Snowed under in a political Potter’s field

There are times when timing alone tells you everything you need to know about what’s truly wrong.

An example arose last week 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 driven from his prestigious post. Sighs and swoons abounded at the very thought that Potter’s scathing denunciation of Quebec’s bungled response to a March 14 snowstorm could trigger such harsh reprisal.

Acknowledgement was made that the former editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen, and widely heralded top-notch journalist, overstretched a titch. After all, he condemned the whole 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 an arterial route through Montreal.

Admissions were made that Potter’s supporting anecdotes in his Maclean’s magazine piece were sketchy, where they were not outright wrong. There was agreement that his argument, though inflammatory, was inchoate. Potter, 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 fine as far as it goes. If a gaggle of anonymous academic turnips decided a man must lose his job for publishing an ineptly expressed opinion piece, it deserves all the condemnation it can get. But here’s where the illumination of timing comes in.

The very day 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 Hwy 13 from 6 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. were meeting. They were canvassing legal options for a class action suit they must file to get compensation from their government for what they were put through.

The big media was silent. There was some local coverage. But as a national topic for polysyllabic fulmination? Not so much.

Think about that. Your fellow Canadian citizens were utterly failed at the basic level of civic order. They were left in their cars, 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 get insulin to avoid diabetic shock.

Despite 300 calls to 911 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. No one.

No one has yet been fired for 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.

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 a snowstorm during the operative breakdown of political and administrative order!)

But the provincial minister responsible remains securely in his job. Meanwhile, the tall foreheads insist the deposing of one of their own somehow outweighs as a cause for democratic concern the fact these citizens must pursue legal action for redress from the government that failed them.

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

The fault isn’t with Quebec society. It’s with a political world that utterly rejects any talk it must bear responsibility. It’s abetted in that regard by a media class so pulled by the grand sweep of history and high level abstraction that if forgets its primary value: to school the political class for grossly abusing the responsibilities that citizens democratically accord it.

Even 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.

— Peter Stockland is senior writer with think-tank Cardus and publisher of



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