During the golden summer of 1908, Canadians celebrated the 300th anniversary of the founding of Québec with a public spectacle rarely rivaled for scale or theatricality since. Then, as now, there were those who wanted to conflate the founding of Québec with the birth of Canada. Controversy raged over who should be in charge and what should be celebrated. Indecisiveness, conflicting political agendas and confusion hampered planning, and everything had to be improvised at the last moment.

Ceremonies at the base of the Champlain Monument during Quebec's Tercentenary celebrations, 23 July 1908 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada / PA-023829).

But it all came off in a dazzling display of parades, pageantry, royalty, solemn masses, fireworks and illuminations, music, marching and cavalry charges, with a truly awesome fleet of British, French and US warships massed in the St Lawrence River, near where Samuel de Champlain first came ashore to set up a fort and trading post. But when the warships weighed anchor, the tourists decamped, the streets were swept, the tattered decorations taken down, and the souvenirs packed away, the Tercentenary was just as quickly forgotten.

What should we make of anniversary celebrations such as these? Québec's 400th was followed by BC's 150th - and was preceded by Newfoundland's 500th. Ostensibly, these events are about history, but only rarely are they historical. According to the advertised programme, Québec would celebrate the 400th anniversary of its founding with fireworks displays, a carnival, son et lumiere on the side of a grain elevator and the inevitable performances by Céline Dion and Cirque de Soleil. Aside from an event happening on the Plains of Abraham, history would be kept as far offstage as possible.

That is in marked contrast to the 300th anniversary in 1908. On that occasion, history was front and centre. Apart from the obligatory fireworks and concerts, the main event was a grand historical pageant staged in an open-air theatre before thousands of spectators on the Plains of Abraham. Hundreds of Québec citizens donned period costumes and acted out scenes of their past accompanied by an orchestra, two massed armies on the field and the guns of the fleet thundering on the river below. Native people from an adjoining encampment starred in the pageant and, during a reenactment of Champlain's arrival on the Don de Dieu, they greeted him in their canoes and accompanied him ashore. After these performances, as the producers intended, the colourfully costumed spilled out of the stadium onto the streets of Québec as the cast mingled with family and friends in contemporary summer attire. Past and present flowed together and reflected back on one another.

But what historical narrative was being celebrated? An ambitious, newly arrived governor-general, Earl Grey, wanted to "redeem" what he considered one of the holiest sites of the British Empire - the site of General James Wolfe's triumph - with a historic park and a mammoth Angel of Peace. Politically, he hoped to tie Canada more firmly to the Empire, culturally and militarily.

To state the obvious, this was not going to be an easy sell in Québec. Nevertheless, under his deft hand, a national campaign was launched to finance the acquisition of the battlefield site. Ontario and British Columbia were persuaded, along with Québec, to contribute financially to demonstrate the national significance of the site and the celebrations. The king chipped in, too - as did the Government of Canada, which was prevailed upon to make the largest contribution.

For according to the dominant narrative, Champlain's Habitation - or, in the alternative imperialist scenario, the Battle on the Plains of Abraham - marked the Founding of Canada. The Government of Canada, then as now, was a reluctant recruit to the cause. The prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in whose riding the events would unfold, had no qualms about spending money to benefit his constituents. (The most visible form of federal patronage on the Plains of Abraham was the new rifle factory and ammunitions works.) Then, as now, the ability to get money out of Ottawa was seen as the true test of one's Québecois devotion. But he feared the explosive potential that would be unleashed by any discussion of history, empire and proto-Québec nationalism. He preferred to celebrate the future - with an emphasis on progress and technology. If he'd had his way, the celebrations would have focused on the opening of the Québec Bridge. But following its tragic 1907 collapse in a ghastly heap of twisted metal while under construction, he had no choice but to go along.

Yet even though the Tercentenary celebrations were historical in theme, it was a peculiar kind of history - one that was selectively remembered to serve multiple present needs. In the case of the historical pageants, Québec history turned out to be more royalist, pious and aristocratic than one would have expected. The representation of the battle of 1759 became a grand mingling of armies under joint British and French command marching together in peace. And if the British victory on the Plains were to be celebrated, so too the French victory at Sainte-Foy the next spring had to be elevated to historical equivalence. This was history modified to meet present requirements, toned down or changed to assuage sensibilities, or selectively represented to counteract one form of imperial grandeur with another. This was history as people wished it to be.

The institutional support of the Catholic Church was, of course, required to make the celebrations a complete success. But the Church, wishing to assert its autonomous leadership, had an agenda of its own, and a price had to be paid for its participation. In a parallel celebration, the Church presided over a fete crowned by the erection of a statue marking the 200th anniversary of the death of François de Laval, the first bishop of Québec. If the governor-general desired the Church to participate in his festival, he would in turn have to dignify the Laval unveiling with his presence. Grudgingly, Earl Grey decided his Tercentenary celebration was worth a mass. And in return, the Church conducted a magnificent open air service in the Pageant Theatre to redeem the Plains of Abraham on its own terms.

At that time, there was no possibility that the king or the pope might visit. But deputations of lesser rank from Rome, France, Great Britain and the United States did attend. Britain sent not only the Prince of Wales, but in a deviously skillful manoeuvre, also the Duke of Norfolk, the most prominent and powerful English Catholic of the realm. How could a dour dentist, vice president Fairbanks of the United States, or a woefully miscast Protestant Republican deputy from France compare with the man who would be king and an aristocrat known to have the ear of the pope? Nowadays, the Queen would be an incendiary presence and the pope himself a fading draw in an increasingly secular society. They would also awkwardly interrupt the entertainment. Anniversaries pretend to be about the past, but they are really about the present. To borrow a phrase, like war, they are politics by other means. Typically, they are multi-vocal events in which many interests struggle to get their messages across, attract an audience and get someone else to pay. Under the pressure of putting on a good show, it is surprising how much middle ground can be found. But perhaps we should not expect these events to be focused and coherent. Rather, we should revel in the cacophony, the contradictions and ironies - as a familiar story unfolds theatrically, with history being but a pretext. Things can be said and more readily tolerated in theatre than can be declaimed from the pulpit, the platform or the editorial page.

In these contested times, when the fate of Confederation remains in doubt, history itself has been totally dispensed with. Only pure entertainment will suffice to bring opposing factions together in Québec, and tourists to the city from the rest of Canada and abroad. At a time when history itself has been shuffled into the shadows, a source of shame and embarrassment (if not boredom) to many, it can be overlooked with relief. Better to celebrate celebrity, Québec's abundant talent, the play of light ... and the return of federal sponsorship.