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Rights + Justice

Canada’s High Honour for Michael Harris

The veteran journalist and Tyee columnist is appointed to the Order of Canada.

David Beers 30 Jun

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Over his long journalism career, Michael Harris has received many awards. Now the Tyee contributing editor has been appointed to the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours.

Wednesday’s announcement that Harris is among 85 new appointments to the order included this statement by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon:

“The Order of Canada celebrates the lives, endeavours and successes of people from coast to coast to coast and from all walks of life. Those being appointed today come from a variety of sectors, have achieved national and international success, and have shown ingenuity, innovation and generosity. What’s more, they have made a difference in their communities and for Canada with their outstanding dedication and commitment. Congratulations to the new Order of Canada appointees, as well as those celebrating a promotion within the Order.”

The announcement offers some background on the Order of Canada, noting the recognition “was created in 1967, by Queen Elizabeth II, to honour people whose service shapes our society, whose innovations ignite our imaginations, and whose compassion unites our communities.”

“To date,” it continues, “more than 7,600 people from all sectors of society across our country have been invested into the Order of Canada.”

Harris’s career highlights include his 1986 book Justice Denied about Donald Marshall, Jr., a Mi'kmaw man who spent 11 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. His 1991 book Unholy Orders: Tragedy at Mount Cashel, about abuse at the orphanage, triggered a commission of inquiry — one of four his investigations have prompted. His exposé of the Harper government, Party of One, was a bestseller. All this and more is distilled into the simple statement from Rideau Hall that Harris merits the Order of Canada: “For his contributions to investigative journalism and for his work as an author.”

We reached out to our Tyee colleague, who lives in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, and started by asking…

The Tyee: So Michael, congrats! How does it feel to receive such recognition?

Michael Harris: I am more surprised than I was to make Putin’s first sanctions list. The really good part? It shows that words matter. I have spent a lifetime wearing myself out with words in the search for justice for a lot of people who have been shut down. Apparently it wasn’t all yodelling down the well.

The citation says it’s for your work as an investigative journalist and author. Can you tell us when you first decided that this was the path you wanted to take in life? And share some highs and lows?

I have been wordstruck since childhood. First, all the great writers I read, like Faulkner and Joyce, enthralled me. Then my own words in places like the Globe and Mail, because I soon realized journalists are sometimes the patron saints of last resort. Donald Marshall taught me the signal lesson of my journalistic career: never discount a source, and never assume that all that can go wrong won’t go wrong for people in the justice system. I put that to good use in the Mount Cashel story.

From a story point of view, my biggest disappointment was the failure to solve the murder of 14-year-old Dana Bradley in Newfoundland. After watching a documentary I prepared on this unsolved case, a man came forward and admitted to the murder. He later took it back and went to jail for public mischief. The case remains unsolved.

We’re certainly gratified that you have been writing for The Tyee for many years, and filing your columns as a contributing editor since 2019. Can you share your perspective on the role of journalism in Canada’s prospects and your outlook on where it’s headed?

The sad fact is that if weren’t for platforms like The Tyee, and a few others, people like me would be silenced as watchdogs of the democracy. The incredible shrinking mainstream media is too busy spit-collecting to invest in more original work. Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs, and several major newspaper outlets have been politicized. With a few exceptions, television journalism is a wasteland of tail-chasing, agenda journalism. Yet never before has journalism been more important to preserve democracy, as events south of the border show. But for a few great news agencies, and a few great magazines, the country would be in the hands of a tyrant.

Your byline has been a bit scarce in our pages the past few months because you are working on a project. Is there anything you want to say about that?

Readers haven’t seen much of me lately in The Tyee because I was working on a new book. The working title is Farley and Claire, A Love Story. What is unusual about this project is that the information in the book has never before been printed. It is the most intimate portrait I have ever written about anyone, and I have done more than few deep dives. Readers will be by the side of this famous couple from the time they meet in St. Pierre in 1960, to Farley Mowat’s deathbed in 2014, hearing the last words of the man who gave the world 42 books. It is now complete and in the hands of the publisher, Greystone.

You have written critically about Canada’s colonial roots and its governments’ relations with Indigenous people in these pages, and you’ve been tart in your observations about the Royal Family. Does that make your feelings about receiving the Order of Canada complex?

I view the Order of Canada as an honour offered by Canadians and to Canadians, not a boon from Britain’s monarchy. As for the critical writing I have done on the subject of the treatment of Indigenous Peoples by governments, I will pursue it with alacrity until the day we can all say, “We are reconciled.” I would like to be there when the politician big enough to make that happen changes the colonial equation forever. The only people more sick to death of gesturing by governments than me are the Indigenous Peoples who have waited so patiently for some leader to do the right thing.

What’s next for you, Michael?

We are all on 24-hour call with God. But if there is time and life enough, I would like to continue the dialogue I have had with Canadians since 1977, hopefully in The Tyee.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Media

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