Her bout with the blues

She might be known as one of the country’s toughest journalists, but Jan Wong, BA’74, was surprised to discover that didn’t afford her any protection from a devastating bout of depression – one that stemmed from her controversial work at the Globe and Mail.

by Jake Brennan, BA'97

Author Jan Wong (Photo: George Whiteside)

Over the course of 20 years, Jan Wong established herself as one of Canada’s journalistic stars at the Globe and Mail, producing award-winning work as the newspaper’s China correspondent and stirring up controversy for her barbed celebrity profiles in her popular “Lunch With” columns. The newspaper prized her ability to be provocative – until she became a little too provocative.

Her career – and life – took a sharp turn when she covered Kimveer Gill’s shooting spree at Montreal’s Dawson College in 2006. In her front-page feature for the Globe, she noted that all three of the deadly school shootings in Canada’s history were committed by allophone Quebecers. “In all three cases,” she wrote, “the perpetrator was not pure laine, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

The backlash in Quebec was quick and severe. When the Globe distanced itself from Wong, it drove her into a deep depression and lengthy sick leave. A protracted dispute over benefits finally ended in her being fired, but she says she eventually won everything she wanted in a subsequent settlement – including the right to write about her experience. The result is Out of the Blue, her fifth book, which intermingles her story with interesting facts about workplace depression, a pervasive yet understudied problem. After her publisher, Doubleday Canada, pulled out at the last minute, Wong self-published the book. It has proven to be one of the rare self-published books to garner best-selling status, something that has been certified, ironically, by the Globe and Mail itself.

She is now a columnist for Toronto Life and the Halifax Chronicle Herald and teaches journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, NB.

You are from Montreal and obviously have a view of what the mindset is here toward non-francophone Quebecers. When you wrote that infamous passage and sent it in, did you have any second thoughts?

It wasn’t my original observation. I’d [first] heard it on the radio, that all three were ethnics, but I took it one step further. I pointed out how alienated minorities are in Quebec, and I do believe that. I’m from Quebec, my family is there. I know what’s going on. I was quite aware that this would be a sensitive topic in Quebec. No, I didn’t have second thoughts. Well, I should say, I wrote it, and then thought ‘I’d better say that the shooters were all deranged.’ I did realize that I’d better do that.

Were you surprised by the heated reaction against what you wrote?

I think that any insular society or government or corporation, anybody who is not used to criticism, reacts with exaggerated feelings of hurt when they’re criticized. You really have to be used to the give and take of the world. So, for instance, in China, the government cracks down really hard on dissidents, even though dissidents have almost no influence in China. And it’s because the government isn’t used to criticism, so if someone criticizes them they completely overreact. And I think there’s an analogy there [with Quebec].

You say that quite a bit of the response – in the emails you received, even in editorial cartoons that appeared in mainstream newspapers – was racist.

Yes. Even the mainstream Quebec media [in a cartoon in Le Devoir.] They don’t understand. They say they’re really puzzled, because they think it’s a caricature. But a caricature that emphasizes racial stereotypes – the buck teeth – yes, I do have an overbite, but that would not be the first physical characteristic anybody would [notice] about me if you were just looking at me objectively. Also, they had me opening fortune cookies. Others, even more racist, had me contemplating a choice of cat or dog meat for lunch out of Chinese take-out containers. I mean, the whole thing was so racist. And yet, they all said “Gee, why is this racist?” And that’s my point. They don’t even know they’re being racist.

Still, you say that nothing – not even being denounced in both the Quebec and Canadian parliaments – bothered you as much as the Globe’s failure to stand behind you. Why?

I really felt betrayed, because there’s an unspoken pact in the newsroom. We’re a team, and it’s all a collaborative effort. So, first they assigned me, told me what they wanted, so I did that. Then they wanted analysis. The national editor said, “Oh, that’s great! I love it, I love it!” Of course she loved it: [the pure laine point] is such an interesting idea, right? That’s what we want to do – to bring up ideas and make people think. So the reason I’m upset is that they’re not supposed to say it’s my fault. The whole newspaper edited this. [The editor] said, “the editorial process broke down under deadline pressure.” And I thought, “there wasn’t any process that broke down; the process worked. I consulted, I wrote it, I filed on time.” There was no breakdown. We had the back and forth. It goes through several layers. So that’s why I felt betrayed. And then, when I got the death threat and they didn’t call the police, I fell apart. And then the final betrayal was when I handed in my first-ever sick note, and they didn’t believe me! And I thought, “I don’t understand. I work for you for 20 years. I file the most incredible stories, and you believe me, and you print them. And then when I give you my sick note, you don’t believe me. All of a sudden I’m not credible?”

Ironically, the Globe launched a long series of articles on depression within two weeks of your eventual dismissal. Do you think that employers are paying more lip service than actual attention to workplace depression and their role in creating it?

I think it’s systemic, yes. What’s interesting in insurance is that you have these huge, monolithic companies, and then you have individuals making claims completely in the dark. Nobody knows who else is making a claim, how many people are being rejected, or how they’re being treated. One third of the claims in the workplace are for depression. One third! Sufferers don’t want to admit it, because they’re afraid that they’ll never get hired again, that they’re damaged goods forever. I wanted to write the book because I think we do have a huge problem in this country.

The book is a bit of a warts-and-all review of yourself. You’re candid about not exactly being “mother of the year” material during your depression, for instance. You also admit to having experienced impaired memory and cognition while depressed, a rare admission for a crack reporter. Did you ever feel that admitting that might damage your career?

Of course, yes, but I never let self-interest or shame interfere with the story that I think needs to be told. And I just don’t think that journalists should be worrying about their own reputations. They should be worrying about the story, that’s the main thing. If something interesting happens to you and you’re a writer, then you want to write about it.

You write that you weren’t able to write, not even e-mails, while depressed.

I couldn’t string any thoughts together. But when you say you can’t write, nobody believes you. It’s like when you say you’re depressed. Because they can’t see it. How can you prove you can’t write? It’s very hard to prove a negative. But I can write now, and I have to say it’s very liberating to talk about my depressive episode. That’s what I’m telling people: “If you suffer from depression, tell people, because it’s really embarrassing and awkward at first, but then you feel really relieved.” I think an apt analogy is being gay and in the closet. It’s really hard on your self-esteem and on your mental health to live a lie.

Do you feel the experience of depression has changed your personality in any way, for better or for worse?

I think I’m more tolerant of human frailty. For instance, when I interviewed Margaret Trudeau [for a Lunch With column] – of course, she hadn’t gone public with her bipolar illness. But she told me [all these unguarded things], and I quoted her, just thinking, “Wow, she’s saying these things!” I think I would be a little more careful if I interviewed someone who started saying off-the-wall things, I’d be a little more cautious and say to them, “Are you sure you want to say this?” Because normally, as a journalist, you pounce on those. I’m also more understanding of my students, and I certainly talk about mental illness and depression and anxiety in the classroom. I’m much more cautious now about brushing off someone in distress.

There are many books about depression, but given that work is a common trigger of it, were you surprised that yours was the first to specifically focus on workplace depression?

When I was writing the book, I thought, “Well, I’ll just buy 10 other books on the topic to see what other people have said.” And then I realized: there are no books!

What would you advise someone going through depression, or employers who have someone going through this?

I should have gone on anti-depressants and seen a psychiatrist much earlier, but I didn’t because of the stigma. For employers, if [your] employee is productive, then treat it like a maternity leave. Women used to get fired as soon as it was known they were pregnant. Now we realize pregnancy is a human right and a pervasive human condition, and we’ve learned to live with it and our economy has not collapsed. Depression is also pervasive. It should be part of our collective enlightenment to accept it as one of the costs of doing business. And frankly, if you don’t drive people out, it’s probably cheaper. The typical depressive episode is, I think, eight months; pregnancy is nine.

This interview has been abbreviated and condensed.