Media criticism

Maclean's story highlights Canadian media's Quebec-bashing problem

Magazine has long tradition of picking on La Belle Province
Photo: Edward Bilodeau

Oh, Canada, the world's darling, international capital of tolerance and maple syrup. A land where our cutie pie prime minister proudly subtweets about diversity when his American counterpart spouts another round of bigoted inanities.

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Of course, trouble is brewing under the surface, with increasingly active far-right and openly-racist groups. But at least the Canadian media would never print the kind of enabling xenophobia it self-righteously denounces elsewhere, right?

Well, not entirely, because in every good handbook on journalistic norms and values, right below the list of “do-nots,” lies a big, blue, blinking exception: Quebec. (Also Muslims, but that almost goes without saying; you don't want mainstream media to go under, do you?)

It's 2017, yet Quebec bashing is still making the headlines.

Take this quote, for example: "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."

Here's a fun exercise, replace "Quebec" with any other nation on earth (and “country” by “world”) and read that sentence again.

Suddenly, you wonder how it could possibly get past an editor's desk, let alone be featured. Then you realize this is a national public-affairs magazine and the piece is penned not by some professional troll but by a respected academic at McGill University: Andrew Potter. It's 2017, yet Quebec bashing is still making the headlines.

Potter's article attempts to draw a general theory of Quebec from the "mass breakdown in social order" that stranded 300 cars on a Montreal highway during a historic snowstorm. The incident, no doubt a wretched display of incompetence from the part of Quebec authorities, serves as an excuse to display paint-by-numbers prejudice. Kindly extending Quebec's strong tradition of public-service bargaining to police, Potter believes “clownish camo pants” have a strong impact on social cohesion, and pronounces volunteering dead in North America's capital of protest. This kind of ethnology wouldn't pass muster in a first-year paper.

After the predictable shitstorm he caused in Quebec, Potter issued an apology and partial retraction on Facebook. Glossing over the fact that the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, of which Potter is the director, might have a large blind spot between Ontario and New Brunswick, it makes for a striking read. "[...] I generalized from a few minor personal anecdotes," Potter writes, apologizing for "rhetorical flourishes that go beyond what is warranted by either the facts or my own beliefs." For the sake of McGill's academic standards, one hopes he doesn't treat his academic work with the same light touch.

Still, I feel bad for the guy. Potter isn't the first amateur sociologist to fall victim to the Canadian media's love affair with Quebec bashing. Maclean's is a repeat offender, from adorning its cover with a corrupt Bonhomme designating Quebec as “The Most Corrupt Province in Canada” to another cover describing Montreal as a "corrupt, crumbling, mob-ridden disgrace" and a "disaster."

The career of the Globe and Mail's Jan Wong met an abrupt end when she speculated that Quebec’s language laws were leading to mass shootings, but the Globe's recent decision to pull out of the National Assembly casts doubt on its ability to cover the other solitude adequately. Even the CBC wasn't going let the Washington Post stand alone in blaming the Quebec City terrorist attack on Quebec society.

In an era where editorial decisions are increasingly driven by clicks, I wonder if polemics are an end to themselves, if rousing Quebec into outrage sells ads. Or perhaps they're simply telling their readership what they want to hear. Is Maclean's inhabiting an "alternate world," as Quebec media would have it, or is it a window into a wider, frightening world, much like the famous wardrobe from the Chronicles of Narnia?

Not being Andrew Potter, I will not enter the realm of speculation, but Maclean's itself conveniently provides an answer. At the time of writing, its lead story explains that "people are angry at journalists for giving them what they want: pared-down stories tailored to them." How ironic.

Editors' note: A reference to a piece by Martin Patriquin has been removed to avoid any confusion between his past criticisms of the Parti Québécois and sovereigntist movement and the phenomenon of Quebec bashing.
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