We are used to hearing news about branding and marketing of a place. The award of UK ‘City of Culture’ to Hull has brought forth a welter of such reports. The award has been designed to raise public awareness of the port city as it ‘comes out of the shadows’.
But what is at stake when we bash or trash a place? When we choose to pillory its peoples, a culture and an environment, it can trigger a series of a complex chain of reactions. In March, the director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University, Andrew Potter, had to resign when he wrote a column in the current affairs magazine, Maclean’s. Entitled, ‘How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise’, Potter used a temporary shutdown of Montreal’s highways to make a rather expansive argument about the province as a whole.
As a former and highly experienced journalist, Potter knows how to write articles designed to garner a readership.
The central conceit of the article was that a snowstorm in Montreal, which led to a whole slew of cars and their passengers being stranded overnight, revealed something rather profound about the character of the province.
Without mincing his words, Potter suggested that Quebec was a ‘low-trust society’ and that the self-image many Québécois had was figuratively and literally misplaced. He said City officials were ‘slow’ to react to the overnight crisis caused by an initial traffic accident and people caught up in the chaos ‘failed’ to do their civic duty. Other areas of social and economic life were targeted in a shopping list of opprobrium. Police officers being insufficiently civil, people seemingly reluctant to volunteer, and communal networks turning out to be fragile. By the end of his editorial, there appeared to be little to celebrate about the province and its ‘selfish’ and ‘indifferent’ residents.
While Potter was talking about a snowstorm, his op-ed unleashed a social media firestorm. Many readers were furious and took to Twitter to vent their anger. Within days, Potter resigned from his directorship, in turn causing questions to be asked about the manner in which academic freedom had been trumped by a popular backlash.
The Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard, condemned the prejudicial ‘portrait of Quebec’, which offered up an image of the province that was far from flattering. There was little public expression of support for Potter from senior management at McGill.
Snow and ice are integral to Quebec’s sense of itself. Since 1955, the province has hosted a modern Québec Winter Carnival, which self-consciously built on an earlier 19th century iteration designed to celebrate the wintery qualities of the province. Winter sports, ice and snow sculptures, skating and parades are regular features of the carnival. As the Québec poet and singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault’s famously sang: ‘My country is not a country, it’s winter.’
This celebration of a shared appreciation of winter coldness and ice is a world away from the mayhem on Highway 13, and the stranded drivers who complained of freezing in their cars. A snowstorm is often associated with disorientation, chaos and terror, and in some cultures it is seen as the handiwork of the devil. Landscapes, animals and people can, and do, get shaken and stirred. For the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson the snowstorm was emblematic of nature’s creative even playful power.
Potter’s storm served as a more virulent proxy revealing, he claimed in his original article deeper truths about the province and its people. He later took to Facebook to express regret at his place stereotyping and his anecdotal observations about Québécois everyday life.
What made things worse, others suspected, was that he was an English-speaking academic and journalist living and working in predominantly Francophone Canada. Quebec stood accused of being too sensitive to criticism, and too eager to condemn critics for their cultural ignorance and insensitivity.
His offending article resurrected memories for some of another article in Maclean’s. Seven years earlier, the magazine published a piece entitled ‘Quebec: the most corrupt province’. It did not pull its punches. Québécois political leaders were accused of being in the pocket of rich party donors. Public life was apparently punctuated by corruption, nepotism, mob violence and blackmail. With historic worries over Quebec’s relationship to federal Canada, it claimed that federal monies had also been allegedly misappropriated.
The Potter article touched a raw nerve for many Québécois who are extremely sensitive to Anglophone Canadian criticism of French-speaking provincial culture and society. It rubbed up against a view of the province embodying community values and provincial solidarity. Premier Couillard was quick to remind Potter and other sceptics that Québécois were perfectly capable of acting in a fraternal manner, not least in the aftermath of the mosque shooting in Quebec City in January this year.
This is not the first time Quebec’s place within the Canadian national imagination has been subject to vigorous debate and even controversy. But it does bring to the fore what is at stake when we describe places and their attributes. When we choose to bash a place, we had best prepare for the blizzards and storms that will inevitably follow.
This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine