Jan Wong was misguided, maybe. But why the fuss?

Row over story blaming Quebec culture for shooting grabbedattention from real problems

Affaire Jan Wong et The Globe and Mail

Jan Wong's version is that, in the wake of the Dawson shooting, she was only trying to be helpful.

"I was trying, in a very simplistic way, 30 hours after, I'm trying to look for a pattern, and I'm trying to talk about alienation. So I just put it out there," the Globe and Mail reporter said about her bombshell thesis that the Dawson shooting rampage, and two others that have taken place in Montreal, were motivated in part by the inherent racism of old stock Quebec francophone society, colloquially known as "pure laine" - literally, pure wool.

"In all three cases the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a 'pure' francophone," she wrote in her piece's most incendiary passage. "Elsewhere to talk of racial 'purity' is repugnant. Not in Quebec."

Wong professed to see a pattern in that the three rampage shooters to which she referred - apart from their common mental instability - were not old stock francophones and had "been marginalized in a society that valued pure laine."
The foolishness of her deduction was confirmed by the lack of evidence to support it. In none of the cases - not that of Dawson shooter Kimveer Gill, nor Concordia killer Valery Fabrikant or Polytechnique rampage murderer Marc Lepine - was there even the slightest tangible hint that their actions were spurred by alienation from mainstream Quebec society.

Elementary logic suggests that if they were impelled by animus against pure laine society, they would have targeted francophones. This was not the case in any of the cited incidents: Lepine went after women, no matter their mother tongue; Fabrikant had it in for his Concordia colleagues; Gill chose to shoot up an anglo school. In each case the ethnicity factor was purely incidental.
The Wong thesis also fails to address the case of pure laine Quebecois Denis Lortie, who went on a shooting spree in the National Assembly in 1984.
It was somewhat astounding that such a corrosive bit of nonsense unsupported by any corroboration could find its way into the pages of a journal that prides itself as highly as the Globe, which boasts it is Canada's national newspaper of record.

Globe editor Edward Greenspon eventually admitted - a week into the furor over the piece - that the offending passage should have been deleted from the article before it saw print. But not because what Wong said was patent nonsense injurious to Quebecers, but because it was a passage of pure opinion in a story presented as a piece of reportage.

"To the extent it may have been used, it should have been put into a separate piece clearly marked opinion."

But what's involved here is not just a question of journalistic practice, but journalistic ethics, said Alain Gravel, president of the Federation professionelle des journalistes du Quebec.

"Freedom of the press involves important inherent responsibilities," he said, noting that the federation's code of ethics specifies that journalists must "avoid cultivating or entertaining prejudices," something that applies to reporters as well as columnists, who are free to write their opinions.

"Journalists and their media enterprises carry a much greater burden when they take a position than ordinary citizens commenting on an event in the course of conversation."

"The privilege of a pulpit as prestigious as the Globe and Mail carries responsibilities," agreed La Presse chief editorialist Andre Pratte.

More astounding was the sheer dimension of the backlash against what was, after all, simply the disconnected ramblings of a mere journalist, even be it a star hack for "Canada's national newspaper."

Not only did every political pundit, editorial page and cartoonist in the province have a crack at Wong - never mind the hotline ranters, letter writers and email bombarders - but in an unprecedented wave of denunciation, even Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined in with formal complaints.

Then the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion put by Montreal Liberal MP Denis Coderre condemning Wong and demanding an apology.
Not just Wong and the Globe found the reaction over the top. Lysiane Gagnon of La Presse, among others, suggested that the involvement of the premier and prime minister in the fray at once lent Wong's article more prominence than it deserved while at the same time diminishing their office by stooping to get involved.

"By using their political weight against two paragraphs of a bad report they have given disproportionate importance to the piece." The appropriate person to deliver the Quebec government's response would have been the province's delegate in Toronto.

The worst thing about what's being called "l'affaire Wong" is that it makes it more difficult to rationally discuss what is in fact a very real problem, the integration of non-francophone immigrants and visible minorities into the mainstream of Quebec, said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies and former Quebec regional director of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

Racism is no more prevalent in Quebec than anywhere else, he is quick to say. But because of the particular nature of Quebec society and the complications of the language situation, the problem of integrating newcomers is more acute than elsewhere.

"They're not being included in the decision-making fabric of Quebec," Jedwab said. "If you look at the nominations process, to boards, committees, to various positions, Quebec has an absolutely abysmal record. Its public service by all standards has the lowest representation of visible minorities of any province or state in North America."

The Wong furor also overshadowed a provincial government initiative to come to grips with the issue. Relatively little attention has been paid to a National Assembly committee that began hearings two weeks ago on the very subject of accommodating minorities in Quebec society - unfortunately opening on the day of the Dawson rampage.

What the committee has been hearing from minority group representatives is that there are systemic barriers to equal opportunity in Quebec, though no one has made the leap to suggest this drives people to rampage killing.

This tends to drive people out of the province and, for that, Quebec is the poorer, said Fo Niemi, director of the Centre for Research on Race Relations in Montreal.

He said he repeatedly hears from visible minority university graduates, educated in Quebec at significant public expense, that they can't find jobs to match their qualifications, and leap at the first offer to leave the province.
"Many of them feel they will not have the ability to rise to the top echelons of government, business, or even labour, just because of who they are, the colour of their skin, not because of what they know and what skills they have."
It is in everyone's interest to get over the Jan Wong distraction and down to the real issue, Niemi said.

"It's distorting and stifling any intelligent discussion on the subject of racism. We need to get back to the real agenda and look for constructive and concrete ways to address the very real problems of racial exclusion there are in this province."

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