National Post (National Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - FR. RAY­MOND DE SOUZA Na­tional Post

The saga of An­drew Pot­ter at McGill, who re­signed (forcibly?) from the head­ship of the In­sti­tute for the Study of Canada af­ter writ­ing a col­umn that char­ac­ter­ized Que­bec as “an al­most patho­log­i­cally alien­ated and low-trust so­ci­ety,” hardly needs more com­ment. So please ex­cuse these re­lated ob­ser­va­tions.

The orig­i­nal col­umn in Ma­clean’s prompted an im­me­di­ate so­cial me­dia firestorm, and there has been plenty of anal­y­sis af­ter­ward, the best of which — no sur­prise! — ap­peared in these pages.

Wil­liam Wat­son re­minded us of all the com­plex­i­ties at play: “Mod­ern univer­sity types are sen­si­tive and def­er­en­tial, usu­ally to a fault. Whether rightly or wrongly, whether ex­ces­sively or not, McGill tries very hard not to give of­fence. Language, cul­ture, na­tional malaises are, if you’ll for­give mixed metaphors, a mine­field of eggshells we have to tip­toe across.”

Prof. Wat­son has spent more time in univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tion (decades) than I, who have spent my en­tire adult life on the re­ceiv­ing end of ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sions as a stu­dent and lec­turer. My view is that “mod­ern univer­sity types” are gen­er­ally supine and de­fault to pre-emp­tive ca­pit­u­la­tion to who­ever is most cross with them, al­ways if they have money (bene­fac­tors) or con­trol it (gov­ern­ment). The idea that the lead­er­ship of a univer­sity threw its prin­ci­ples over­board in a pub­lic controversy struck me as hardly news­wor­thy, a dog-bites-man story.

But we don’t yet know what hap­pened ex­actly, and while Pro­fes­sor Wat­son thinks Pot­ter should have stayed on, Bar­bara Kay thinks he was right to go.

An­drew Coyne raised a more in­ter­est­ing ques­tion, whether a so­ci­ety — a collective — can have vices.

“We are urged at all times to con­sider Que­bec’s unique­ness,” Coyne wrote. “Very well. But if that unique­ness in­cludes unique virtues — per­haps even that sense of so­cial sol­i­dar­ity Pot­ter called into ques­tion — it is not im­pos­si­ble that it could also em­brace unique vices.”

Ex­actly five years ago, a new arch­bishop was ap­pointed for Montreal. A re­porter from the Montreal Gazette called me up for her story. She clearly knew noth­ing about the Catholic Church. Had I told her that Man in His World — the Expo 67 site — was where the arch­bishop lived, rather than the cathe­dral of Mary, Queen of the World, she would have hap­pily that I was talk­ing about char­ity. So the in­ter­view ended and she didn’t make much use of my com­ments.

The ex­change re­flected the premise at the heart of the Pot­ter controversy. My in­ter­viewer as­sumed that Que­be­cers have cer­tain char­ac­ter­is­tics, for ex­am­ple, a looser ap­proach to tra­di­tional moral­ity on mar­riage and fam­ily ques­tions. This is au­to­mat­i­cally taken to be a good thing, and there­fore part of the dis­tinc­tive­ness that should be not only ac­com­mo­dated but cel­e­brated, even by in­sti­tu­tions that pro­pose a dif­fer­ent vi­sion of mar­riage and fam­ily life.

The pos­si­bil­ity that a Que­bec char­ac­ter­is­tic or con­sen­sus could be ques­tion­able, or even lack­ing some good, or be in need of cor­rec­tion, is not part of the dis­cus­sion. So when I raised the Sta­tis­tics Canada re­port of lower lev­els of char­i­ta­ble giv­ing, there was lit­er­ally no fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion to be had.

While these mat­ters deal with Que­bec so­ci­ety, the ques­tion is rel­e­vant na­tion­wide as ques­tions of iden­tity play an in­creas­ing role in our pol­i­tics. I might say, for ex­am­ple, that im­mi­grant fam­i­lies from In­dia tend, on the whole, to value ed­u­ca­tion more than fam­i­lies who have been in Canada for many gen­er­a­tions. That is per­fectly ac­cept­able.

Yet were I to ob­serve, even with ro­bust data to back me up, that im­mi­grants from such-and-such coun­try are more prone to crim­i­nal be­hav­iour or do poorly in school or sing off-key, it would likely be con­sid­ered out of bounds. There are collective virtues, but no collective vices. It makes con­ver­sa­tion about our com­mon life po­lite, to be sure, but also one-sided.

For years Gar­ri­son Keil­lor con­cluded his mono­logues on Prairie Home Com­pan­ion by re­port­ing “that’s the news from Lake Wobe­gon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good look­ing, and all the chil­dren are above av­er­age.”

Lake Wobe­gon is a fic­tional place. But it in­creas­ingly looks like Canada, where all groups are above av­er­age.

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