Investing in Public Policy Reform

Generations of journalists have been raised on the adage, “scratch a reporter and you’ll find a reformer.” Today’s journalists use their curiosity, investigative zeal and analytical skill to shed light on human nature and the way we have organized Canada. If not for the vigilance of the press, our democratic traditions would be easily eroded.

Informing, inspiring and proposing solutions

For more than 25 years, the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy has been tapping the reforming instincts of Canadian journalists. Every year, “The Atkinson” makes it possible for an accomplished senior journalist to take time away from daily pressures to focus on a single and serious national problem. Past recipients have covered a wide range of issues, and have become well known for their expertise and insights. Their writing continues to inform, inspire and propose solutions.

A tribute to Joseph Atkinson

The Fellowship is a tribute to Joseph E. Atkinson and his brand of journalism. As the publisher of the Toronto Star for nearly five decades, he was known as a fierce social reformer who was concerned about working people and their needs. Mr. Atkinson believed that a newspaper marshals and leads public opinion, but does not create it. “What it chiefly does is to repeat and concentrate. It is like the sunglass, which does not make the rays that it gathers, but merely concentrates them,” he wrote in 1901. The Honderich family, the Toronto Star and the Atkinson Foundation created the award to spark public discussion and fuel legislative or policy change, explained John Honderich in a recent interview. We see it as an investment in the future of progressive investigative journalism.

An opportunity of a lifetime

Over the course of one year, Fellows produce a series that is published in the Toronto Star. Previous winners, like Anne Dowsett Johnston, have later developed their work into a book or a documentary. Anne’s series was published as Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by HarperCollins Canada last year. She describes the award as a “national treasure” and her year as “the opportunity of a lifetime” in this short video.

Oil, pipelines and the marginalization of protest

Gillian Steward, a Calgary-based journalist, is the 2014-15 Atkinson Fellow.  She says she feels she’s been preparing for this reporting assignment for 40+ years. Her topic is “oil, pipelines and the marginalization of protest.” She’ll delve into the implications of oil sands development for Canadians, especially those who live along the path of the proposed pipelines: “The Fellowship will allow me to hitch my passion, experience and curiosity together so that I can take a long, hard look at one of the most crucial issues facing Canadians whether they live on the shores of Northern British Columbia or in downtown Toronto.”

Exposing situations to the light of day

In the Atkinson tradition, Gillian says she’s been driven by the idea of justice for as long as she can remember. “Some might call it social justice – that everyone in society deserves equal opportunity to benefit from the resources available,” she says. “But for me justice also goes to the core of what it means to be human and to be treated with dignity and respect … Consequently, it has always been my hope as a journalist that if such situations are exposed to the light of day (and well-written) that natural justice will prevail and something will be done to alleviate the suffering or turmoil caused by the injustice.”

We don’t know what Gillian’s investigation will bring to light. We do know, however, that she’ll keep the sunglass concentrated on the right questions.

Christine Avery Nuñez is the Director of Operations and Special Projects at the Atkinson Foundation. She has coordinated the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy program since 1998.