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Political Potter’s FieldPolitical Potter’s Field

Political Potter’s Field

Publisher Peter Stockland contrasts the abrupt resignation of Andrew Potter, head of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada and the lack of political consequences as connected to Montreal's latest snowstorm.

4 minute read
Political Potter’s Field March 27, 2017  |  By Peter Stockland
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There are times when timing alone tells you everything you need to know about what’s truly wrong.

An example arose last Thursday when the head of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada abruptly resigned because of a highly critical article he’d published about Quebec and Quebecers.

Social media and mainstream media alike quivered with outrage over journalist-academic Andrew Potter being presumptively driven from his prestigious post. Sighs and swoons abounded at the very thought that Potter’s scathing denunciation of Quebec’s horrendously bungled response to a March 14 snowstorm could trigger such harsh reprisal.

Acknowledgement was made that Potter, a former editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen and a widely heralded top-notch journalist, might have overstretched a titch or two. After all, he condemned all of Quebec society as essentially untrustworthy because the provincial and civic powers left hundreds of motorists stranded for more than 10 hours in blizzard conditions on a major arterial route through Montreal.

Admissions were offered that perhaps Potter’s supporting anecdotes were sketchy, where they were not outright wrong. Room was left to conclude that his argument, though inflammatory, was inchoate. Indeed Potter himself, manfully and creditably, confessed as much when he resigned.

Still, the media mob’s boots stamped, its fists shook, and its ululations made the rafters sway.

“Free speech,” the cry went up. “Academic freedom. Help, help, we’re being oppressed.”

Which is fair enough. Whatever gaggle of academic turnips sat anonymously round a committee table and declared that a man must lose his job for publishing an ineptly expressed opinion piece deserves all the condemnation it can get. But here’s where the illumination of timing comes in.

The very day that the ki-yi-ying over Potter unjustifiably losing his job kicked up, many of those who had been trapped in their cars on Montreal’s Highway 13 from 6 p.m. until  4:30 a.m. were meeting at a down market Crowne Plaza Hotel in a western suburb of the city. They were there to canvass legal options for a class action suit they must file to get compensation from their own government for what they were put through.

You could have heard the big media silence about that from the moon.

Yes, there was some local coverage. But as a topic for large thoughts, for polysyllabic fulmination, for this week’s round of media Armageddon? Ummm, not so much.

Think about that for a moment. Your fellow Canadian citizens were utterly failed at the most basic level of civic order by their provincial and city governments. They were left in their cars, effectively stranded, stuck in traffic gridlock, barely able to keep warm for fear of running out of gas. One man reportedly walked through the snowstorm to go back to his office to get insulin to avoid going into diabetic shock.

Despite 300 911 calls being logged, despite this being a major highway in the heart of a major North American city, no one came to help. Not the transportation ministry. Not the police. Not civic rescue crews. No one.

No one – no one – has yet been fired for this abuse, this appalling negligence. Two mid-level functionaries have been scapegoated and put on the equivalent of desk leave. The premier has offered a pro-forma apology.

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And, oh, yeah, get this. Those responsible agreed to cancel fines for cars that were abandoned and subsequently towed away after the shambles ended. (They fined people for being stuck in snowstorm during the operative break down of political and administrative order!!)

But the provincial minister responsible remains securely in his job. The mayor of Montreal, who should have been forced to crawl the length of Highway 13 on his knees as mea culpa and penance, will again eat heartily in comfort tonight.

All of this, and the tall foreheads of the land insist the unjustified deposing of one of their own - for what no one disputes was an act of his own doing - somehow outweighs as a cause for democratic concern the fact these citizens must pursue legal action to get redress from their own government.

There is what’s truly wrong. It’s also, ultimately, where Andrew Potter went wrong. He posited a deformation in the social architecture of Quebec for which, he said, the events on Highway 13 are apt metaphor. But the defect, in this case, is not in the underlying social structure. It’s in the overt failure of the political class.

It’s within a political class that utterly rejects any talk, let alone real world consequence, of bearing responsibility. It’s within a media class so distracted by its own timelines, so pulled by the grand sweep of history and high level abstraction, that if forgets its true value is to school the political class when it grossly abuses the responsibilities democratically accorded it by citizens.

Even Andrew Potter, I know would acknowledge this wrong is hardly confined to Quebec. It just happens that this time it was Quebecers who were snowed by it.

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