Andrew Potter, as editor in chief of the Ottawa Citizen until last year, had ultimate responsibility for the accuracy and pertinence of the editorial content of that newspaper, including its editorials and commentary.
When Potter, a former philosophy professor at Trent University was chosen to head McGill University’s prestigious Institute for the Study of Canada, he was expected to be no less rigorous and responsible, especially for his own published work. He was no longer a simple scribe, but the head of a serious incubator of scholarship and ideas that seeks, as indicated in its mission statement, to develop a clearer understanding of Canada’s social, political and economic future.
In a piece that Potter penned for Maclean’s, he went on after citing the failure to clear the snow on Highway 13 and rescue stranded motorists to several anecdotes that most Quebecers know to be untrue – ATM machines spewing out $50 bills, not $20s or $10s, and restaurants routinely offering two sets of bills, for tax avoidance purposes. The idea was to show that the Highway 13 debacle was symptomatic of a deeper malaise – “Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society,” he opined – a bold thesis, but not one that he backed up credibly in the piece.
The reaction was swift, and Potter almost immediately apologized, then, either under pressure from McGill or based on his own regret, resigned as director of the institute, though he will continue to teach at the university at least for the next three years.
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As Chantal Hébert, the Toronto Star’s perceptive columnist – who says she would not live anywhere else in Canada than Montreal – observed, Potter’s erroneous piece was enough to doom his standing as head of a prestigious scholarly institute. “Alternative facts should not be the stuff that acts of journalistic courage or martyrdom are based on.”
As she noted, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada is not a run-of-the-mill university department, and part of its mission is to contribute to the larger Quebec conversation.
Potter’s friends have offered support, arguing he was treated shoddily by the university, which should have defended him and the principle of freedom of speech in a context of academic freedom.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers has written to McGill principal Suzanne Fortier saying it is deeply troubled by the circumstances surrounding Potter’s resignation.
The broad debate engendered by the Maclean’s piece and the overwhelming negative comment, even among those who believe an apology was sufficient, does not change our opinion: Someone more qualified should and will be called upon to run the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.