Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure tonight to be able to honour the spirit of excellence – and to honour it in two complementary ways.
Both involve examples of how well Canada has been served over the years by people who rise above what each of us has to do each day just to get by. I am talking about people – and organizations – that give that something extra of themselves to make the world a better place for all of us.
I know that sounds like lofty language to use to describe journalists. There is this popular image of journalists as people running in packs, poking microphones in everyone’s faces, scrambling for the most sensational story.
That, of course, is an accurate image. Oh, I’m sorry – I must have gotten a word wrong. Well, it is a half-truth: all the running around and microphone-poking does represent what often has to be done to get the day-to-day stories to the public. Sometimes that’s done fairly. Sometimes it’s done with a little more spin that one might hope for. But the daily rush is part of journalism.
There is also, I am pleased to say, another aspect to the profession. And that is why making reference to the public good is appropriate on this occasion, as it has been since these Awards were first presented by Mr. Michener 21 years ago.
Tonight I wish to pay tribute to the finalists selected from the 65 entries for the 1991 Awards, as well as to the late Mr. Michener himself.
We are honoured that members of Mr. Michener’s family are here tonight – joining us in a place which I am sure brings back wonderful memories to them – to receive a special plaque which has been struck to honour his contribution to Canadian journalism.
Roland Michener passed away last summer after a rich and exemplary life. He was Governor-General of Canada between 1967 and 1974, but my guess is that if you walked up to a sampling of Canadians today and asked them the name of the first Governor-General that came into their heads, a large percentage of them would say Roland Michener. And they would say it with respect.
What Canadians sensed about Roland Michener was that here was a man with unrelenting energy who did the most serious and significant kind of work on behalf of his country and did it all with a twinkle in his eye.
Of all the public roles in which he served, it was being Speaker of the House of Commons that Roland Michener found most rewarding. And there are deep similarities about how he performed that role and what is so good, and so important, about the best of Canadian journalism.
One of the most important roles a Speaker has to play in the Commons is to preside over that fractious exchange of political opinion known as Question Period. At its best, Question Period represents the very core of what democracy is all about – the right of any citizen to question – indeed to challenge – the performance of those who have been elected to power.
At its worst, some would say that Question Period occasionally degenerates into a scuffle between political opportunists with only one thing in mind – putting themselves at the center of a journalistic scrum after Question Period is over. Some would say that. Not your governor-general, of course. But some people would.
When Roland Michener took over as Speaker of the House of Commons, he brought with him his gentle nature and his sense of humour. But he also brought a firm hand to bear on partisan exchanges. He demanded fair and honourable interplay on issues that meant something.
Content was what mattered to him, in politics and in journalism. He knew journalism – he was an avid reader, and one of his daughters was a gifted journalist. He appreciated the kind of journalism that made for a better society, and he thought the Michener Awards might help promote that kind of journalism.
I believe they do that. These awards celebrate content, depth, and understanding. They become even more important as economic pressures squeeze at the heart of both our print and electronic media, and publishers and producers look desperately for every possible way to attract readers, listeners, viewers – and, of course, advertisers.
If those pressures ever gather to the point that the custodians of the Michener Awards have trouble gathering journalists of the quality that we have represented in this room today – any of whom are worthy of this prize – then Canada will be the lesser for it.
There is a proud journalistic tradition in this country. It can’t be allowed to suffocate in balance sheets. News organizations must survive economically, but so must the best of what they have to offer journalistically.
Let us then, celebrate this year’s best. The proud tradition to which I just referred has been reflected in different types of journalistic excellence over the years. But there is often a common theme: a willingness to take on the powerful on behalf of the public when the powerful – either through omission or commission – are not acting in the public’s best interest.
Last year CKSL-Q103 took on city hall in St. Thomas, Ontario over citizen’s right to know. L’Actualité unearthed widespread child labour abuse in Quebec. The Globe and Mail uncovered a significant number of sexual offences perpetrated by psychiatrists and therapists against patients in Ontario. The Manitoba CBC’s investigative team exposed a series of unethical practices, including corruption within the Winnipeg Police Department.
The Corporation’s CBC at Six program in Toronto went after OHIP for permitting widespread abuse of funding by Ontario residents sent to American addiction treatment centers. The Prince Albert Herald took on the courts over the size of the sentence handed out to an acknowledged Neo-Nazi who killed an Indian trapper.
In each of these cases, the reporters and institutions involved were willing to stand up to vested interests, in the belief that something was wrong that was hurting Canadian society. Mr. Michener would have been proud of all of you, as I am today.
I wish to present a plaque on behalf of the Michener Award Foundation to the family of a man who understood the importance of what these kinds of initiatives meant to a democratic society.
His Excellency Ramon John Hnatyshyn
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
Tuesday, May 5, 1992
Inscription on plaque
‘In recognition of his outstanding service to journalism in Canada, as Founding Patron of the Michener Awards and Michener Fellowships, established to recognize and encourage meritorious public service by Canadian print and broadcast media. This work, and his inspiration, continue’.
Presented by the Right Honourable Ramon John Hnatyshyn, Governor General of Canada, at Rideau Hall, May 5, 1992, on behalf of the Michener Awards Foundation.