Ottawa, Saturday, November 8, 1980. News stories about fluoride poisoning on Cornwall Island have brought the Kingston Whig-Standard the 10th annual Michener Award for investigative journalism in 1979.
The series investigated emissions from a Massena, New York, aluminum plant of Reynolds Metals Co. which drifted across an Indian reserve on Cornwall Island – endangering the health of Indians, cattle and vegetation. The newspaper began with a six-month old National Research Council report late in 1978 which had been ignored but had pinpointed Cornwall Island as a case of environmental pollution.
The Whig-Standard was honoured at a black-tie Government House dinner attended by Governor General Edward Schreyer and two former governors-general, Roland Michener, for whom the award is named, and Jules Léger and their wives. News editor Harvey Schachter accepted the Michener Award on behalf of the Kingston newspaper.
The Edmonton Journal received honourable mention and citations of merit were awarded to the Calgary Albertan, the Calgary Herald and the Toronto Star (see below). His Excellency congratulated the finalists and remarked how fortunate Canadians were “to live in a country which cherishes its freedom of the press. We must jealously guard this freedom” (full text). The finalists for the 1979 Michener Award were selected from a total of 26 submissions.
In making the award to the Whig-Standard, the judges said that “the series jarred a lethargic Canadian government into action on a problem it had know about for five years, embarrassed the Ontario government into clumsy acts of secrecy and shocked an apathetic public into an awareness of the dangers posed by an industrial pollutant usually looked on merely as a beneficial tooth decay preventative for children”. The series was also recognized for what the judges termed “a first-class pursuit of a story which had been ignored in Canada and the United States.”
In its award-winning series of stories, the Whig-Standard also revealed that fluoride emissions in Brampton and Rosedale – the home ridings of Ontario Premier William Davis and then federal Health Minister David Crombie – exceeded the allowable level. The news team comprised reporters Penny Stuart, Karl Polzer, Sylvia Wright and Ann Lukits along with editors Norris MacDonald, Shelagh Stanley and Harvey Schachter. The team represented one-quarter of the paper’s entire city and district reporting staff.
The Edmonton Journal, for a series on the way some disturbed and problem children were handled at a government-run centre which used solitary confinement in small, poorly ventilated rooms — called “thinking rooms” — as a punishment for even minor misdemeanours.
The series of 45 stories led to an investigation by the Alberta Ombudsman, Dr. Randall Ivany. His report contained four pages quoting the series, by reporter Wendy Koenig, crediting her and the Journal with prompting the investigation. His recommendations included a call for a 45-minute limit on use of solitary confinement rooms in juvenile centres operated by the provincial government.
The Journal noted that the series was produced under a constant barrage of pressure. The province’s social services department issued a no-comment order to all employees. The director of Westfield, the centre that came under fire, tried to prevent the researching and the writing of the stories. A group of Westfield staff filed a libel action against the Journal. The deputy minister of social services sent a letter to the newspaper’s publisher that “amounted to character assassination of the worst sort.”
Citations of Merit were awarded to:
The Calgary Herald, for an exposé of police complicity in the illegal entry of a Calgary house during a drug investigation in an arrangement with a self-confessed criminal. Acting on a tip, Herald reporters and photographers were able to watch and photograph the entry. Following publication of the story, two police detectives were suspended, pending an investigation, but were later cleared. When the police commission closed its book on the case, it formally endorsed the police chief’s stated policy that illegal acts by police officers would not be condoned.
The Windsor Star, for stories on the high rate of cancer deaths due to asbestos fibre contamination of Windsor’s Bendix Automotive Co. plant which manufactured asbestos brake lining. Stories by reporter Kevin Mclntosh disclosed for the first time a possible link between the high cancer rate and the airborne asbestos fibres that had swirled through the plant for more than 30 years. The Ontario government agreed to hold public hearings and also forced Bendix to introduce new safety measures. Although Bendix denied that asbestos caused the cancers, it changed some procedures in the plant and agreed to provide regular X-rays for workers in and around the asbestos operation.
The Calgary Albertan, for a series that brought to public attention the economic squeeze on Canadian Armed Forces families due to small salary increases and hefty increases in rents on government-owned housing. The government had proposed to increase pay by 6.4 per cent while increasing rent for married quarters on Canadian Forces Base Calgary by 25 to 50 per cent. The stories by reporter Bob Bergen brought results. The defence minister said changes would be made in the system of fixing rents. Acting on this, Bergen covered protests at political meetings. He also developed exclusive stories on soldiers leaving the forces in unprecedented numbers; and on some families at the Calgary base going on public welfare, and receiving income supplements of $5 to $125 a month.
Judges for the 1979 Michener Award:
Fraser MacDougall, Founding President and chair of the judging committee and executive secretary of the Ontario Press Council; Bill Boss, former director of public relations at the University of Ottawa; Emery LeBlanc, former editor of L’Evangeline and former director of public relations for Via Rail; and William Metcalfe, former managing editor of Winnipeg Free Press and Ottawa Journal.
The judges of the competition will take into account the resources available to the entrant. Just as a large news agency or broadcasting network, for example, is eligible to enter for some national achievement, so is a small newspaper or broadcasting station that stretches its resources to achieve perhaps a modest but important community improvement.