Racism in Quebec?



“Normally I thrive on adrenaline and deadlines and pressures. In my case, clinical depression was triggered by a backlash from the public about a story (in 2006) about racism in Quebec. What I said (in the article) was Quebec has a tradition of racial purity, and they have a term for it called ‘pure laine,’ which means ‘pure wool’ and jargon for ‘pure blood.’”

This is a quote from the intro to an article by journalist and author Jan Wong, recently published in the Columbia Journalism Review.[1]

It contains at least one misleading falsehood, as her 2006 story was not “about racism in Quebec.” Wong had been dispatched to Montreal by her then-employer, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, to follow up on an attempted mass-shooting at Dawson College.[2] She was on a straight-news assignment, reporting on a specific event that had nothing do with race. She had been asked to “reconstruct the bloody siege.”

Now that she’s breathed new life into the case, let’s review the facts.

Less than 48 hours after the shooting, despite the fact that the murderer had died and very little was publicly known about the case, Wong in her wisdom had figured out everything.

After glossing over the existence of “similar high-school tragedies” in English Canada, Wong wrote that “all three rampages at Canadian post-secondary institutions occurred [in Montreal].” She was referring to the so-called Polytechnique massacre of 1989, when a woman-hater killed 14 female students and staff and injured many, and the 1992 murder of four teachers and staff at Concordia University by Valery Fabrikant, a teacher there. Wong then quoted a columnist from another newspaper: “Why does this always happen in Quebec? Three doesn’t mean anything. But three out of three in Quebec means something.”

Wong then endeavoured to answer the question: “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.” She had also determined that all three killers, two of them dead, “had been marginalized, in a society that valued pure laine.”[3]

Those lines ignited a firestorm. In short, the public was supposed to understand that the murderer was a victim, and that Quebec language laws were ultimately to blame. The controversy took on national proportions. The Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Quebec both publicly asked for an apology from the Globe and Mail. The Parliament of Canada voted unanimously on a motion asking the same. The Prime Minister wrote: “While the writer is entitled to her point of view, the argument is patently absurd and without foundation.”

In an editorial published on September 21 the Globe and Mail acknowledged that there was no evidence of a link with language or “marginalization” issues. But the text contained no apology. Two days later, Editor-in-Chief Edward Greenspon, this time in a column, wrote: “[…] in hindsight, the paragraphs were clearly opinion and not reporting and should have been removed from the story. To the extent they may have been used, they should have been put into a separate piece clearly marked opinion. That particular passage of the story did not constitute a statement of fact, but rather a thesis—and thus did not belong in that article. I can offer several explanations as to how the editorial quality control process sometimes breaks down on tight deadlines during gruelling weeks. But none are germane. The fact is they did, which is ultimately my responsibility. We regret that we allowed these words to get into a reported article.”[4]

So, apparently the problem was not so much the substance of the “thesis” as its inclusion in a straight-news report. If Wong had found some third party to propose the “thesis,” or if she had taken the precaution of attributing the whole thing to an anonymous source “familiar with the situation,” or if she had written it in a column, her “thesis” could have passed muster.

Injecting personal thoughts in a straight-news piece is not difficult. It’s generally done in stealth, by unrolling the red carpet for a source carefully selected not for its vantage point or credibility, but for its opinion. Virtually all viewpoints (climate change does not exist, vaccines cause autism, the Earth is flat) have at least one proponent. Finding the “right” source is a matter of patience and Googling skills. The avenue of last resort is to fabricate anonymous sources, as in the good old “critics say…”

Wong’s thesis would have been journalistically problematic even if it had found its way into a column or opinion piece, because it did not hold water.

First, there had been at least five similar events in English Canada, and her short-cut had been gross: why consider only post-secondary institutions in the tally? Isn’t that bending the facts to suit one’s thesis?[5] Second, it was crystal clear at the time that the Polytechnique and Concordia shootings had nothing to do with language, or marginalization for not being of French ancestry. It’s an understatement to say that the link was a stretch.[6] Third, the expression “racial purity” is not commonly encountered in Quebec.[7]

In other words, where a modicum of evidence or support material were expected, Wong had none, and the factoids she had to offer did not jibe with reality.

Objectivity is a loaded word. For a time, it was understood to mean “just-the-facts,” in contrast with “interpretative journalism.” It’s sometimes defined as meaning that reporters must refrain from injecting their personal opinions, values or obsessions in the news, and focus on “getting the facts straight.” Or that they must be “neutral” and avoid taking sides. Objectivity is also defined as some combination of fairness, balance, impartiality, and of course, the overarching standard of accuracy.

But to tell a story right, and make it meaningful, reporters need to make judgment calls. They decide what bits of information will be verified, considered, retained, emphasized, shown to be true—or not. They select sources and assess how credible they are. They pepper their work with qualifiers. The process inevitably entails some subjectivity. But its bedrock is method, standards and ethics, including respect for facts and logic.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that the term objectivity began to appear “as part of journalism early in the last century, particularly in the 1920s, out of a growing recognition that journalists were full of bias, often unconsciously. Objectivity called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work […] In the original concept, in other words, the method is objective, not the journalist.”[8]

Journalism scholar Stephen J. A. Ward writes: “Objectivity is not the absence of interpretation. It is the testing of interpretations by the best available methods and restraining standards. Journalists are objective when they submit their writings to critical evaluation […] That reporters be strictly neutral, across the board, is neither possible nor desirable […] We judge an interpretation to be objective if it has good support, according to the best available standards of a conceptual scheme.”[9]

Ward goes on to describe an “objective stance” that implies a number of personal dispositions. “An objective inquirer […] accepts the burdens of rationality. He or she is open to the demands of others to be logical, to face the facts squarely, and to give reasons for one’s beliefs that others could accept […] Disinterestedness implies an impersonal use of reason. One puts ‘aside one’s idiosyncratic preferences and parochial preferences in forming one’s beliefs, evaluations, and choices.’ […] At the bottom of all these dispositions is the inquirer’s intellectual integrity. This is a trait of character that disposes the inquirer to admit wishful thinking, to face up to the toughest questions, and, where necessary, to admit that one’s ideas are flawed.”[10]

Intellectual integrity is something the public should expect from both straight-news reporters and opinion writers.

This affair and its aftermath could have been easily avoided if the error had been admitted and the article corrected quickly. But admitting and correcting mistakes, not to speak of apologizing, are not the media’s cup of tea. “If there is one golden media rule (great newspapers excepted), it is: Never apologize and never retreat,” Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson once wrote.[11]

In the CJR, Wong writes that in 2006 her article had been deemed “a problem” because the Globe and Mail was then owned by Bell Canada, which resulted in the publisher ordering an investigation, but her “editors were very puzzled as to what they were investigating because there were no corrections. There was nothing wrong.”


My request to CJR for a correction remains unheeded.

© Michel Lemay, 2017

[1] WONG, Jan and DALTON, Meg, Jan Wong on why journalists need to talk about mental illness, Columbia Journalism Review, October 6, 2017.

[2] On September 13, 2006, 25-year old Kimveer Gill, clad in a black outfit and heavily armed, entered Dawson College in downtown Montreal, apparently with the intention of killing as many people as possible. His motives were never clarified. As soon as he got inside, he started shooting. Two police officers quickly intervened. Gill killed himself after being shot in the arm. Several people were injured and one innocent person lost her life for having been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

[3] WONG, J. ‘Get under the desk,’ Globe and Mail, September 16, 2006.

[4] GREENSPON, Edward, Points of pride, but some regrets, Globe and Mail, September 23, 2006.

[5] According to The Gazette, see Conseil de presse du Québec, D2006-09-023. According to the CBC, there were 11 similar incidents in Canada between 1975 and 2016, including four in Quebec. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/deadly-shootings-schools-canada-1.3416685

[6] The Polytechnique killer, Marc Lépine, was not an immigrant and was a francophone. His motives proved to be unambiguous. He had ordered all men out the classroom he had entered, and a note found on his body pointed to his hatred of those he called “feminists.” As for Fabrikant, a profoundly deranged person, he had killed four colleagues because he had been refused tenure at an anglophone and cosmopolitan university.

[7] The tongue-in-cheek expression “pure laine” refers to French ancestry. It’s falling into disuse.

[8] KOVACH, Bill and ROSENSTIEL, Tom, The Elements of Journalism, Three Rivers Press, 2001, p. 72-74.

[9] WARD, Stephen J. A. The Invention of Journalism Ethics, The Path to Objectivity and Beyond, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015, p. 53, 298.

[10] WARD, Stephen J. A. op. cit., p. 299-301.

[11] SIMPSON, Jeffrey. Shame on the media for the Punch and Judy Sgro show, Globe and Mail, February 5, 2005.