Ottawa, April 25, 1991. The Elmira Independent, a weekly newspaper, has been selected as the winner of the 1990 Michener Award for meritorious public service in journalism. The small Ontario newspaper, with a paid circulation of 7,400, was honoured for its blanket coverage of a prolonged legal battle over contamination of the Elmira-St. Jacobs municipal water supply.
His Excellency, Ray Hnatyshyn, Governor General of Canada, made the presentation this evening during a ceremony at Government House, in the presence of the award’s founding patron, the Right Honourable Roland Michener. The Independent was selected from among seven finalists for the award. Editor-co-owner Bob Verdun, representing the Independent, accepted the award from the Governor General.
In his address to the assembled guests at the award ceremony, His Excellency said – “what is obvious in all the prizes awarded this evening is that many communities are being well served by their media”. He also commented on the current constitutional debate and the need for professional excellence by the media to not only provide complete and accurate coverage of the debate but also a sense of perspective to “help Canadians understand the headlines in the context of our history”. (full text of Governor General’s award night address)
Background to the Elmira Independent story:
In late 1989, the Ontario community of Elmira (population 7,500) learned that its municipal water supply was contaminated with dimethyl nitrosamine (DMNA), a chemical carcinogen. Traces of DMNA were also discovered in water supplies used by Kitchener-Waterloo, Brantford and other nearby communities.
The contamination was linked to the operations of Uniroyal Chemical Ltd., since 1943 one of the area’s largest employers. In 1989 the Ontario Ministry of the Environment ordered the company to stop dumping its waste water into the Elmira sewage system. The company fought that decision with lengthy appeals and the weekly, in spite of its limited resources, covered every inch of that battle which concluded in December 1989. The Independent has lost advertising and readers.
The Independent, with annual revenues of about $550,000, has been the only media organization to cover every session of the appeals process, with some sessions lasting to 3:00 a.m. Reporter Roddy Turpin handled the onerous job while continuing his regular duties as Woolwich township and general assignments reporter. The Independent’s coverage has revealed several weaknesses in Ontario provincial environmental law. This is only the second time in its 21-year history that the Michener Award has been won by a weekly newspaper.
Jock Ferguson, a reporter with the Globe and Mail, was the recipient of the 1991 Michener Fellowship. Mr. Ferguson is an investigative journalist who has also worked in television for Global and CBC. He has reported extensively on municipal affairs, documenting developer influence on mayors, reeves and aldermen in those governments “closest to the people”. He was educated at Mount Allison University and University of Toronto Schools and has been an instructor in journalism at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto for the past 11 years. Mr. Ferguson intends to use the four-month period of paid leave to study municipal democracy, to try to determine if it “exists in name only.” (Update: Ferguson Fellowship report)
Each year’s panel of judges takes into account the resources available to entrants. Gail Scott, President of the Michener Awards Foundation, said “this year’s recognition of the Elmira Independent certainly demonstrates that meritorious public service in journalism can be attained without the benefit of a large operating budget.” The finalists for the 1990 awards competition were selected from a total of 54 entries representing radio and television stations, daily and weekly newspapers, and a news service.
– Ottawa-Hull Le Droit and The Sault Star (Sault Ste. Marie) as a joint bilingual entry for providing special and unique coverage of their two communities following the Sault Ste. Marie city council’s decision to make English its official language in the tense period preceding the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. This decision, widely reported throughout Quebec and the rest of Canada, led to joint action by publishers Gilbert Lacasse of the French-language daily Le Droit and Paul Wilson of The Star. Reporters were dispatched to the other newspaper’s territory to delve into perceptions, opinions and live situations. The special sections were carried by each of the newspapers in their respective languages. Le Droit managing editor André Préfontaine and Sault Star publisher Paul Wilson accepted the Michener Honourable Mention award from His Excellency Ray Hnatyshyn.
– The weekly newspaper, Yarmouth Vanguard (Nova Scotia), for its eight-part feature series and special supplement on child sexual abuse in the local community. Development of the series began following a call to the newsroom from a woman suggesting a story on children who exhibit precocious sexualized behaviour. It seemed there was much more going on that was not being said.
Through this woman, and after months of investigation, other adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse emerged to share their stories. With those stories serving as the roots of the series, the focus shifted to all aspects where children at risk intersected with the community – all the areas where society expects there should be help and intervention to protect the most vulnerable. It was discovered that almost without exception, social agencies had failed, first to recognize what was under their noses and then to effectively deal with the social dynamics – the perpetrator, the family and the broader community. The series not only probed the extent of child abuse but also served to encourage the community of 7,500 to deal with it. Publication of the stories generated community and provincial endorsation and action. The series was produced by editor Fred Hatfield and senior writer Belle Hatfield.
– BCTV, for its coverage of the Greater Vancouver Regional District’s first region-wide recycling plan and a proposed $28 million contract with a Chicago-based firm of less-than-spotless reputation. The station and senior reporter Harvey Oberfeld, spent more than three weeks scrutinizing the plan, and checking legal and environmental authorities at the provincial, federal and state levels. A reporting team visited San Francisco, Los Angeles and other areas, probing the Chicago firm’s record that showed convictions and fines for anti-trust, environmental and corruption infractions. After the 3-part series aired, a number of local municipalities announced decisions to withdraw from the recycling project and the plan was rejected.
Citations of merit were awarded to:
– Radio Station CKNW, Vancouver, for a public affairs program series hosted by Rafe Mair which shed critical light on inequities in child care rules and regulations and the negative impact of provincial social service practices on families. Provisions designed to protect children in some cases seemed to be damaging families with hasty or ill-conceived foster home placements with no recourse to the alternative of family counselling. A few weeks into the broadcasts, the Social Services Minister announced a provincial investigation into five specific cases and preparation of a report on accountability in general. CKNW was also a finalist in the 1989 Michener Award competition. Broadcaster Rafe Mair accepted the Citation.
– The Edmonton Journal, for “Wood Buffalo: A Park in Peril”, a graphic recitation of the conflict between commerce and environment in the world’s second largest national park. Lead reporter Ed Struzik and other Journal reporters detailed the threat to the park from clear-cut logging, a British Columbia hydro dam, Alberta pulp mill pollution and disease in the world’s biggest free-roaming bison herd. The herd was ear-marked for slaughter by Agriculture Canada. These threats to the park were covered in 47 stories by the newspaper and the Journal’s impact was broad. The federal government subsequently had second thoughts about killing its diseased buffalo herd, logging operations are being curbed and talks are proceeding to halt further damage by B.C. Hydro to the Peace-Athabaska rivers delta. The Edmonton Journal is a past winner of the 1980 Michener Award. Don Babick, the journal publisher, accepted the award on behalf of the newspaper.
– The Winnipeg Free Press, for “Secrecy on Trial“, a series of stories by Free Press medical writer Alexandra Paul, on the power and secrecy of professional licensing bodies governing the activities of doctors, dentists and lawyers. The two month investigation involved dealing with arbitrary claims of confidentiality, lengthy searches of court records, scrutiny of existing legislation, and a study of conditions elsewhere. Public accountability in the exercise of the policing authority of professionals was found to be badly lacking. Publication of the series prompted changes by medical, dental and legal associations and influenced Manitoba political positions on the question of officially-sanctioned privilege. The series was supervised by city editor John Sullivan who accepted the Citation on behalf of the Free Press.
On August 6, 1991, the Right Honourable Roland Michener passed away. The President of the Michener Awards Foundation, Gail Scott, issued the following statement:
“All of Canada mourns the loss of Roland Michener, who gave so much to our country and its citizens. Included in these many contributions was the creation, in 1969, of the Michener Awards for meritorious public service journalism.
Beginning with the presentation of the first award in 1970, Mr. Michener attended each year’s ceremonies and always spoke a few words to indicate his on-going recognition of the valuable contribution Canadian journalists can make to the betterment of the community as a whole. We will miss his presence in the years to come, but journalists and members of the public at large will continue to profit from the high standards he established for us to follow.”
Judges for the 1990 Michener Award:
Arch MacKenzie, Chair of the judging panel; former Ottawa bureau chief of the Canadian Press and the Toronto Star; Guy Rondeau, former bureau chief, La Presse Canadienne, Montreal; Carolyn Creery, former Canadian Press parliamentary reporter; Emmanuelle Gattuso, Vice-president Canadian Association of Broadcasters; Robert Phillips, former publisher, Western Producer; Harold Shea, Nova Scotia Press Council.
Judges for the 1991 Fellowship:
Senator Richard Doyle; Cameron Bell, former BCTV Vancouver News executive and communications consultant; Mimi Fullerton, President of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council; Claudette Tougas, La Presse editorial writer; and Guy Rondeau, former Montreal bureau chief, La Presse Canadienne.
The Michener Award for meritorious and disinterested public service in journalism is the only Canadian journalism award bearing the name of a governor general and it differs from most such awards in that it goes to the organization, not to individuals.