In the summer of 2006, I was on assignment in Mozambique. The main focus of my work there was the HIV-AIDS crisis but I took a side trip and visited a land-mine clearing site funded jointly by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Canadian Auto Workers Union.
During that initial visit I spoke with landmine victims, de-miners who engage in the pain-staking, dangerous work of digging mines out of the ground and local and international aid workers who have the monumental task of helping people in mined regions of the world. I got hooked on the topic. I wrote a lengthy feature for the Ottawa Citizen but given the reality of limited newspaper space I was only able to scratch the surface of what is a book-length topic. So I turned to the Michener-Deacon Fellowship.
I was immensely grateful to be awarded the 2007 Fellowship because, quite literally, it bought me the time I needed to pursue the story. It has also helped fund the travel that a project of this nature demands. It is an international story that has required, and requires still, travel to the developing world. In May I will be in the Balkans and later in the spring and early summer I hope to go to Cambodia and Africa. This would not have been possible without the Fellowship.
The landmines story is also very much a Canadian one. Canada was a leading force behind the International Treaty to Ban Landmines, was launched on a wing and a prayer at an Ottawa conference in October 1996 and signed a little more than a year later, also in Ottawa, after hard-nosed negotiations throughout the world. It was one of Canada’s finest diplomatic achievements and set a new standard in the field of international diplomacy.
With the assistance of the Michener-Deacon Fellowship, I travelled to conferences in Norway and Jordan in the fall of 2007 where I was able to meet most of the major diplomatic players in the landmine negotiations. Establishing relationships with these people was both essential and invaluable. It enabled me to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of a story that was the treaty negotiations – it’s fascinating how two people in the same room at the same time, listening to the same conversation, can have totally different recollections. These people have also led me to others who have proved key to my research.
Most of the diplomats and civil society leaders involved in negotiating the International Treaty to Ban Landmines were at those two conferences, along with diplomats and civil society leaders from mine-affected countries. For a journalist needing a full understanding of this issue, and a chance to meet the main players, they were goldmines of information. During a chance meeting at a reception in Oslo, I met the person who made the first approach to Diane Princess of Wales about her becoming involved in the landmines issue.
I wrote a second major feature for the Citizen, and fellow CanWest newspapers, based on the many interviews and conversations I had during those foreign trips in the fall of 2007. And in May of 2008, the fellowship funded a research trip to Serbia and Bosnia which are still recovering economically and socially from the Balkans War – Serbia littered with unexploded cluster munitions dropped by NATO bombers and Bosnia struggling with an horrendous landmine problem courtesy of the Serbs.
My project is not finished. I am in the throes of building a website that will carry the material I have gathered and will gather.
In these days of squeezed news media budgets and the constant demands on journalists to do more with less, fellowships such as the Michener-Deacon have become increasingly important – vital, even — for those who need the means to escape daily deadline pressures in order to dig deeper into their chosen issues. I salute the volunteers who dedicate their time to the administration and judging that the Fellowship demands each year. It is, without doubt, an immensely valuable public service.
And I haven’t mentioned the party at Rideau Hall where the Fellowship and other Michener Awards are presented. Win the Michener-Deacon and you’re in for a night you’ll never forget!