor John MacFarlane writes,
The history of Canada is, for many Canadians, terra incognita. In far too many of the country’s high schools, the subject is now, like music and drama, an “option.” This would explain the Angus Reid survey in which 61 percent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 24 were unable to distinguish between Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Laurence Olivier. And yet even these poor souls — young people who probably could not recall the date of Confederation (1867), the name of the last province admitted (Newfoundland), or the year we repatriated the Constitution from Great Britain (1982) — even they might know a thing or two about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
What took place on September 13, 1759, on a plateau overlooking the St. Lawrence River, upstream from Quebec City, is an iconic moment in the country’s historical narrative: literally the beginning of the story of Canada. Britain and France were vying for North America; Wolfe attacked Montcalm; Wolfe prevailed, although both generals were mortally wounded; the British went on to capture Montreal; New France was dead. But there is so much more. I was never taught, for instance, that Montcalm, badly outnumbered, joined the battle without waiting for reinforcements. Or that Wolfe, who had already led the British to a great victory at Louisbourg, had numerous detractors, including the Duke of Newcastle, who told King George II that Wolfe was mad. The king is said to have responded, “Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals.”
The battle’s rich narrative detail was not lost on Helen Humphreys as she set out to reimagine it on this its 250th anniversary (“On the Plains of Abraham,1759,” page 22). … She is a brilliant writer — The New Yorker has called her work lyrical — and an obvious choice for this assignment. While she was born in England, where schoolchildren are more familiar with the Battle of Agincourt than the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, she came to Canada when she was three and has emerged as one of the country’s foremost creators of historical fiction. …
We asked Humphreys to write the story after learning that the National Battlefields Commission, a federal agency, had cancelled plans to mark the anniversary with a re-enactment. Quebec sovereignists had threatened to disrupt the event, calling it “federalist propaganda.” The commission’s capitulation illustrates what is wrong with the teaching of history in Canada — namely, that we would rather not teach it if there is a chance that doing so might cause offence. This, as the historian Jack Granatstein laments, diminishes us as a nation. You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. The outcome of the battle on the Plains of Abraham 250 years ago is a matter of historical record. What is up for debate is its meaning.
Read the rest of Mr. MacFarlane’s introduction here, and read Helen Humphreys‘ story of the battle here. You can also read the aforementioned Jack Granatstein on “How We Teach History Matters Most”. For more on the subject, get his book, Who Killed Canadian History?