The two solitudes as far apart as ever

Much anger that the writer linked French language laws to school shootings, Sean Gordon reports

Affaire Jan Wong et The Globe and Mail

Par Sean Gordon
MONTREAL-The two short paragraphs that launched L'Affaire Wong, as it has inevitably been dubbed in Quebec, continue to rankle the province's opinion leaders two weeks after their publication.

The much-talked about article by Globe and Mail journalist Jan Wong in the aftermath of the tragedy at Dawson College mused at a correlation between the province's difficulties in integrating immigrants, Quebec's language laws and Montreal's sad history of school shootings.

The reactions have ranged from caustic, to cheeky, to virulent - one politician-cum-columnist this week accused Wong of "racist burps" about Quebec - and prompted a raft of front-page headlines and editorial cartoons in both English and French-language papers.

One of the cartoons, by Aislin in the Montreal Gazette (at right), shows Wong's head in a bowl of soup, a handy reference to her now-defunct column Lunch with Jan Wong.

Another cartoon in Le Devoir explored a similar theme, showing Wong opening a fortune cookie with the words: Beware Bill 101. In an interview with CBC radio this week, Wong denounced the latter cartoon as inappropriate, adding that many of the personal attacks levelled against her have been overtly racist and sexist.

The public outcry over Wong's analysis came in the context of the crisis at Dawson, which has badly shaken both the city and the province; but the depth of the outrage has barely registered in English Canada - a fact that puzzles many Quebec observers, and is held up as yet another example of a widening gulf between the two solitudes.

So, why is it that the bulk of Canada's French-speaking province feels cut to the quick over a short passage in a newspaper article?

The question is simple enough, but the answer is somewhat more complicated.
The controversy mirrors another kerfuffle in August that bubbled up when National Post columnist Barbara Kay - who, like Wong, is a native Montrealer -wrote a column referencing "a fat streak of anti-Semitism that has marbled the intellectual discourse of Quebec throughout its history," and suggested a sovereign Quebec would be a haven for Islamic terrorists.

The sharp reactions to Kay's thesis, like that to Wong's, went well beyond calm refutation of their basic point, which in both cases is highly debatable.
Yet another furore has raged on in Quebec this week, prompted by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's assertion that Quebecers are out of touch with the rest of Canada and have grown closer to European countries like France.
Nationalists in particular have seized on the remarks - few doubt the veracity of the statement; what bothers people is the same could be said about English Canada's interest in Quebec - as an unseemly attack by someone who doesn't understand her role as a figurehead.

The Jean case differs substantially from the Wong and Kay examples (the indignation has largely been led by politicians who see the Governor-General as a nationalist turncoat) but all three also have one thing in common: they are Quebecers who work for or embody English Canadian institutions.
And all three have earned a healthy dose of public opprobrium.

This is a province that doesn't like being defined or told what to do by English Canada, but experts on the modern Quebec identity suggest that is too simplistic an explanation.

They say part of the explanation lies in the perpetuation of old stereotypes, and a faulty understanding of the evolution of Quebec society.
`When people target Newfoundlanders, it's cute; with us it's okay to be nasty' Patrick Lagacé, Montreal journalist
In Quebec, accusations of the sort levelled by Wong are seen as especially hurtful because they suggest the very nature of Quebecness is at least partly to blame for a senseless shooting tragedy.

As such, they are seen as an attack on Quebec's very identity.
"These types of comments recall an old vision of Quebec which ignores the fact this is a pluralistic, complicated society that can't be summarized as a uniform block," says sociologist Simon Langlois, who teaches at Quebec City's Université Laval. "The problems arise when this image of non-openness is transmitted back to Quebec even though Quebec has undertaken a serious, decades-long societal effort to become more open. It's not perfect, but it's not the 1950s either. The Quebec of today is not the French Canada of old."
Langlois also points to a particular dichotomy that is inherent in the Québécois identity: The province views itself both as a politically mature, predominantly French-speaking majority and a fragile minority surrounded by hundreds of millions of English speakers.

"Minorities are always sensitive to the perceptions of the majority, in this case the English-speaking majority. There is a search for affirmation and recognition," says Langlois, who recently spent a year as a visiting professor at York University's Glendon College.

Others interviewed by the Star raised other contributing factors, like the introspective bent of the province's media (only Radio-Canada has full-time correspondents outside Ontario, for example), and the monolithic presence of the Quebec government, which over time has encouraged the belief the province can only depend on its own provincial legislature - not Ottawa, not English Canada - to fulfill its societal aspirations.

While the bulk of the media attention this week has been harshly critical of Wong, there have also been lighter moments.

Patrick Lagacé, a columnist at the populist tabloid Journal de Montreal, offered perhaps the most inventive criticism of Wong's article. He travelled to Toronto for two days, conducting interviews and filling his column with outrageous, and frequently hilarious, generalities and observations.

Lagacé posited that young Torontonians are shooting each other because expensive daycare forced their parents to spend more time away from them working, and in any case, men in Ontario are resorting to violence to compensate for the fact they "are a few inches shy in their trousers" - a conclusion based on the fact the only penis enlargement surgeon in Canada is located in Toronto.

In an interview, Lagacé says that Quebec comes by its highly developed sense of grievance honestly: Recent history provides ample examples of egregious statements made by politicians and other public figures taking a run at one aspect or another of the province.

"It's true Quebecers are a fairly thin-skinned people to begin with ... but in the case of Ms. Wong and Barbara Kay, these are out and out falsehoods and lies. It reminds people of the worst moments of British journalism: when did you stop beating your wife?

"There is also a certain Canadian audience that is willing to believe just about anything about Quebec, that we are somehow more racist and more stupid than they are. When people target Newfoundlanders, it's cute; with us it's okay to be nasty."

Another reason Quebec tends to be acutely sensitive, Lagacé says, is the simple fact that while people here can read English papers and watch English television, far fewer people in English Canada can consume Quebec culture and news.

To wit: Lagacé's intentionally provocative series went almost completely unnoticed in English Canada.

He also highlighted other recent incidents that infuriated large swaths of Quebec: hockey commentator Don Cherry's suggestion "French guys" wear visors and are, therefore, less courageous; a U.S. late-night comedy segment during which a puppet called Triumph the Insult Comic Dog suggested Quebecers are smelly homosexuals; and a slur by Parisian television personality Thierry Ardisson, who memorably lampooned the Quebec French accent as that of hicks and hosers.

Lagacé offered his own explanation for the sensitivity toward those statements, which he stressed were qualitatively different from those made by Kay and Wong. "I think it's a mixture of misplaced pride, fear and the fact of being a minority," he says.

"We are cut to the quick when we should just laugh at Don Cherry or Conan O'Brien or Thierry Ardisson; after all he's the one with the funny accent. But it's a little like when Americans make fun of Canada or say things that are dead wrong."

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