The Michener Awards for Journalism, Canada’s premier recognition of the finest in public service journalism, emerged in the late 1960s from the happy marriage of a Governor General’s vision and the formation of a national organization of press clubs.
The Governor General was Roland Michener. His daughter, Wendy, was a Toronto journalist who provided him with a first-hand view of Canadian journalism during his many years of public service. Soon after becoming Governor General in 1967 he realized that journalism was not included in those endeavours to which annual tribute was paid at Government House. He decided to establish an award that would redress that oversight and to honour the memory of the Micheners’ daughter, Wendy, a journalist who died tragically young.
At the same time, a group of press clubs from across the country was establishing the Federation of Press Clubs of Canada. One of its objectives was to recognize excellence in journalism. Mr. Michener invited officers of the new federation to discuss his ideas for an award with him.
From those discussions emerged the Michener Award for Journalism, to be commissioned by Mr. Michener and administered by the federation.
Mr. Michener commissioned sculptor John Matthews, of Perth, Ontario, to design the trophy that would constitute the award. He produced a handsome bronze rectangle on a marble base with stylized type-font letters on one side and broadcasting antenna on the other. (A comparable award in the United States is the Pulitzer gold medal for public service by a newspaper.)
The first award, for journalism in the calendar year 1970, was won, fittingly, by a joint print-broadcast project. The Financial Post had joined forces with CBC-TV to reveal serious problems in the air charter business. Since then a rich variety of news organizations has had their names inscribed on Michener trophies — print, daily and weekly newspapers, radio and television stations; French and English, East and West.
Pioneer judges included Montreal Star editor George Ferguson, Carleton University President A. Davidson Dunton, L’Evangeline editor Emery LeBlanc and veteran British Columbia broadcaster, Sam Ross. As the competition evolved, the judges moved in the direction of rewarding public service journalism which had made a difference, which had effected change at the municipal, provincial or federal level.
But the need for greater continuity was obvious to supporters and in 1982 the Roland Michener Foundation was established under federal letters patent granted to a group of lawyers led by John P. Manley on behalf of the interested parties. They included as Founding President Fraser MacDougall, a Canadian Press executive and Ontario Press Council official who had been chairman of the judges’ panel and who was responsible for recruiting the original board. In fact all three presidents who followed Mr. MacDougall were directors he had recruited to the original board. At a subsequent meeting on July 15, 1983 the board decided to apply for supplementary letters patent changing the name to The Michener Awards Foundation/La Fondation des Prix Michener which was dated Sept. 2, 1983 and formally approved by Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada on Sept. 6, 1983. By that time the board had met again on August 31, 1983 and elected Paul Deacon to be president of the re-named Foundation. Mr. MacDougall was honoured at Government House with the Foundation’s Citation of Honour in 1999. He died in the spring of 2000.
The first annual meeting of the board of the re-named Foundation was held at the National Press Club in Ottawa on November 12th, 1983.
The letters patent of the Foundation pledged that an objective would be advancing journalism education and in 1987 the first Michener Fellowships were awarded. Each year, one or two fellowships, each worth $22,500, are granted to mature journalists who use their four-month study-leaves to pursue public service journalism projects.
Until 1997 the Foundation’s operating budget was funded by donations from several major media businesses, some of the smaller independent newspapers and a group of interested individuals including members of the Foundation board.
Spurred by the generosity of Paul Deacon, the Ottawa representative of Maclean Hunter who had succeeded Mr. MacDougall as Foundation president in 1983, the board was able to raise an investment fund from major Canadian corporations with a commitment to strong and free journalism. Starting in 1998, income from the fund has been sufficient to meet the annual operating budget including the guarantee of at least one annual fellowship. The fund is managed by the Community Foundation of Ottawa Carleton. In recognition of Mr. Deacon’s contributions, the board in 1997 renamed the fellowship the Michener/Deacon Fellowship.
From the inception of the Foundation until his death in 1995, C.W.E. (Bill) MacPherson, former managing editor, editorial page editor, and ombudsman at the Ottawa Citizen, was the executive secretary of the organization. In fact he led the journalism group in its first discussions with Mr. Michener and was the glue that held the awards organization together during somewhat turbulent years of association with the press clubs.
Gail Scott, former broadcaster and journalism professor at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and more recently commissioner of the Canadian radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, succeeded Mr. Deacon as president in 1991.
Clark Davey, the just-retired publisher of the Ottawa Citizen and former managing editor of the The Globe and Mail, was elected president in 1993 to be succeeded in 1998 by Norman Webster, former editor of the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette. He in turn gave way to Pierre Bergeron, publisher of Le Droit, in 2000. David Humphreys, former managing editor of the Ottawa Journal and president of Humphreys Public Affairs Group, took over as president in 2005. He was succeeded in 2010 by Russell Mills, former Ottawa Citizen publisher and currently Dean, school of Media and Design at Algonquin college, Ottawa, and Chair of the National Capital Commission.
Each year the incumbent Governor General has honoured Michener Award and Michener/Deacon Fellowship winners at a Government House ceremony. Roland Michener remained active in the Foundation until his death in 1991 and each of his successors has graciously adopted and maintained a personal interest in the Michener Awards Foundation and its commitment to excellence in Canadian public service journalism.