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Andrew Potter's Resignation A Sad Day For Free Speech In Canada

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A few days ago, the (usually) brilliant writer Andrew Potter resigned as the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, which he called "a dream job of a lifetime," amid scrutiny over an ill-received March 20 article in Maclean's. As such, many in the journalistic community are left horrified about the state of free speech in Canada -- as they ought to be.

In case you've missed it, Potter's now-infamous Maclean's piece speculated that the "public crisis" in Montreal, which occurred when 300 cars were left stranded overnight on highway 13 in a snowstorm, revealed an "essential malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society."

andrew potter
(Photo: McGill.ca)

Potter described this broken society with a colourful -- maybe too colourful -- mélange of statistics and anecdotes. He cited the province as having a "pathologically alienated and low-trust society;" noted how the Montreal "police don't wear proper uniforms" but "clownish camo pants;" and how "some restaurants offer you two bills: One for if you are paying cash;" and honed in on the fact that "28 per cent of Quebecers over the age of 75 report having no close friends."

This did not culminate in the most elegant argument about Quebec's fissures. Nevertheless, as a Montrealer, I was hardly offended by the piece -- even if others may have been.

Actually, the tone of Potter's grievances echoed in a familiar Montreal-specific cadence. Come to think of it, he sounded a heck of a lot like my mother-in-law after she'd endured another grueling winter. Or like anyone I know in the city whose car has just collided with yet-another pothole.

We all still love Montreal though. Otherwise we wouldn't be here.

In any case, after the backlash, Potter suddenly resigned as the director of the MISC. Whether this was motivated from the top-down McGill politics, from an angry mob below, or instigated by Potter himself, I cannot speculate.

However, I will wave my fist about the implications his departure has on free speech in Canada.

I will also roar about how this incident may impact our future sense of Canadian identity.

Because as the director of the MISC, Potter was inspiring important conversations about what it means to be Canadian -- a topic that does not generally garner that much excitement in this country, let alone in Montreal.

Meanwhile, at the February 2017 MISC conference -- "Canadian Exceptionalism: Are we good or are we lucky?" -- Kathleen Weil, Bob Rae and others held stirring conversations about Canada's attitude towards multiculturalism among intellectuals, journalists and students.

As the former editor the Ottawa Citizen and a columnist for Maclean's, Potter was (and still is) also something of a cultural studies hero, and was the ideal person to inspire such participation.

That McGill staff had the genius to hire Potter as the director of the MISC was a promising sign.

In 2004, Potter and Joseph Heath co-wrote the popular book The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can't Be Jammed, about how consuming certain beverages or wearing counter-culture clothing doesn't lead to political change, even if these actions feel like they might. Rather, what we buy was a reflection of our human yearnings.

The book provided a clear-cut Veblen-esque rational understanding of consumer culture and behaviour, and offered a much-needed response to Douglas Coupland's Generation X with its twenty-somethings lost to "McJobs," and to Naomi Klein's No Logo where society's sacred poetry was gobbled up by advertising agencies.

That McGill staff had the genius to hire Potter as the director of the MISC was a promising sign. Not only would Potter instigate cultural conversations about Canada through lectures and conferences, he would also best motivate today's students to explore these often overlooked core issues as well. (After his resignation, Potter will remain an associate professor at McGill.)

mcgill university corruption police
(Photo: CP)

The Canadian sense of identity has long been considered vague.

Unlike the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Canadians don't have monuments that reveal themselves as clearly and obviously as Americans do.

Rather, our reflections of Canadian-ness are demonstrated through humble statues and memorials, and thoughtfully curated historical museums.

We also have our institutions, including current frenemies the CBC and the TD Bank. We have Tim Hortons and Roots.

We also have poutine, Kraft Dinner and maple syrup.

We have hockey and the Trudeaus.

But Potter's search for what it is to be a Canadian dug deeper than this without plunging into esotericism.

As the director of the MISC, Potter was the ideal candidate to stitch together our various national threads of contemporary Canadian-ness into a semi-coherent narrative.

Unfortunately, in Potter's recent Maclean's polemic, his arguments weren't woven together as carefully as usual. Many reacted.

Shortly after its publication, Potter apologized in a Facebook post profusely about the article's "errors and exaggeration" -- another quintessential Canadian move.

andrew potter resignation
(Photo: Jandrewpotter/Twitter)

Then Potter resigned.

Ever since, it has been a sad week for Canada.

How are we going to get through the outspoken Trump years, confront the threats of global warming and embrace the next influx of refugees with this kind acquiescence to hyper-sensitivity?

As a culture, we need to know how to deal with polemics from others, and learn how to engage in impassioned debates amongst ourselves.

We need to protect the freedom of speech, along with the freedom for people to eff up every once in a while.

A well-practiced tendency towards politeness and peacekeeping may be good for the heart, but it can also leave many feeling muzzled, not just journalists.

If Canada wants to be known as a country that is truly great, truly kind and truly peaceful, let alone truly "happy" -- and not simply pathologically well-liked and tolerant of opinions providing the level of conversation is kept at ginger beer and Ryan Gosling -- we need to protect the freedom of speech, along with the freedom for people to eff up every once in a while.

Otherwise as hyper-tolerant Canadians, repressed anger may one day be revealed as our nation's hubris, running far deeper than just potholes.

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