Friday, March 24, 2017

No Joy in McGill-Ville

I have been holding off on commenting on the column Andrew Potter wrote, his resignation (coerced or otherwise), and the reactions of folks.  Mostly because I am traveling this week, but also partly because so many people (especially this guy) have written such smart stuff that I don't have that much to add.  So, what do I have to say?  A lot as it turns out.  I can't help myself.

First, one does not have to agree with Potter's original column to note some stuff in it that resonates:
  • having police and firefighters be major political actors is problematic (here's where Phil Lagasse thinks I am to his right--that I am not a fan of unions.  I actually don't mind unions when public service ones don't take sides in city politics and are major actors).
  • there is beaucoup de corruption.  Yes, there is an underground economy--any house reno project raises the question about whether one can/should get $10,000s in cash to pay the reno guys.  My fave story is that the firm that had the contract to fingerprints for permanent residency applications in Montreal demanded cash, not checks or credit cards.  Yeah, the one responsible for helping the immigration services identify criminals/security threats.  
  • I am not surprised that the truckers were less than cooperative.  Tis a province where customer service is, um, spotty.  When I was at McGill, we had a candidate give a job talk on language politics, and he started by saying, well, in a store, the owner wants to speak in French, but an anglophone customer walks in, and since the customer is king, and we all laughed, interrupted and said, nope, not here.
  •  On the other hand, Quebec is not a place where there is little social connectivity/capital. For me, it was a huge, friendly, silly, generous ultimate frisbee community of anglophones, francophones and allophones (those whose first language is not French nor English) that welcomed me and my family.  Bowl alone?  Maybe.  But heaps of communal stuff with much glue provided by the Canadiens.

Second, the real story is "Quebec-bashing." That the province overreacts to criticism from certain quarters (English-speakers inside and outside the province) is problematic.  Yes, Quebec was oppressed long ago, but it has been winning for forty plus years.  It has had nearly all of its demands met by the federal government, it has had more than its proportionate share of Prime Ministers, and on and on.  It is a great place in many ways, so it should not become a provincial crisis when one columnist says something that is inaccurate, critical or both. Worse, these reactions provide yet more distraction sauce--rather than focusing on fixing the problems (how are the corruption trials going, I've lost track?), the politics of the place does not lend itself to making much progress on improving things.

Third, I got into an argument with someone on someone else's facebook page about the hypocrisy of all this.  Potter lost his job over criticizing the province, which, in my mind, is a far less of a crime than targeting particular groups.  And, oh yeah, some folks in Quebec can be most insensitive towards groups, such as Jews and Muslims and immigrants.  Do the folks who advocate restricting the abilities of groups to practice their religion get forced to resign?  Hmmmm.   The good news is that those efforts have failed repeatedly.  But the bad news is that the regular appearance of xenophobia and the embracing of it by major parties does not often lead to shaming and exclusion (not just Quebec).  I have long written far more about Quebec's problematic ethnic politics than Ontario's flawed fiscal politics because I have studied ethnic politics and have no clue why Ontario is so stupid about the various fiscal plans.

Finally, while two dots may or may not reflect a pattern, I can't help but note that McGill cares more about reputation than about academic freedom or its students.  When the choice is to do the difficult thing and protect a key part of its mission or do the easy thing and protect itself, it chooses the latter.  Speaking of Potters, Harry would not approve. Will McGill's leadership pay a price for not defending the academic freedom of one of its employees?  I have no idea.  To be clear, I never got any pushback from the administration when I wrote critical things about Quebec or about McGill in my time there.  But if my audience was larger and if they got Quebec politicians yelling about it, I am not sure how much support I would have received.  And, of course, I have tenure whereas Potter and many others do not.  Given that modern universities are staffed primarily by temporary folks, the signal here is clearly that the majority of those on campus should not be doing any public engagement because they might offend someone and find that their contract is unlikely to be renewed (most of the leaders of the temporary faculty effort to get better wages at the school my daughter attends found that their positions have not been renewed).  This bodes poorly not just for McGill but for democracy itself.

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