Montreal Gazette wins prestigious Michener Award

OTTAWA – The Montreal Gazette has won the 2009 Michener Award, Canada’s top honour for public-service journalism.

Two other Canwest newspapers – the Victoria Times Colonist and the National Post – won citations of merit in the annual awards, with the winners announced Thursday.

The Gazette won the award for a series, largely written by Linda Gyulai, that documented problems with that city’s largest contract in history – a $355.8-million water-management project – which the newspaper discovered was altered against the city’s interests in the days before the contract closed. After the auditor general confirmed the findings, the contract was killed and two top officials were fired.

Gazette publisher Alan Allnutt accepted the award from Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean in a ceremony at Rideau Hall, her official residence in Ottawa.

"This kind of journalism – journalism in the public interest, journalism that reveals things that a great many people don’t want revealed – is extraordinarily important to our society and our democracy. Linda practices that to a very high level," Allnutt said, adding there is a need for more public-service journalism in Canada.

"This is why newspapers continue to set the agenda, because we do this kind of reporting. Radio stations can’t do these kinds of things; many local television stations can’t do these kinds of things. Newspapers can still do it."

Gyulai, who was nominated for a National Newspaper Award last year, said she was "thrilled" to win the award.

"I’m particularly thrilled for the entire newsroom because it was the effort of everybody in the newsroom. They’ve always supported me in every initiative and every investigation," she said.

"I was particularly proud of these series of stories because it’s a classic example of journalists playing the role of the watchdog and scrutinizing government acts and contracts," Gyulai said of her stories. "Montrealers and Quebecers . . . latched on to this series. I think people were just looking for a beacon to shine light on government officials on every level."

Managing editor Raymond Brassard said "the voters spoke" in the municipal election following the Gazette’s series.

"I think one measure of reaction can be the pressure that voters put on municipal administration, the result of the municipal election that followed, and the changes to the way in which the city is governed."

The award, launched in 1970, is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious in Canadian journalism. The honour, named after former governor general Roland Michener, recognizes and promotes excellence in Canadian public service journalism.

The winner is chosen on the basis of impact, journalistic professionalism and the resources available for the project.

The Gazette won the Michener Award twice before in 1974 and 1975.

The Victoria Times Colonist series, written by Judith Lavoie and Lindsay Kines, revealed overcrowding, shoddy construction and health threats on First Nations reserves on Vancouver Island.

The National Post series, written by Shannon Kari, discovered that the Crown and police in Ontario were conducting secret, improper background checks on potential jurors in criminal trials. A subsequent investigation by the Ontario Privacy Commissioner showed one in three Crown offices had engaged in the background checks, and a policy directive by the government ended that practice, while the Juries Act is still in the process of being amended.

Other finalists, and winners of citations of merit, include a report on bribery and corruption in Quebec’s construction industry from CBC/Radio-Canada; an in-depth report from the CTV’s W5 investigative program about three killings by RCMP officers in British Columbia; and a Globe and Mail report by Paul Koring, who spent months working on the tale of Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen who remained stuck in the embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, after being denied a passport.

The Governor General also presented the Michener-Baxter Special Award to Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, who was killed last December while on assignment in Afghanistan.

The rare award for distinguished achievement by an individual in public-service journalism was presented to her parents, Arthur and Sandra Lang of Vancouver. Lang died alongside four Canadian soldiers when their armoured vehicle hit an improvised explosive device outside Kandahar City on Dec. 30, 2009.

The 34-year-old had been on assignment for Canwest News Service. She was the first Canadian journalist to die covering the war.

"Michelle dedicated her life to journalism excellence which served the public good. She was passionate about doing what good journalists do: push the boundaries, uncover the truth and get it right," said Calgary Herald editor-in-chief Lorne Motley as he held back tears.

"We are very proud of Michelle, not just because she was a great person, but also because she represented the best of our craft, believing in the strongest journalism values we all would want to adhere to as we go about our daily jobs," Motley said. "Michelle’s coverage and strong principles made our community a better place. This honour will help all of us and all Canadians, remember her, forever."

The speech inspired a standing ovation from the audience.

Lang’s parents also paid tribute to journalists telling stories from the front lines of conflicts.

"In the past few weeks we have seen several examples of journalists putting their lives on the line to report on the events that are capturing the world’s attention," they said. "We have to thank them for their dedication for pursuing the events that may result in paying the ultimate price, with their lives."

Since her death, Lang, who was a health reporter, has also been honoured by the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association and the YWCA.

In April, Second World War veteran Col. (ret.) John Gardam purchased a memorial leaf in Lang’s name for the Tree of Life at a health centre in Ottawa and the Newseum in Washington, D.C., announced plans to rededicate its Journalist Monument in Lang’s honour.

Earlier this month, Lang was the 12th recipient of the Canadian World Press Freedom Award and the first person to receive the honour posthumously, the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom announced.

In addition, Canwest Publishing has also created the Michelle Lang Fellowship in Journalism.

The program, which aims to inspire a young journalist to follow in Lang’s footsteps, will award as much as $10,000 every year to fund a special news project and will also fund the salary of a full-year internship for the winning candidate.

Donations to the Michelle Lang Fellowship in Journalism can be made at Scotiabank branches.

Russell Mills, president of the Michener Awards Foundation, said there was no question that Lang was a worthy recipient of the special award.

"Michelle took great risks to make sure the public was well informed on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. She ultimately gave her life in this noble cause," he said. "She was a young Canadian who exemplified the very best in public-service journalism."

The special award has only been presented twice before.

It was first awarded posthumously to Clark Todd, the London bureau chief for CTV, who died while reporting on the war in Lebanon in 1983. The second award was given last year to Clark Davey, a former publisher at Southam and a 25-year Michener Foundation volunteer.

In May, CBC parliamentary bureau reporter Julie Ireton was awarded the Michener-Deacon Fellowship by the foundation to pursue an investigation into the federal public service. The $35,000 fellowship is granted annually to allow the winning journalist time and resources to complete a project that serves the public interest.

With a file from Laura Stone

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