07 February 2017

Words and Violence #nlpoli

Canadian writer J.J. McCullough used a column in the Washington Post last week to ask a very useful question:  why it is that the progressive society in Quebec produces "so many massacres"?

Regular readers will recognise this question from SRBP last week.  McCullough also noted that Canadian conventional media are looking for familiar narratives in which to frame the story.  That basically fits with the stimulus for last week's post, namely Neil McDonald's trite opinion column on the shooting that framed the story in the context of Donald Trump's islamophobia.

McCullough says that Quebec is a sensitive topic in Canadian politics and media:
In a  2006 essay, Globe and Mail columnist Jan Wong posited a theory that Quebec’s various lone nuts, many of whom were not of pure French-Canadian stock, were predictably alienated from a province that places such a high premium on cultural conformity. She was denounced by a unanimous vote in the Canadian Parliament and sank into a career-ruining depression. The current events magazine Maclean’s ran a cover story in 2010 arguing that Quebec, where old-fashioned mafia collusion between government contractors, unions and politicians is still common, was easily “the most corrupt province in Canada.” That, too, was denounced by a unanimous vote of Parliament.

Wong's idea would be plausible if it covered more of the cluster of mass shootings in Quebec. Otherwise no one seems to be pondering the unmistakeable pattern in the shootings. The reaction to such comments is more interesting and that too is unmistakeable.

What is also unmistakable is the contrast between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. There is absolutely nothing in this province that compares to Quebec, ever.  Riots and strikes that get really ugly and violent.  Few and far between.  And political violence in which folks direct their considerable anger violently at politicians?  Well, there you really have to do some hard digging to find anything. Something in the 1860s. A lone riot in 1932 as the government collapsed and the worst of the Great Depression  tore through the country.  Stretch your definition a bit and you can put the woods workers strike in 1859 and 1959 into the mix but the violence and anger didn't wind up pointing at politicians.

There may be something that your humble e-scribbler and his circle have missed but after a week of brain-racking, their list of political violence or politically inspired violence of the type you have seen in Quebec is really thin.  If you want to get some confirmation of that,  take note of the homicide rates across Canada. People can get lost in definitions of other types of crimes but homicide is pretty easy to spot.  Besides that,  people tend to report homicides and the police usually are pretty good about checking into them.  The homicide rate in Newfoundland and Labrador over the past 15 years remains strikingly below that of other provinces.

Now compare that picture to the threat assessment compiled by the head of the Premier's personal bodyguards in the spring of 2013 as a few people got upset at the provincial budget. Comments on social media groups had already stimulated what the officer called the "herd mentality".    He continued:  "The process can of course unfold at increasingly rapid speeds due to the nature and accessibility of social media. This simply results in a broader and larger group being influenced by the negative sentiments, thereby increasing the likelihood of inciting a capable individual to carry out an act of targeted violence."

In the paragraph before that,  the officer conducting the analysis commented that police should be aware of "the potential impact the stream of commentary may have on inciting persons who - as a result of the aforementioned reductions - may be emotionally unstable or in state of personal despair."  The threat assessment did not contain a single concrete example of this behaviour either within the experience of that officer and the bodyguard unit after it stood up in 2011 or from the considerable history of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's protection of important public officials.  Not one.

The disconnection between the officer's unsubstantiated opinion and what seems like a plausible description of the actual experience in Newfoundland and Labrador is worth noting for more than what it might mean in the context of the Barry inquiry.  Newfoundland and Labrador is a fairly homogenous society (96% local-born, white) with a strong sense of collective identity and a history of characterising outsiders as threats.  It's also a place where there is interpersonal violence on a level that is not abnormally low or high in Canada.

Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador also share a love of talk radio.  That's where the local political violence occurs.  Historically, there has been, and still is, a lot of violence in local politics.  But it's rhetorical violence.  It's the violence of language.  Politics is a verbal blood sport, and the toxicity of talk radio is what maintained its audience for much of the past decade and a bit.

Consider the famous politician who said that public servants at Eastern Health "ought to be shot." Consider the same politician when he lost it in a tirade aimed at the Open Line show host or the number of times the same politician had to withdraw his aggressive remarks in the House of Assembly.  There was actually nothing remarkable in any of that. It fit very well with the way people in Newfoundland and Labrador tend to talk, especially about politics.  The rhetoric tends to the extreme such that hyperbole is understatement in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The disconnection between words and experience, between threats and actual violence, is also normal.

That still doesn't explain why Quebec has experienced so many mass shootings in comparison to the rest of the country,  but these sorts of details are worth thinking about.  They mean something.


Comment update

This came via email and is reproduced with permission (name withheld)
"...  your blog today gives the impression that Québec has an overly large number of murderers/massacres. (Is this the impression you want to give?)
 We got to look into the "homicide rate" instead of the plain number of homicides that you hyperlinked. (Obviously, with 8 millions of Quebecers, there will be more homicides in QC than in Nfld)
 Here's the homicide rate / province (# per 100 000 population ) :
http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/legal12b-eng.htm What we're seeing here is a remarkably low homicide in Nfld, PEI and QC. (All way lower than the Canadian average rate)"
If that's the impression left, then it wasn't intentional.

The point of the post was to look at the disconnection between perception and reality in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Quebec was supposed to be a base to measure against in the sense that here we have a province where there are  - at least - a few examples of politically related killings of strangers by a lone shooter. Had a police officer made some sort of suggestion about political violence there, he might have had a point.  


Then look at Newfoundland Labrador where you have a police officer who thinks people will become dranged by a comment on Facebook and yet there isn't a single example of the kind of event he was discussing at all, period, end of story.

If you want to draw that point even further,  the Quebec example is another kind of disconnection. The email correspondent is quite right to point to the homicide rate in Quebec.  It offers us no clue as to why there is this cluster of mass shootings in one province.   In fact, Quebec is comparable to Newfoundland and Labrador in that respect. That brings us back to the earlier post, which was to point to the cluster of killings in Quebec as being something we really should wonder about.  It makes no sense.