There are some mistakes that are resignation worthy. And Andrew Potter’s malevolent and unfounded essay about Quebec, published earlier this week in Maclean’s, is one of them. The director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada simply can’t write a hit piece like that and go on to do his job effectively. His credibility was shot. He had to go.
Yet because his target was Quebec, in the rest of Canada, opinion is almost unanimous that Potter, who remains on the faculty at McGill as an associate professor, is the one who has been wronged and that Quebecers are just a bunch on thin-skinned crybabies. McGill is being called cowardly and craven, first, for issuing first a statement saying that Potter’s opinion was not shared by the university, and, then, for accepting Potter’s resignation as institute director.
In the space of a day, the Twitter critics went from criticizing the university for dissociating itself from Potter’s article instead of remaining silent to demanding McGill actively defend Potter’s academic freedom and right to remain the head of the Canada Institute. Rumours were floated that powerful politicians had demanded Potter’s head although they were as unsubstantiated as much of Potter’s article.
To Potter’s credit, he owned up to his article’s mistakes although what prompted the diatribe remains a mystery. For many in the chattering classes, his apology was enough and it was time to move on with Potter keeping his job. But this idea is untenable.
Potter’s article portrayed Quebecers as friendless, ungenerous, duplicitous. It went well beyond criticism deep into attack territory. The reaction it provoked is not about an inability to accept criticism but rather shock at the bigotry being directed at Quebec. And this bigotry was not coming from just anybody, but from the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
Imagine if the director of a North America think tank denounced Canadians as a bunch of whiney, boring losers. Would we all rally round to demand that director keep their job? Or would we say WTF, time to find a new director, that kind of behaviour is not acceptable for someone in that position.
The fact that so many of Potter’s defenders see no problem with Potter’s portrayal of Quebec is astonishing as is their ability to ignore the almost unanimous chorus of Quebecers saying they didn’t recognize the place Potter described, that he must be living in a parallel universe.
For an academic and journalist, Potter is surprisingly unskeptical when he quotes a Statistics Canada report showing “the proportion of people who report having zero close friends is highest in Quebec … And (that) while 28 per cent of Quebecers over the age of 75 report having no close friends, the average for the rest of the country is a mere 11 per cent.”
An anomaly like that shouldn’t make much sense to anyone not predisposed to view Quebec as some sinister backwater. There’s simply no logical reason for Quebecers to have fewer close friends. I suspect what we’re dealing with here are possible translation issues and different cultures’ interpretations of what constitutes a friend, close friend or acquaintance. And please note, I say this as someone who — like Potter — has questioned Quebecers cherished vision of themselves as full of joie de vivre compared to uptight Canadians.
Many Quebecers would also likely agree with several of Potter’s points had they been presented in context. Montreal should have long ago put an end to a never-ending police labour protest, where cops wear colourful camouflage pants instead of their uniform trousers. But how? Like Toronto does? By caving in and giving cops everything they want? Montreal may have police in clown pants but Potter never mentions that Toronto has a force where almost everyone who is not on the Sunshine List of Ontario public service employees, who make more than $100,000, is only a few thousand dollars away. Here in Ontario we’ve used our non-social capital to buy off the police, hardly a superior solution.
Perhaps this is something Potter will ponder as the snow melts and he ventures out to one of those many two-bill restaurant he alone seems to know. He can drown his sorrows about a future that is temporarily a little less bright and a career that is slightly less charmed than it was last week. Actions have consequences, but if Potter is truly as smart and affable, as his backers maintain, he will rise again having learned to be even smarter as a result of his very serious mistake.