Everybody loves recognition.
There’s nothing like having a trophy to place on your mantel or a plaque to hang on your den wall to make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something with your life.
The thing about awards, though, is that they really aren’t about the past; implicit in them is the hope that the recipient can do more of the same good deeds in the future.
Some organizations hold honourees to high standards forever after they have deemed them worthy of public recognition and bestowed honours on them. A good example of this principle at work was the ejection from the exclusive ranks of the Order of Canada of Alan Eagleson after the Toronto lawyer was convicted of using his position as a promoter of international hockey to skim profits from tournament proceeds. The late David Ahenakew gave back his snowflake pin after he was convicted of anti-semitic hate speech, although the verdict was later overturned.
There are some other recipients of dubious reputation – I’m thinking now of Conrad Black, the Canadian businessman languishing in a Florida jail cell who was accused of stealing from his own shareholders — but that’s another story.
Nobody in the history of professional baseball ever recorded more hits or received more trophies than Pet Rose, but betting on games got him banned from the game.
Unless there’s some sense of continuity or longevity associated with them, awards can tarnish pretty quickly.
The Union of Ontario Indians distributes awards to Anishinabek Nation citizens nominated by their communities for lifetime achievement, and there have been dozens of deserving grassroots heroes recognized.
About a decade ago our communications unit launched the Debwewin (“truth”) Citations for exemplary journalism on First Nations and aboriginal issues – believed to be the only award of its kind – and those selected have invariably been individuals who were recognized for an ongoing body of work, not a single story.
Winners have included people like Peter Edwards, who devoted a couple of years of his journalistic life to covering the Ipperwash Inquiry and subsequently writing “One Dead Indian”, a book later made into a film about the events that culminated with the death of unarmed protestor Dudley George at the hands of an OPP sniper on Sept. 6, 1995.
When the name of a Toronto Sun journalist first came up as a possible nominee, members of the selection committee thought long and hard about the prospect of giving an award to someone who worked for a newspaper chain not known for its understanding of, or empathy with First Nations issues. But when they reviewed the 14-part series by veteran Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski on the challenges facing urban aboriginal people in Toronto, they were impressed by the extent of research that had gone into the series. They notified Bonokoski that he would receive an Honourary Mention in the 2010 awards.
The panel’s worst fears were realized a few weeks later when – in the wake of an Ottawa report claiming that 82 First Nations chiefs were being paid more than Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- the Toronto Sun published an editorial page cartoon by Andy Donato. The horrific caricature depicted an Indian Chief like a Norval Morrisseau portrait, mouthing the words: “Makeum big wampum and laughum all way to teepee.”
The report was based on information leaked to media by a conservative think-tank, coincidentally at the very time that the Tories were drawing some House of Commons heat for involvement in a construction kick-back scheme in Parliament Building renovations.
Subsequent detailed analysis by the Assembly of First Nations revealed that the average First Nations chief receives about $36,000 in annual compensation, and that the data on which scurrilous media stories was based was flawed and faulty. But, as is usually the case in media reporting, the damage was done and – coming a few weeks before Christmas – nobody really cared about cleaning up their own mess.
I mentioned this to two pleasant Toronto Sun editors this month when I handed them Mark Bonokoski’s Debwewin Citation award, an encased hawk feather to symbolize the importance of speaking from the heart. I said it was a shame that the hours of research and writing that their journalist had contributed to creating greater understanding about Native issues might have been offset or undone by a hastily-drawn sketch prompted by an erroneous report.
They nodded courteously, shaking my hand as they accepted the award.
Later, I checked out cartoonist Andy Donato’s credentials online, and learned that he won a National Newspaper Award in 1976, and in 1980 won an award for Best Editorial Cartoon in the World.
He must have a very large mantel, or a den with lots of wall space.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Missisaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.