Much has been made about the resignation of Andrew Potter as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
His departure stems from a column Potter wrote in Maclean’s magazine, in which he used a snow-removal incident in Quebec to portray Quebecers as pathetically alienated and the province’s society as low-trust.
Predictably, many critics expressed their outrage and aligned behind one of two fundamental principles: academic freedom or freedom of expression.
But are those the only relevant considerations here?
While I believe that Potter’s resignation (forced or otherwise) was excessive, the institute also needs to think about its reputation and what values it wants to project. (Full disclosure: I graduated from McGill University and took courses in the institute.)
The core of the issue is how critics respond when the perceived villain is Quebec, particularly French-speaking Quebec.
Chris Selley, a National Post columnist, published an opinion piece headlined: “At McGill, Quebec’s ultra-sensitivity meets academic cowardice with Andrew Potter’s ‘resignation.’ ”
Yes, Quebec is “ultra-sensitive.” But sensitive in the way indigenous Canadians are sensitive when someone brings up controlling their education, given the residential schools experience. There’s a legacy of discrimination and prejudice that someone from that group understands all too well.
Indigenous people aren’t the only group that the anglophone majority tried aggressively to assimilate in Canadian history.
Selley should check his anglophone privilege.
Yes, Quebec is sensitive, because these sloppy prejudicial comments about Quebec happen often.
The Potter debacle comes on the heels of another anti-Quebec diatribe, printed in the Washington Post. Political commentator J.J. McCullough wrote a piece headlined, “Why does ‘progressive’ Quebec have so many massacres?”
The piece, in very sloppy fashion, tried to explain why six high-profile murders in the province since 1984 can be attributed to a dark, racist and corrupt history in the province. The author’s unfounded correlation and causation would never pass any introductory statistics class.
In the same way, Potter admits he made some sloppy connections to Quebec society.
Too often, then, it seems permissible to make sloppy, unsupportable assertions leading to sweeping negative comments about Quebec.
Watch the media discourse. Whenever something bad happens in Quebec — especially involving minorities or racism — a convenient narrative sounds: “We knew it all along, Quebec is a racist or hateful place.”
Quebecers are all still blamed for former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau’s post-sovereignty-referendum words in 1995, in which he blamed “money and the ethnic vote.” The blame remains, even though he immediately resigned and was universally criticized within Quebec.
Anti-Quebec prejudice is one of the last remaining acceptable bigotries in this country.
I’ve followed closely the federal Conservative leadership race and encountered many references to Quebec candidate Maxime Bernier. One poster says: “No more prime ministers from Quebec.” Is this a territorial reference or is the sentiment really: “No more French prime ministers”?
It’s chilling that these comments are mostly left unchallenged.
The larger question of why French Canada is sensitive about these attacks requires a look at Canadian history. Although the Quebec Act of 1774 allowed French Catholics to preserve their language, religion and culture, it didn’t take long for anglophone Protestant settlers to say they wished French Canadians would disappear.
Lord Durham’s 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America expressed a preference for Upper and Lower Canada to unite into a single province, in order to assimilate the French. Durham also couldn’t resist insulting the French.
Flip forward to the unjust treatment of the mainly French-speaking Métis and their leader, Louis Riel.
Or flip to the Manitoba Schools Question in the late 19th century, where accommodating French students was deemed too much.
Now when francophones act to preserve their unique character within North America, they are attacked as hateful by the same society that sought their assimilation for years.
No wonder we French Canadians are sensitive. Just read our history.
Joseph Quesnel is a Nova Scotia-based policy analyst.