Wong wrong, or Ruby Foo-led*

September 26th, 2006
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Those of you living in more culturally and linguistically placid regions of the country may find it remarkable that a few ill-considered words about Quebec can still raise a media firestorm. The latest of these involve Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong.

Wong is perhaps best known for her series of lunch and tell columns which typically cast interviewees in less-than-favourable light. She may be the only Canadian to have voluntarily joined China’s cultural revolution – not exactly what you’d call a badge of honour.

Last week she caused a furor over a report on the Dawson College shooting by alleging that the attitude of Quebec society toward immigrants contributed to that and other similar acts of violence in that province. The editor of the Globe and Mail wrote Saturday that her analysis should have been struck from what was supposed to be a news report.  Her comments were roundly criticized, most notably by Jean Charest and Prime Minister Harper, but she has up to yesterday refused to back down or apologize.

As someone who grew up in an immigrant family in Quebec – and didn’t go postal -  perhaps I can comment. What is absurd about Wong’s argument is linking thankfully-rare actions by disturbed individuals like Marc Lepine to the overall social climate in the province. That is almost akin to speculating whether Lepine actually had a legitimate grievance with the Ecole Polytechnique’s gender equity policies. As the Prime Minister said after the event, how can one divine the “cause” of an irrational action?

On the other extreme of the issue, an article in today’s National Post – which could have been written by the Office de la Langue Francaise – portrays Quebec as some kind of multicultural nirvana. That raises a bright blue flag to those of us who’ve experienced Quebeckers’ attitudes toward non-Francophones first hand.

John Moore takes broad swipes at anyone who ever complained about the last 30 years of Quebec politics or language legislation. Disdain for Quebec has apparently been “bolstered by the hundreds of thousands of ex-Quebeckers who’ve moved to Toronto”. Go figure. These people apparently “never liked (Quebec) nationalism” and “hated the separatists anyway”. These are shocking revelations indeed. Imagine taking exception to being treated as a second-class citizen in your own home and then harbouring resentment after feeling compelled to move away. AND disliking separatists! What a bunch of pathetic, intolerant whiners we are.

Moore chortles that his unilingual relatives stayed in Quebec and were never “put in a detention camp”. And we’re all grateful for that. He boasts how he and his siblings learned French, married French and educated their children in French. Well certainly, one was always welcome to unquestioningly assimilate into Quebecois society.

That’s just the point. Learning to speak French fluently – like I did – wasn’t enough for many Quebecois. The non-Francophones who (since 1759) helped build the province, were the target of a myriad of misperceptions and displaced aggression (chronicled by William Johnson in A Canadian Myth). Living as an English Canadian in Quebec became more and more difficult. This as Francophones outside Quebec were winning deserved linguistic rights.

Bottom line: a jurisdiction that measures the font-size on commercial signs, and persecutes offenders, has something wrong with it. A jurisdiction where your fellow citizens turn you in for language violations has something wrong with it. A jurisdiction that demands this and more to maintain the “French face” of a multicultural metropolis has something wrong with it.

Until 1976 there was a big neon sign near the Montreal waterfront that flashed “Farine Five Roses Flour”. The “Flour” has been gone for 30 years. If all Montrealers could accept the presence of that one word, could live and let live the way they do in so many other ways, then the spell of the last 30 years might be broken.

* [The title for today is a poor play on words. Jan Wong is part of a successful Montreal family of restaurateurs. One of their restaurants, Bill Wong's, is on Decarie Blvd. near the equally legendary Ruby Foo’s. Montreal icons both.]

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