Much has been made of the fact that, during a recent snow storm, Highway 13, a major artery running through Montreal, was blocked by two truckers who refused to allow tow-truck drivers to remove the blockage their accident had created. The result was that some 300 citizens had to spend the night in a snow storm in a major urban artery, unable to leave, unable to seek help. The cops claim that they could not reach the blockage so that they could not sort out the truckers who had refused to be towed. The truckers claimed they would not move for reasons related to insurance. And all of Quebec society thinks the government failed to respond adequately that night.
The CBC reports that:
Two trucks were involved in the accident that created the blockage near the Hickmore Street exit of Highway 13 shortly after 6 p.m., he said.
One of the trucks had jackknifed across the southbound lanes, leaving no way for traffic behind it to pass — and leaving police unable to get to the scene immediately.
[QPP Police captain] Lapointe said the truck drivers did not co-operate when authorities tried to tow their vehicles, and they could face criminal charges.
“An investigation is ongoing, in the sense that they did not respect the work of police,” he said.
It interests me that this is one of those issues which has galvanized both the people and the government of Quebec. The Premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard, has fired managers of the Highway 13 and appointed a senior investigator to find out what went on.
Anyone acquainted with Quebec will know there is a tendency to not cooperate for the general good. The lack of social cohesion should not be mistaken for individualism, however. Quebec is a low-trust society, which resulted from three hundred years of people being organized from the top-down rather than being allowed or encouraged to organize from the bottom-up. [You are invited to read Francis Fukuyama’s book, Trust, if you want to learn more about the relationship between political centralization and lack of social trust.]
What strikes me as hopeful in this situation has been the unanimous opinion of French Quebec that this was an unacceptable situation, and that something had to be done. The Premier, Philippe Couillard, had to be seen to do something, and did.
Andrew Potter wrote in McLean’s magazine that the incident exposed the profound lack of social cohesion in Quebec. Then he had to pull back some of his statements in the article, by way of a Facebook posting. French Canadians (should I be careful and say “many French Canadians?”) reacted with fury at being observed in anything less than favourable light, and many English Quebecers thought his portrait overdrawn.
Yet there remains a good deal of truth in what Potter observed in general about Quebec society. It prides itself on its collective or communitarian impulses, while having the smallest networks of personal friends , the lowest levels of vulunteerism, the lowest levels of charitable giving, and the least trust in public institutions or other people,compared to other Canadian provinces.
What exactly went on in the minds of the two truck drivers who refused to let the tow trucks move them off the highway? Why were the tow truck drivers unable to move the trucks? Were they threatened with lawsuits or with violence? Why could the cops have not walked through the blocked cars to the scene, or driven up the other side of the road and crossed the median on foot? My concern is not with systems that failed, although there was no lack of that, my concern is with humans on the spot who failed.
There are other questions that will be asked and answered about why the Provincial Police could not reach the Ministry of Transport. I do not doubt their importance, but for me the really important question is why two truck drivers were able to cause a major urban highway to be blocked for 12 hours, and no one in authority to straighten them out.
Says Andrew Potter:
And then a serious winter storm hits, and there is social breakdown at every stage. In the end, a few truckers refuse to let the towers move them off the highway, and there’s no one in charge to force them to move. The road is blocked, hundreds of cars are abandoned, and some people spend the entire night in their cars, out of gas with no one coming to help. Forget bowling alone. In this instance, Quebecers were freezing, alone.
I thought the reaction of Quebec society to this minor disaster was telling: it was unanimous that something should be done; that some line had been crossed and that government had to be seen to do something, and actually remedy the problem. Yet it remains extremely sensitive to criticism from outsiders. Its inability – or the inability of a large proportion of its people – to endure honest observations from outsiders is not the symptom of a healthy society.