Mr. Michener, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen,
There are probably no awards more meaningful than those given us by our peers. Therefore, it is a special pleasure to welcome you to Rideau Hall this evening as we gather so that journalists may pay homage to journalists.
The objective of the Michener Foundation awards is to foster journalism that promotes the public interest and demonstrates values beneficial to the community as a whole. Each of this evening’s finalists did an outstanding job in keeping with those goals. Their efforts were not only useful to their immediate – and sometimes quite small – communities. They had an impact that reached far beyond their own audiences, sometimes to all parts of Canada.
Rafe Maier’s show on child-care regulations, the Edmonton Journal’s stories on the Wood Buffalo National Park, and the Winnipeg Free Press series on licensing of professional bodies have helped change the way that public bodies act. As a result of BCTV’s program on the subject, the Greater Vancouver Regional District rethought a decision on recycling, while Yarmouth Vanguard’s special section focused public attention on the appalling problem of child sexual abuse.
I add my own congratulations to the honourable mention awarded to Le Droit and the Sault Star. I believe that their joint effort makes a genuine contribution to the debate on Canadian unity; I urge other publications to consider similar projects.
This year, the trustees of the Michener Foundation chose for its award the Elmira Independent for its stories on how the community’s water supplies came to be contaminated with a cancer-causing agent. Editor Bob Verdun, who describes himself as “1960’s radical”, has lived out what must be the fulfillment of every journalist’s dream: when he was fired from one paper he started up another and ran his former place of employment out of business. I daresay that, today, the Independent is the only newspaper in Canada with a “national edition” that goes to 1200 people!
What is obvious in all the prizes awarded this evening is that many communities are being well served by their media. We are honouring men and women who live up to the highest ideals of their profession and give substance to the bright hopes articulated by the Michener Foundation.
As is clear in the accomplishments of all the finalists, journalists are essential to the way our democracy functions. They hold within their hands – by virtue of the audiences they command and the trust they are given – enormous power.
In the months ahead, that power will be exerted, and tested, as in few periods of Canadian history. We are deciding, for generations to come, the kind of country we want or are prepared to have.
As I travel across Canada, I see the great desire of Canadians in all regions for a positive resolution to the current constitutional uncertainty. Canadians want a solution based on the traditions that have made this country strong throughout its history, a solution based on understanding of each other’s needs and points of view, a solution of compromise reached through thoughtful discussion and negotiation. At the same time, Canadians recognize that this is a delicate moment in our history, that we could all lose a great deal, not through intent, but by accident or misunderstanding or a failure of communications. The environment is highly charged, and the role of the media in that environment is critically important. We have seen how passions can be inflamed by coverage of the desecration of a flag or the booing of an anthem.
This is not to say that you should censor such coverage. Canadians expect the media to be accurate and to reflect what is happening in all parts of the country. But I think that today, more than ever, the media bring a sense of balance to the coverage of events.
This is a time when Canadians in all walks of life are being tested, and this is equally true for the men and women who work in the media. Canadians need complete and accurate coverage of the constitutional debate. The role of the media is to reflect all points of view. The mark of excellence in the profession is to provide a sense of perspective for those points of views and the onward rush of daily events. By providing that sense of perspective you can help Canadians understand the headlines in the context of our history and what is happening in other parts of the world.
The early Canadian humourist, Thomas Haliburton, said that “to whom much is given, much is expected”. Those expectations will continue to be fulfilled as long as journalists remain true to the most rigorous standards of their profession – the ones met by those we honour this evening.
His Excellency Ramon John Hnatyshyn
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
Thursday, April 25, 1991