On the record with Jan Wong
Jan Wong was a high-profile reporter and columnist for The Globe and Mail up until “L’affaire Wong” in 2006. Earlier this month she self-published Out of the Blue, a book that documents the fallout from her infamous column on the Dawson College shootings. Now, she tells Belinda Alzner how one column changed her career and her life.
For the sake of starting from the beginning, I tendered my first question: “When you wrote the column, did you have any idea it would set off the chain of events that it did?”
“No,” responded the soft-spoken woman at the other end of the line. I paused, letting the silence linger for a second, knowing that surely there was more to be said. After all, Jan Wong has never been known as a woman of few words.
For nearly 20 years, Wong was a high-profile reporter and columnist for The Globe and Mail. Known for her writings on China and later for her acerbic “Lunch With” column, she has no qualms about making interview subjects uncomfortable. (She now teaches her “adversarial interview” style to students at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB.)
Wong and I were discussing the column that set off the chain of events described in her new book, Out of the Blue. It was the column she wrote about the Dawson College shootings in 2006, which ran under the headline, “Get under the desk,” and was a sprawling 3,000 words. However, within the story were a few sentences that would set off a firestorm in both Parliament and her newspaper, and would result in her losing her job and, temporarily, her mental health.
After the pause, Wong continued, recounting her side of the story. “Not the ultimate chain of events. I did know there would be a reaction from Quebec because I knew that – I know it’s sensitive. But I still think it’s important to talk about these issues in Quebec,” she said.
“I didn’t know that my newspaper would not stand behind me, because, you know, that’s what they’re supposed to do. I didn’t expect them to not do what they should do.”
After the Dawson College shooting
Wong seemed relatively unperturbed when I asked if she expected the reaction she received from Parliament and the House of Commons. Stephen Harper described the article as “grossly irresponsible” and “prejudiced” in a letter to The Globe and the House demanded an apology from her and the newspaper.
“Well I guess I was a little surprised because it didn’t seem that it should be an affair that Parliament should waste time dealing with,” she said. “It’s unseemly for the Parliament to demand apologies from journalists. I don’t think that’s their role. That’s not the government’s role, at least not in a democracy. That would be something that would happen in China or North Korea.”
But The Globe, or at least then-editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon, would apologize. In an editorial following Wong’s column, he wrote that the editorial process had broken down and that while “the reaction to the article has been disproportionate—including personal attacks on Jan and her family—in hindsight the paragraphs were clearly opinion and not reporting and should have been removed from that story … We regret that we allowed these words to get into a reported article.”
Aside from feeling betrayed by her editor-in-chief, Wong says that what Greenspon wrote wasn’t true.
The process of the column
In the controversy that erupted after publication of “Get under the desk,” it wasn't entirely clear if Wong had been sent to Montreal to file a news story or write an analysis.
But when describing the column to me, Wong states unequivocally: “I was sent to write an analysis. Not just reporting; they didn’t want straight reporting.”
Wong was in a car on the way to the airport when she spoke to her editor to ask what she wanted from her. “I said, ‘do you want a tic-toc [a recreation of the blow-by-blow events], or do you want an analysis?’ and she said, ‘we want both,’ so I did both,” Wong recalled. “I have to know what they want, because other reporters are working on it. It’s normal to discuss this.”
Wong continued. “[My editor] said, ‘Don’t worry about the daily news. The Montreal bureau has got that. You worry about the overview; the big story for the Saturday paper.’”
Regardless, Wong called the Montreal bureau chief upon her arrival, to clarify the type of piece she would be writing. “No bureau likes when another reporter is parachuted in, so just to be politic, I called up the bureau chief,” she said. “I just repeated what the national editor said to me because very often there’s too much happening and people forget the courtesy call … [the call] was routine. It was work.”
The Dawson College shootings took place Wednesday. Wong arrived in Montreal Thursday afternoon and had to turn around a feature for the Saturday newspaper by her deadline of 6 p.m. on Friday.
The Globe had a photographer in Montreal who was trying to figure out how to approach the photos that would accompany Wong’s story. Wong says she spoke with the photo editor Friday morning. “They needed to know what I was going to say and who I was going to interview. And I told them … ‘I got students talking, I got a teacher talking, and I’m going to say that the shooters were ethnic – that this shooter was ethnic and guess what, the other two – even Marc Lépine, who you think sounds like a [Québécois], was half Algerian.’”
“The Globe certainly knew what my theory was,” Wong says. “It’s not like people didn’t know. The national editor, I told her, and she said, ‘Great. Great theme. We’re going to really love that.’”
“And then I remember as I was writing it thinking, okay, so I’ve got to be careful because I can’t overemphasize this and I’ve also got to make sure that I say all three killers were crazy,” Wong said. “I’ve got to make sure I don’t say it’s cause they were ethnics in Quebec that they did this, but I did point out that minorities are alienated.”
In her 3,000-word piece, Wong makes three references to an alleged valuation of pure laine in Quebec, including this paragraph, often cited as the most contentious:
What many outsiders don't realize is how alienating the decades-long linguistic struggle has been in the once-cosmopolitan city. It hasn't just taken a toll on long-time anglophones, it's affected immigrants, too. To be sure, the shootings in all three cases were carried out by mentally disturbed individuals. But what is also true is that in all three cases, the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a “pure” francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial “purity” is repugnant. Not in Quebec.
But Wong asserts: “The piece wasn’t about ethnics. I mentioned this in passing, like ‘Oh, look at this,’ and then we go back to the main story of the weapons he had, the fact that they were illegal, the fact that he was in his basement and nobody knew what he was doing.
“It was a story about the shootings,” she said. “I only flicked at [pure laine] in a very long piece.”
The newspaper’s response
Despite whatever brevity Wong demonstrated, her comments struck a nerve. She tells me about how her father was attacked, her family’s Montreal restaurant was threatened with a boycott, and how she and her family were the subject of racial slurs. The government called for an apology for her comments. Letters to the editor flowed in to The Globe, and grossly exaggerated editorial cartoons that depicted Wong were published, such as this one in Le Devoir.
Greenspon’s column, which Toronto Life described in a 2007 story as an attempt to distance himself from his writer, came at the end of what Wong described as a “really long week.”
The day before it ran, Wong says she met with Greenspon in his office.
“So I went in because Ed wanted to talk to me and I thought he was going to say, ‘So, are you okay?’ but he didn’t. He said, ‘I’m going to write a column tomorrow,’” she recalled. “I remember this—he said, ‘I’m going to write about a good thing and a bad thing this week. The good thing is the Maher Arar reporting that we’ve done … The bad thing is you.’”
Wong says she was taken aback. She asked Greenspon if he read her column before it ran, and he confirmed that though he had not read it in its entirety, he had read the contentious pure laine paragraph.
“I was really upset when … he said it was the editorial process had broken down,” Wong said. “I thought that in his column he would tell the readers; he would admit [he had read it] and he would take the blows with me, but he didn’t, and I was really upset.”
Toronto Life’s take on the affair revealed the same conclusion. It reported that leaked union documents showed Greenspon had read and approved the column. Writer David Hayes continued, speculating Greenspon knew publisher Philip Crawley was unhappy with Wong and by way of his column, Greenspon “effectively distanced himself from a potentially career-damaging incident by suggesting the fault lay with the writer and the subordinate editors working with her.” (Greenspon did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
As Wong predicted, Greenspon’s column further fanned the flames. Following a few media appearances in which Wong responded to it, she was told by senior management at The Globe that she was not to talk about it anymore.
Then came the death threat.
‘I didn’t think I could make that phone call’
A few days after Greenspon’s column ran, Wong received a note at The Globe and Mail offices. It was a death threat.
“I phoned security, he came up, he took one look at it he said, ‘don’t touch it.’ He put on gloves, he took the note and he said, ‘We’re calling the police,’” Wong said. This was the security officer who walks around the building and patrols it, Wong recalled. “He wanted to call right away because that’s protocol,” she said.
But that didn’t happen.
“A few minutes later they paged me and said to come down to security. The security officer—the head security guy—said ‘we’re not calling the police,’” Wong said.
“I asked them to call the police for me. I couldn’t call the police—I just felt I couldn’t call them. I was falling apart and I didn’t think I could make that phone call.”
Wong says she has no idea why The Globe wouldn’t call the police, and the newspaper did not respond to a request for comment on what normal procedure is in such circumstances.
This betrayal, Wong says, sent her further into her downward spiral and was the beginning of her depression, the subject of Out of the Blue. “I mean, I work for you. You sent me out there. You approved this story. You encouraged me to write even more on pure laine and now when I get a death threat, you say call the police yourself?”
“That’s why I got sick. I felt – I’ll do anything for The Globe and Mail. I’ll do anything to get the story. And when I got a threat, you let me down.”
Looking back and moving forward
It’s now been nearly six years since “L’affaire Wong,” and I ask if, having time and the opportunity in Out of the Blue to reflect, Wong regrets writing what she did.
“No,” she says, shortly. “I don’t like to be inaccurate. But if I say something that people don’t agree with, I don’t regret it.”
She continues, “I think that’s the function of a journalist in a democracy. We’re not supposed to be PR people for different parties and governments. We’re supposed to be another voice out there. That’s our role. And that’s why I love journalism.”
Though Wong has long since left The Globe, she is still practicing journalism: She is a professor at St. Thomas University’s journalism school in Fredericton, NB and she has a new weekly column in The Chronicle Herald. (A column which, as OpenFile Halifax notes, has been relatively tame – so far, she’s written about borrowing cars and self-publishing her book.)
As for how she feels about the East coast? “I just love it. I really love it,” Wong says.
Wong has a permanent apartment in Fredericton and spends six months of the year living there.
She recounts a class experience where she challenged her students to file 100 Right to Information requests (the New Brunswick equivalent of ATI/FOI) and how the class wrote about the process. She wanted them to feel comfortable filing these requests to government agencies and writing about the results.
“I feel so happy when I do that because I feel it’s journalism – but instead of me, as a single journalist doing one story at a time, I get to train a hundred journalists,” Wong says. “I think it’s fun.”
Wong described how she got involved at The Herald, which is the largest independently-owned newspaper in Canada. “They told me, they wanted my ideas and so I sent my ideas and [the editor] said, ‘Well I know better than to interfere.’” Wong’s reply to that statement? “What a great editor!”
Maclean’s calls her new book a “workplace divorce memoir.” In Out of the Blue, she recounts her harrowing battle with depression and the effect it had on her family, her body and her career. Despite this, it seems like the last half-hour I’ve spent prodding Wong to describe the story that sent her into her downward spiral hasn’t had much ill-effect. As we talk about the East coast, and share stories about love for the Maritimes (I lived in Halifax for journalism school), Wong is upbeat.
“My whole career goal has been: No adult supervision. I feel like I’ve finally got it,” Wong says. “I’m just happy.”
This article was overseen and edited by J-Source editor-at-large Paul Benedetti.