The two solitudes encore une fois

I freely admit to having a brain cramp about the debate surrounding Andrew Potter, the former director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Potter wrote a feisty column in Maclean’s about the “social malaise” of Québec, calling it a “pathologically alienated and low-trust society.” The outrage was immediate and he quickly resigned his post. Was he pushed or did he jump? We do not know.

Part of me says, “Well, what if his observations were accurate?” At least, in his experience. No less an individual than Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed losing the 1995 referendum on “money and the ethnic vote,” another occasion when a personal opinion caused outrage in Québec. Did it help that Parizeau was a Francophone? Potter is bilingual, but he is an Anglophone, so maybe he wasn’t blessed with the same forgiveness factor when he spoke about Quebeckers.

Moreover, Potter did make factual mistakes and his research was mostly anecdotal, so that has to be held against him. But he apologized profusely; yet that was not enough. Nor was Potter protected by the much ballyhooed free speech of an academic. Potter was not tenured so could not cling to that garment so rarely worn in Canada because most of our academics are mealy-mouthed.

It all seemed to come down to the fact that if you offend certain groups in society, then you pay the price. But should just claiming offence be sufficient? It shouldn’t be, but it seemingly is. That is the conundrum with which I have been wrestling.


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