Jan Wong’s Globe and Mail blues

OUT OF THE BLUE
By Jan Wong
Self-published by Jan Wong, distributed by Dundurn
264 pages, $21.99, paperback

Reviewed by Brian Brennan

Jan Wong was a star of The Globe and Mail newsroom, a driven, gutsy, award-winning reporter who observed the Tiananmen Square massacre at first hand, and tested the limits of Canada’s airport security by smuggling box cutters aboard four Air Canada flights in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In September 2006 she wrote a morning-after feature story – a combination of reporting and analysis – on the Montreal Dawson College shooting that left the gunman and one student dead. In her story she linked the incident to two other Montreal school shootings, noting that in each instance the perpetrator came from immigrant stock. Each had been marginalized in a society that valued “pure laine,” which Wong defined as francophone slang for old-stock Quebecers.

All hell broke loose.

Out of the Blue chronicles the crisis that followed for Wong, including her two-year struggle with depression and her fight to have her sick pay restored after the employer accused her of malingering. It’s a candid, compelling, unflinching account, dappled with references to others who battled depression and wrote about it, and packed with well-documented information about the history, causes, symptoms, and treatment of mental illness. It also offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of an intensely competitive newsroom where reporters complained of “severe byline deprivation” if they hadn’t a story in the paper for a while.

The “pure laine” reference, cleared by her editors before publication, plunged her into hot water. Letters of condemnation, 13 of which the Globe published, came from readers including Prime Minister Harper and Quebec Premier Charest. The House of Commons passed a motion apologizing to the people of Quebec for the “offensive remarks.” Wong received a flood of racist hate mail, abusive phone calls, packages containing excrement and mutilated copies of her books, and a death threat alarming enough to warrant calling police.

The Globe let Wong take the fall. It attempted to appease her critics by publishing an editorial saying there was no evidence Quebec’s linguistic struggle contributed to marginalization of immigrants or to any violence perpetrated by them. The editor-in-chief, Edward Greenspon, added in a damning column that Wong’s opinions should not have been part of her story. With nobody in her corner, Wong went on extended stress leave, during which she was diagnosed with severe depression.

Wong remained mostly silent following the uproar. After first granting her permission to talk to other media outlets about the backlash, the Globe management slapped a gag order on her. At the same time, the newspaper company’s insurer, Manulife, began questioning her claim that she was stricken with a mental illness and could not return to work.

Though she ended up losing her job at the Globe, Wong eventually received written acknowledgement from the employer that she had been ill and unable to attend work during the time she was on stress leave. She also negotiated successfully for a favorable settlement agreement and removal of the gag order. But that wasn’t the end of the Globe fallout. Left free to write about her ordeal, she landed a contract with Doubleday Canada and spent three years at work on Out of the Blue. She was “a keystroke away” from sending it to final copy edit before printing when her publisher got cold feet, despite having had the book assiduously lawyered, because of some references she made to the Globe‘s “corporate bullying.” Wong refused to change the material, parted ways with Doubleday, and published the manuscript herself.

I’m grateful that she did. Books like this rarely make it into print because corporations generally demand silence as part of settlement agreements with individuals who sue them for wrongful dismissal. Wong took on three behemoths – the Globe, Manulife, and Doubleday – and emerged from the fray with her voice gloriously intact.

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