By Kim Kierans
It started with a dream to create a prestigious new award dedicated to “meritorious public service journalism’’ — Canada’s own Pulitzer Prize. And this year, the Michener Award Foundation is celebrating 50 years as the nation’s premier journalism award.
The Federation of Press Clubs came up with the idea in 1967, the nation’s centennial year.They approached then-Governor General Roland Michener, seeking Vice-Regal patronage for this new award.Michener agreed and the award officially took on his name.
His Excellency hosted the first Michener Award presentation in a special ceremony in Rideau Hall in November 1971. The Financial Post and CBC TV were honoured for the 1970 co-production series, Charter Revolution, that examined dangerous developments in the air charter business.
Producer and director Alan Elrich accepted the first award on behalf of CBC TV. “The only things that stands out for me is the stupid grin on my face and Michener saying as he passed me the award ‘Careful it’s very heavy,’ Elric recalled some years later. “He was so very right. It was much heavier than it looked.”
The patronage of the Crown, the highest office in Canada, gives the Michener award lustre, but even more important to working journalists is its recognition of their essential role as “guardian(s) of the public interest” in Canada’s democratic society.
Mr. Michener, who devoted much of his life to public service, played an enthusiastic role in those early years. He attended all but one Michener annual meeting and awards ceremony right up until his death in 1991. In a recent interview his daughter Diana Michener-Schatz said her father was interested in journalism that focused on the public interest and “wanted to see it continued and pursued.”
“He felt that it really had to do with the existence of a free press and journalists of great energy and probity,” said Edward Schreyer, former Governor-General from 1979-1984. “More importantly and more specifically to continue developing standards of journalism. That’s the main reason I think the awards were established.”
Since 1970, the Michener Award Foundation’s independent judging panels have awarded 55 Michener Awards and 211 honourable mentions and citations. Michener-honoured work has helped bring about significant changes in government policy, laws, practices at all levels of agencies and institutions.
In all, ten Governors-General have invited media organizations from across the country to their residence at Rideau Hall each year to celebrate hard-hitting, investigative public service journalism that sheds light on injustices and wrongdoings.
Last year’s finalists, for example, produced stories that revealed failures of northern governments to protect indigenous teens; dangerously flawed school bus seatbelt science; workplace compensation injustices; shady deals in municipal politics; defective medical implants; and a deadly ambulance system.
The awards are a reminder of how much journalism matters, said Wendy Metcalfe, editor-in chief of Brunswick News at the 2019 ceremony. “Without it, secrecy would be rampant. Truth, trust and transparency would be scant. Without journalism, systemic problems would deepen. Wrongs would not be made right. With journalism there’s light, there’s change.”
Besides the Michener Awards, the Michener Foundation funds annual Fellowships to support investigative projects and journalism education. Journalists have researched and published investigative series on important issues such as the security of our food system, and occupational diseases.
Fellowships have helped to develop education modules to keep students and practicing journalists current in practices involving social media and coping with on-the-job trauma. In the search for new models of funding news, the education fellowship helped to develop a national student reporting program. This has led to the creation of the Institute for Investigative Journalism at Concordia University, which now partners with university students and faculty and media outlets from across the country to produce investigative stories of national significance.
At 50, the Michener Awards and its fellowships are more vital than ever. “Professional journalism is key to how democracy functions in how good the economy and healthy communities function,” said former governor general David Johnson, 2010-2017 in a recent interview. “And so, you use a Governor General award like the Michener Awards to celebrate the best of the profession and use it as a kind of light to encourage all Canadians to cherish that profession and to maintain even higher standards.”
— Kim Kierans is currently writing a history of the Michener Awards.