By referring to an “essential malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society,” in addition to making other unwarranted criticisms aimed at the entire province, there is no question that Canadian Studies academic Andrew Potter was indeed Quebec bashing in his Maclean’s Magazine column a few weeks ago. Predictably, what ensued in the aftermath was nothing short of pandemonium on Twitter, among other Canadian columnists and in the media, among politicians and throughout Canadian university campuses.
After carefully reading and considering Potter’s column with all my middle child skill in diplomacy, I can tell you with clear confidence that it is hogwash. On many levels, Potter has written and used his status irresponsibly.
He was inaccurate: making biased, anti-Quebec statements and using alternative facts to support his claims.
He generalized: using select examples from his own experiences to discredit all of Quebec society. He was ignorant: being overly critical about a culture that he does not fully understand or have the capacity to appreciate.
But in the aftermath of the article, many debates ensued, with the vast majority of them landing neatly on the side of Quebec. Most people who have spoken up publicly disagree with Potter.
Even Potter now disagrees with his earlier statements, and wishes to take back what he wrote. Despite his apology, more controversy followed. McGill University is rumoured to have pressured him to resign as director of the Institute for the Study of Canada, which he did only two days after his article was published.
In light of this rather devastating “punishment,” the media discussions are now focussed on the question of freedom of expression, especially in a university context.
In my opinion, the root of the problem is that the academy as an entity holds fast to its image as the last standing champion of this type of freedom. Academia has a specific ethos whereby freedom of expression is considered sacred. However, there is no such thing, anywhere, of perfect freedom of expression, the kind where you can make any critical, statement you want to publicly in a non-fiction context, and face zero backwash.
I wish it weren’t true, but Academia is a system like any other, and it is naïve to think that absolute freedom of expression without consequence exists there.
Food for thought: when I publicly asked a Canadian Studies professor I know to comment on the debate on social media, he said nothing.
Natalie Pendergast, Ph.d., of Oyster Bed Bridge, works as a communications manager in Prince Edward Island. She shares her unique perspective as an Anglophone working in the Francophone community with Journal Pioneer readers, and reflects on current affairs pertaining to la Francophonie in her bi-weekly column.