Maclean’s: “My Canada excludes Quebec”?

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Previous anti-Quebec cover stories by Maclean’s

It’s no secret Maclean’s magazine is in trouble. Circulation  for the print version has plummeted, going from almost 350,000 when it published its 2010 front-page story calling Quebec the country’s “Most Corrupt Province” to less than 226,000 today.  That’s more than a third of its print readership lost in less than seven years. The Canadian institution — “Canada’s only current affairs magazine” as it bills itself, conveniently forgetting sister publication L’actualité, which, after all, is French so doesn’t count — has also gone from  weekly to monthly since January, desperately hoping that its digital version can halt its deadly spiral.

Last month, the magazine’s newsroom union announced that publisher Rogers Media was cutting 13 positions, leaving just 20 unionized editorial staff. “Maclean’s and the public are losing some very talented people who have contributed greatly to our understanding of national affairs,” Brad Honywill (of Unifor Local 87-M) told journalism publication J-Source.

As full-time staff numbers decline, the magazine has become more reliant on freelance contributors to keep it relevant. And if the column written this week by former Ottawa Citizen editor-in-chief Andrew Potter (read it in full below) is any indication, there is no bar too low for Maclean’s as it tries once more to capitalize on anti-Quebec attitudes in the ROC to boost its flagging fortunes.

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“Compared to the rest of the country, Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted,” Potter wrote.

Quoi?

The province that has weathered so many crises, from the Polytechnique massacre that killed 14 women, to the oil car derailment that destroyed the heart of Lac Mégantic and snuffed out 47 lives, to the Isle Verte fire in a senior’s residence that killed 32, to the massive public anger and sadness over the murders of six Muslim men at a Quebec City mosque in January, this is a province that has had to mourn all too many times to suffer the petty, unsubstantiated insults of a man whose understanding of the province is so poor that he thinks all our ATMs spit out $50 bills “by default.”

Even the premise Potter uses to launch his attacks — the tragic comedy of miscommunication that resulted in 300 vehicles being trapped on Highway 13 between the 20 and 40 during last Wednesday’s storm — is far from being evidence that Quebecers care less about our concitoyens than people in other provinces. What would Torontonians have done differently — besides call in the army at the first sign of snow? Would they have descended to the Don Valley Expressway floor with grappling hooks and snowshoed their way to stranded motorists while bearing steaming trays of double-doubles and honey-glazed doughnuts? Or would they do what we did and expect our experienced emergency and snow crews to do their jobs — just like they’ve done in hundreds of storms no worse than last week’s?

To use this as an example of “the essential malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society” isn’t mere hyperbole, it is hysterical, and I mean that in both senses.

Potter goes on to attack Montreal, citing the police use of clown pants to protest heavy-handed pension cuts as evidence of a “lack of solidarity,” though he concedes — in a dry admission of his own lack of solidarity — that the protest “might speak to the limited virtues of collective bargaining.”

I could go on and on about the flaws in Potter’s piece, but he did a pretty good job himself in an apology he published in both French and English on his Facebook page within a day of the article’s publication.

The article, he writes, “makes a few assertions that I wish to retract. It also contains some rhetorical flourishes that go beyond what is warranted by either the facts or my own beliefs, for which I wish to apologize. To begin with, I generalized from a few minor personal anecdotes about the underground economy in Montreal to portray entire industries in a bad light. I also went too far in my description of Quebec society as alienated.”

Potter, who has a post-doctorate in ethics from the Université de Montréal, adds: “A political writer’s first duty is to reflect his community back to itself. Quite obviously, I failed. When people you read and respect tell you they don’t recognize their society in your description, it signals a failure of empathy and imagination, and it is time to take a step back. I regret the errors and exaggerations in what I wrote, and I’m very sorry for having caused significant offence.”

Even his employer, McGill University, took the unusual step of repudiating one of their academics, tweeting that “The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill.”

Never mind that the Quebec political class, both provincial and federal, was unanimous in its condemnation of the article. Even Potter admitted his most trusted colleagues didn’t recognize their society in his crude portrait, yet Maclean’s responded by defending an article that Potter himself had pretty thoroughly repudiated.

“Andrew Potter is a superb journalist and thinker,” wrote editor-in-chief Alison Uncles. “While his opinion piece was controversial, it was legitimate commentary expressing a well-argued point of view. We stand behind both him and his writing.”

No joke! The only changes Maclean’s made was to remove the silly reference to the imaginary $50 ATMs and to change an allegation that “every” restaurant offers two bills (one for cash payments, the other with taxes included) to “some” restaurants. No mention of Potter’s admission of  “rhetorical flourishes “ or to generalization based on personal anecdote. Nope, the update merely includes a casual reference to the author’s Facebook post without the slightest hint of its massive mea culpa content.

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Andrew Potter

Andrew Potter

I obviously wasn’t privy to the assignment discussion between Uncles, Maclean’s freshly minted editor, and Potter, a former Maclean’s columnist. I don’t know if Potter offered to write a piece trashing Quebec or if he was encouraged to do so by Uncles. What I do know is that a piece like this should have sent red flags flying on any competent news desk.

Potter recently managed to leap from the Citizen, a sinking ship being piloted onto the rocks by the Postmedia chain, to the relatively safe harbour of academia at McGill where he was (until today) the head of the Institute for the Study of Canada. Uncles, a former associate editor overseeing the Toronto Star’s Saturday features section, joined Maclean’s as deputy editor in Sept. 2014, taking her boss’s chair when Rogers laid off 27 staff at its English-language publications in late November.

Potter’s piece follows on the heels of a similarly trashy and far-fetched attack on Quebec by Vancouver writer J.J. McCullough in the Washington Post in February. That article posits that the province is itself somehow responsible for having a “disproportionate share of the country’s massacres” and is “noticeably more racist than the Canadian norm.”

Stories like these lend support to nationalists who decry constant “Quebec bashing” in outside media, where the province is pilloried for everything from its language laws to its tax levels and its correspondingly broad social programs, including its unique daycare assistance subsidies.

Quebec is not, of course, above criticism. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the former student strike leader now hoping to become the Québec solidaire candidate in the Gouin riding vacated by ex-QS leader Françoise David, has made a non-career out of scathing critiques of the province. In announcing his decision to seek the Gouin candidacy, the 26-year-old GND, as he is popularly known, even accused the Quebec political class of the last 30 years of having “betrayed” the province, a comment that angered both premier Philippe Couillard and PQ leader Jean-François Lisée.

Labour unions, too, have been especially critical of the current government following years of austerity measures that have demoralized teachers, nurses, doctors and social service workers. Only now, as the 2018 election looms, has the province begun to find a few spare coins in the public purse, but the damage will be felt for years to come.

Hey, even I have been known to offer a critique or two (despite last week’s Quebec Ink praise for our wonderful health care workers).

But these attacks have come from within the Quebec family, from people whose criticisms are not aimed at demeaning or debasing the Quebec population and whose understanding of the province comes from a lifetime of experience. They are not essays from academic carpetbaggers or gadflies pontificating from the comfort of their B.C. barca loungers, hoping to cater to the anti-Quebec, anti-nationalist, anti-francophone prejudices of far too many Canadians.

Then they wonder why so many Quebecers would want to leave such a wonderful, welcoming country.

Maclean’s has a responsibility to ensure fairness and balance in its reporting. This is at least the second time in a decade that it has failed miserably on that count when it comes to Quebec.

The publisher should issue a full apology for the Potter piece.

I was going to add that Rogers should also give equal space to an opposing viewpoint in Maclean’s, but the magazine’s credibility has been so damaged here that I doubt very many of us will even want to read it. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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The Maclean’s article in full:

How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise

The issues that led to the shutdown of a Montreal highway that left drivers stranded go beyond mere political dysfunction

by Andrew Potter

March 20, 2017

Controversy that erupted in Quebec immediately after this piece was published caused the author to write a Facebook post, which can be found here.

We also wish to correct two errors of fact. Due to an editing error, a reference in an earlier version of this piece noted that “every restaurant” offered two bills. We have clarified this to say “some restaurants will offer you two bills.”

We have also removed a reference in an earlier version noting that “bank machines routinely dispense fifties by default.”
Major public crises tend to have one of two effects on a society. In the best cases, they serve to reveal the strength of the latent bonds of trust and social solidarity that lie dormant as we hurry about the city in our private bubbles—a reminder of the strength of our institutions and our selves, in the face of infrastructure. Such was the case in New York after 9/11, and across much of the northeast during the great blackout of 2003.

But sometimes the opposite occurs. The slightest bit of stress works its way into the underlying cracks of the body politic, a crisis turns those cracks to fractures, and the very idea of civil society starts to look like a cheapo paint job from a chiseling body shop. Exhibit A: The mass breakdown in the social order that saw 300 cars stranded overnight in the middle of a major Montreal highway during a snowstorm last week.

The fiasco is being portrayed as a political scandal, marked by administrative laziness, weak leadership, and a failure of communication. And while the episode certainly contains plenty of that, what is far more worrisome is the way it reveals the essential malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society.

Compared to the rest of the country, Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted. This is at odds with the standard narrative; a big part of Quebec’s self-image—and one of the frequently-cited excuses for why the province ought to separate—is that it is a more communitarian place than the rest of Canada, more committed to the common good and the pursuit of collectivist goals.

But you don’t have to live in a place like Montreal very long to experience the tension between that self-image and the facts on the ground. The absence of solidarity manifests itself in so many different ways that it becomes part of the background hiss of the city.

To start with one glaring example, the police here don’t wear proper uniforms. Since 2014, municipal police across the province have worn pink, yellow, and red clownish camo pants as a protest against provincial pension reforms. They have also plastered their cruisers with stickers demanding “libre nego”—”free negotiations”—and in many cases the stickers actually cover up the police service logo. The EMS workers have now joined in; nothing says you’re in good hands like being driven to the hospital in an ambulance covered in stickers that read “On Strike.” While this might speak to the limited virtues of collective bargaining, the broader impact on social cohesion and trust in institutions remains corrosive.

We’re talking here about a place where some restaurants offer you two bills: one for if you’re paying cash, and another if you’re paying by a more traceable mechanism. And it’s not just restaurants and the various housing contractors or garage owners who insist on cash—it’s also the family doctor, or the ultrasound clinic.

Maybe all this isn’t a huge deal. Sure, Quebec does have the largest underground economy as a proportion of GDP in Canada, but it’s only slightly bigger than that of British Columbia. But if you look at the results from Statistics Canada’s 2013 General Social Survey, which looks at the broad measures of social capital of the sort made famous by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, his book about the collapse of the American community, the numbers for Quebec are disheartening.

For example, the residents of this province also report the smallest family and friend networks in the country. The proportion of people who report having zero close friends is highest in Quebec, and quadruple that of people living in top-rated Prince Edward Island. And while 28 per cent of Quebecers over the age of 75 report having no close friends, the average for the rest of the country is a mere 11 per cent. It goes on: When it comes to civic engagement, rated by levels of volunteering and membership in groups and organizations, Quebec ranks dead last. The volunteering number is particularly shocking: the national volunteer rate is 44 per cent, while Quebec’s is 32 per cent. The only other province below the national average is New Brunswick at 41 per cent.

Then there’s the classic measure of trust, where people are asked, straightforwardly: “generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you cannot be too careful in dealing with people?” Only 36 per cent of Quebecers say that most people can be trusted; the national average is 54 per cent, and no other province clocked in at less than 50 per cent.

Some of this will be defended on the grounds that it is part of what makes up the province’s unique character. Sure, some restaurants will offer you two bills. Don’t be so uptight! It’s part of the place’s charm, along with the love of prog rock and the mandatory jaywalking. But the numbers show that it is close to inconceivable that this could happen anywhere else in the country. For most of these figures, Quebec isn’t just at the lower end of a relatively narrow spectrum: rather, most of the country is bunched up, with Quebec as a significant outlier. At some point, charm and uniqueness betrays itself as serious dysfunction—and the famous joie de vivre starts to look like nihilism.

And then a serious winter storm hits, and there is social breakdown at every stage. In the end, a few truckers refuse to let the towers move them off the highway, and there’s no one in charge to force them to move. The road is blocked, hundreds of cars are abandoned, and some people spend the entire night in their cars, out of gas with no one coming to help. Forget bowling alone. In this instance, Quebecers were freezing, alone.

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