The Current

Andrew Potter's criticism of Quebec 'is just wrong,' argues columnist

What does the furor and the fallout about a column in Maclean's magazine say about our politics? The Current's panelists discuss academic freedom, free speech and gets to the heart of the national discussion: who has the right to criticize Quebec culture.
Andrew Potter resigned as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada after his article criticizing Quebec society created a firestorm of controversy, where even his academic employer distanced itself from his writing. (McGill University)

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Normally, for any Canadian journalist, when the whole country is talking about something you've written, that's a good thing.

However, there may be exceptions.

A now infamous article written for Maclean's by Andrew Potter headlined, How a snowstorm exposed Quebec's real problem: social malaise, has set off its own storm of controversy.

"It aims to paint a negative portrait of Quebec, based on prejudices," said Philippe Couillard, the premier of Quebec, on the article critiquing Quebec society and the mishandling of a massive traffic jam during a major snowstorm in Montreal.

Potter did express regret for some of what he wrote and eventually resigned from his post as director of McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada after his academic employer distanced itself from his writing.

Potter continues to remain a professor at the school.

His article and reaction has started a national discussion on the issue of academic freedom  and free speech — but also a discussion on who has the right to criticize Quebec culture.

Yves Boisvert, a columnist with La Presse, isn't surprised by the backlash and says Potter went too far.

"He said there was a profound pathology in Quebec society. Well, you should expect people to react," Boisvert tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Boisvert says the article was not just badly written, "it was just wrong."

"People react very much in Quebec and I mean it's the same case for every minority. If an academic says such stupid things about the black community today, you should expect the reaction."

But journalist Jan Wong points out there's a big difference to Boisvert's comparison.

"You're not a minority in Quebec, you're the majority," she cites.

Wong is familiar with backlash from a 2006 article she wrote about the shooting at Dawson College.

In Andrew Potetter's Maclean's piece he writes, 'compared to the rest of the country, Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted.' (CBC)

"I was inundated with hate mail. I got excrement sent to me at my office. I got my book sawn in half with a power tool and I got a death threat," Wong tells Tremonti.

Unlike Potter, Wong did not resign. She was fired.

Wong argues the adverse reaction to Potter's article from politicians is unwarranted.

"It's fine for other media to write their own columns criticising Andrew Potter," Wong says.

"What's not okay is for Canadian and Quebec politicians to dump on him because I think in every democracy, in a liberal democracy, politicians have no right — no right at all — to criticize what journalists write."

Lise Ravary, a columnist with le Journal de Montreal, agrees with Wong and says the prime minister had no place to weigh in.

"I think that we are a little thin-skinned and it bothers me that every time there is a case like this that somebody stands up in the House House of Commons or the National Assembly and calls for a motion," says Ravary.

"It troubles me because it paints us as you know the perennial victims and I dislike that, she adds.

"We have to be careful ... and grow a thicker skin, in my opinion."

The Current did request to speak to Andrew Potter but he declined.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Sujata Berry and Samira Mohyeddin.