Quebec’s distinct sensibility

Quebecers welcome constructive criticism but are tired of Canadian cheap shots
Photo: Alessandro Grussu

The backlash in Quebec to Andrew Potter’s infamous Maclean’s column has generated a small backlash of its own in the rest of Canada, with many commentators accusing Quebecers of being overly sensitive to criticism. But what this latest saga really demonstrates is Quebecers’ particular sensitivity to pejorative generalizing about the province, a recurring theme in Canadian media.

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For those unfamiliar with the story, Potter, a former editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (he has since resigned) argued that “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.”

The first argument advanced in support of this thesis was a claim that police officers' refusal to wear their full uniforms, a pressure tactic in an ongoing labour dispute, was having a corrosive impact on social cohesion and trust in institutions. Evidently, it wasn’t a particularly well-argued piece, especially for an academic.

Backlash draws backlash

The column drew widespread criticism from Quebec’s commentariat, not merely from nationalist publications like Le Devoir and Le Journal de Montreal, but also decidedly federalist ones like La Presse and The Gazette.

Then came the backlash to the backlash. A typical example came in a column by the National Post’s Chris Selley, who described Quebec as “Canada’s delicate flower province.”

Other reactions characterized the initial backlash as a typical case of a community reacting poorly to criticism from a perceived outsider and not necessarily a Quebec-specific phenomenon.

A story older than Confederation

Neither of these analyses is wholly satisfying. The backlash to Potter’s column is best characterized as a demonstration of Quebecers’ particular sensitivity to accusations of cultural inferiority.

Quebecers have been hearing about the cultural superiority of English Canada since before Confederation. Consider Lord Durham’s 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America, which proposed uniting Upper and Lower Canada and increasing British immigration, in order to better assimilate French Canadians into the superior British culture. The British Parliament implemented this recommendation the following year, thereby creating the united Province of Canada. To some extent, one could argue that the inferiority of French-Canadian culture is one of Canada’s founding principles.

Although it has since become taboo to call for the outright assimilation of Canada’s francophones, a significant portion of the English-language media seemingly believes this would ultimately be to their benefit, as demonstrated by the steady stream of opinion pieces identifying various sinister phenomena as unique to Quebec and suggesting a causal link with the province’s culture.

Long history of anti-Quebec bias

The Jan Wong affair is a perfect example. After a lone gunman attacked students at Dawson College in 2006, Wong wrote an article for the Globe and Mail linking the attack to two similar incidents at Polytechnique Montréal and Concordia University. Although there was no apparent overlap in the motives of the three killers, Wong noted that none were entirely of French-Canadian ancestry and went on to suggest that Quebec’s language politics might be conducive to mass murder.

This anti-Quebec bias was also present in a previous Maclean’s piece declaring Quebec the most corrupt province in the country. The article did in fact present allegations of widespread corruption in the province, but strangely failed to examine levels of corruption in the rest of Canada. It takes quite a leap of logic to get from ‘there is corruption in Quebec’ to ‘Quebec is the most corrupt province’ but I suppose the leap is easier if you’re already predisposed to think the worst about Quebec.

Even American outlets get in on the action from time to time. Last month, the Washington Post ran an op-ed from a Vancouverite claiming Quebec is uniquely violent compared with the rest of Canada and has a “dark history of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry and pro-fascist sentiment.” The piece failed to specify whether its author was familiar with the Opium Act of 1908, Air India Flight 182 or Robert Pickton, to name but a few incidents from British Columbia’s less-than-perfect history.

Potter’s column fits perfectly into the recurring theme in Canadian media that suggests Quebec is a distinctly bad society. Meanwhile any attempts to obtain constitutional recognition of Quebec as a distinct society have ended in failure. Quebecers’ sensitivity to this double standard isn’t excessive; it’s justified.

Trevor Hanna is a full-time Montrealer and occasional media commentator.

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