A Short History of the National Magazine Awards


For 40 years the National Magazine Awards have honoured Canada’s most outstanding and memorable writers, artists, stories, and publications. It all began in 1976, when Andrew MacFarlane, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario, established a working group towards the creation of a National Magazine Awards. He was joined by John S. Crosbie, president of the Magazine Association of Canada; Michael de Pencier, publisher of Toronto Life; Roger de la Garde, dean of journalism at Université Laval; Alan Edmunds, head of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), and others. The rest is history.
As we get ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards on Friday May 26 [Tickets] [Nominees], here’s a quick look at some of our most enduring memories…
 

1977

Michael de Pencier in the 1970s. Photo credit: Harold Barkley / Getty Images via Toronto Life

The National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF) receives its charter of non-profit foundation status from the Province of Ontario. Michael de Pencier, then the publisher of Toronto Life, is named the first president of the board of the directors. The NMAF establishes 14 categories, and more than 60 magazines submit 1377 entries. The submission fee is $10 per entry.

  • Among the 62 judges of the first National Magazine Awards were Joan Fraser (later a senator), author and essayist George Woodcock, and Adrienne Clarkson, then a CBC journalist, later the Governor General.

 

1978

Pierre Berton. Photo credit: CBC Archives

Pierre Berton hosts the first National Magazine Awards gala at the Hotel Toronto. Berton proclaims to the audience, “In a bold departure from tradition, there are to be no thank you speeches. We can do that because we are giving money, not some cheap statuette.” Harrowsmith (English) and L’actualité (French) win Magazine of the Year. Roy MacGregor (English) and Louise Coté (French) win the President’s Medals for the best overall article.

  • Image courtesy Town of Huntsville; photo illustration by Vessy Stroumsky

    The University of Western Ontario donated the original President’s Medals. From 1978 until 2001, the NMAF bestowed the President’s Medal upon the top overall magazine story of the year. Roy MacGregor’s original President’s Medal now resides in the Canada Summit Centre Sports Memorabilia Collection in the Town of Huntsville, Ontario.

Magazine types really know how to party.
Toronto Sun headline, following the first NMA gala

 

1979

Weekend Magazine, under the art direction of Robert Priest, wins the National Magazine Award for Best Cover, depicting a bloody image of the controversial baby seal hunt. Weekend Magazine, founded in 1951, wins 5 NMAs in 1979 before folding later that year.

 

1980

B.C. journalist Silver Donald Cameron wins the gold medal for Culture Writing, for a literary essay on author Farley Mowat published in Atlantic Insight.

 

1981

Photojournalist Nigel Dickson wins the first of his six NMA gold medals for a photo essay of the drought in the Canadian Prairies—one of the worst on record—published in Maclean’s.
 

1982

Jean Paré. Photo: Ordre national du Québec

At the fifth anniversary NMAs gala, legendary Quebec journalist Jean Paré wins the gold medal in Comment (later Columns) for L’actualité. From 1977 to 2009, Paré was nominated for 22 National Magazine Awards, winning 11. In 1996 he was the recipient of the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement.

  • Jean Paré founded the weekly news magazine L’actualité in 1976 after three years as deputy editor of Maclean’s.

 

1983


Margaret Atwood wins the silver medal in Travel Writing, for “The Five Faces of Mexico,” published in Quest magazine. Quest, then under the editorship of the famously bespectacled and bow-tied Michael Enright, would fold a year later after winning 14 National Magazine Awards since 1978.

  • Margaret Atwood has won 3 National Magazine Awards (in Poetry, Travel Writing, and Environmental Journalism). She’s been nominated 3 times in Fiction but never won.

 

1984

Sylvia Barrett Wright wins her first of two gold medals in the category Science, Technology & the Environment for Equinox magazine (the other came in 1988). She becomes the first woman to win gold in this category. From 1984-2016 only eight women won the gold medal in Science, Technology & the Environment, including Noémi Mercier (also twice) and Margaret Atwood.

  • Vancouver Magazine, under veteran editor Mac Parry, won Magazine of the Year at the 1985 NMA gala. Originally known as Dick McLean’s Greater Vancouver Greeter Guide, VanMag was also briefly known as Vancouver’s Leisure Magazine before the current, simple title took hold in 1973.

 

1985

P.K. Page. Photo: Wikicommons

The poet Patricia Kathleen “P.K.” Page wins the National Magazine Award for poetry, for a suite of poems published in The Malahat Review. From 1944 under her death in 2010 at the age of 93, Page published more than three dozen books of poetry, prose, and children’s literature.

  • Since 1978 The Malahat Review has won 28 National Magazine Awards for fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.

 

1986

Saturday Night art director Louis Fishauf wins both the gold and silver medals in Art Direction of a Single Article. Since 1979 Fishauf has been nominated for over 30 National Magazine Awards for his work in Saturday Night, The City, City Woman, Executive Magazine, T.O. Magazine, and Toronto Life.

My dream, when I was a young writer starting out, was to one day write for Saturday Night magazine. I pitched them ideas, to no avail, until one day in 2005 an editor emailed me out of the blue. I squeaked into one of their very last issues, and I still miss what Saturday Night stood for: a space of serious (but not too serious) intellectual engagement and storytelling as good as any in the world.
– Deborah Campbell, author and 3-time National Magazine Award winner

 

1987

At the tenth anniversary National Magazine Awards, graphic artist Simon Ng wins both gold and silver in Best Illustration, for work in Canadian Business and Toronto magazine. Blair Dawson and Gracia Lam are the only other illustrators to accomplish that double.

  • CBC “Morningside” host Peter Gzowski emceed the NMA gala for the second time (he also hosted in 1979 and for a final time in 1991) at the 10th anniversary gala in 1987, where Report on Business won Magazine of the Year.

 

1988

Elaine Dewar’s “The Mysterious Reichmanns: The Untold Story” (Toronto Life) wins the President’s Medal for best article (it also wins the gold medal for Investigative Journalism and Illustration). The Reichmann family, known for their real estate empire, had sued Dewar and Toronto Life for libel, for $102 million.

  • According to a contemporary story in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, in a show of journalistic support at that year’s NMA gala, “virtually everyone in the Grand Ballroom at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre stood up and cheered when [Dewar’s] victories were announced.”

 

1989

Photo courtesy James Ireland

James Ireland wins the National Magazine Award for Art Direction of a Single Magazine Article, for Canadian Art. Over a 40-year career designing magazines like Report on BusinessToronto LifeCanadian BusinessMaclean’sCanadian Art, U of T Magazine, Chatelaine, and many more, Ireland was one of the most celebrated and admired art directors in Canada. In 1997 the NMAF presented him with its Outstanding Achievement Award.

The art staff at The Canadian magazine were known for taking long liquid lunches each Friday. Every now and then the publisher of the magazine would wander through the art department around 2pm to make sure we were all back at our desks. One Friday morning, one of the artists, Harry Shepherd, took some foam board and magic markers, and cut out full-sized, silhouette likenesses of each designer. He slumped them over their drawing boards with scalpels in hand so they looked hard at work. The strong backlight from the windows made them look very convincing—it was spectacular! We all had to work late that night.
– James Ireland

 

1990

The Idler wins its first National Magazine Award (for Best Cover). Writing in The Globe and Mail in 2007, novelist and NMA winner Russell Smith remarked of The Idler: It was “a bit like The Walrus, but more eccentric and unpredictable, and with less reporting and more reflection. It was an elegant, brilliant and often irritating thing, proudly pretentious and nostalgic, written by philosophers, curmudgeons, pedants, intellectual dandies.”

One night, long ago, when I was still an undergraduate student at U of T, I found myself at The Idler pub. Upstairs, I knew, were the offices of the magazine by the same name. That night, a bunch of journos and thinkers of various stripes sat around a long table, arguing and drinking the night away. When I fantasize about magazine journalism, my thoughts often drift back to that: a great watering hole, the exchange of ideas, and writers retreating upstairs to put some of those ideas into words.
Alison Motluk, 5-time National Magazine Award winner

  • The Idler won Magazine of the Year in 1992 and then folded a year later.

 

1991

West Magazine wins Magazine of the Year at the National Magazine Awards, hosted for the third and final time by Pierre Berton. The magazine then folds later that year.

  • Magazines come and magazines go. Other magazines that folded the year they won a National Magazine Award: The Canadian (1979); Weekend Magazine (1979); Quest (1984); City Woman (1985); T.O. Magazine (1989); Vista (1990); Domino (1991); The Idler (1993); City & Country Home (1994); Destinations (1994); Shift (2003) Elm Street (2004); Saturday Night (2005); Toro (2007); unlimited (2008); More (2012); The Grid (2014).

 

1992

At the 15th anniversary NMA gala, Andrew Cohen of Saturday Night wins 3 medals, including the President’s Medal, for his profile of the former Prime Minister called “That Bastard Trudeau.”

  • Singer-songwriter Nancy White, of CBC fame, hosted the 15th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto.

 

1993

Paul Quarrington. Image credit: Wikicommons

Paul Quarrington wins his first of two consecutive NMA gold medals in Humour, for Harrowsmith magazine (he would later win a third humour award for Outdoor Canada). The beloved novelist, playwright, musician, and magazine writer passed away in 2010, shortly after writing his final memoir, Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life.

  • At the 1993 NMAs Yann Martel, later the author of The Life of Pi, won the gold medal in Fiction for a story in The Malahat Review.

 

1994

The One-of-a-Kind category makes its NMA debut, celebrating magazine writing whose style or content is so unique it just can’t be classified into any other category. Zoe Landale, writing in Saturday Night, wins the first gold medal.

  • Toronto Life won 5 straight gold medals in One-of-a-Kind from 2001-2006, but The Walrus has won the last 4 heading into 2017. Check out this year’s nominees.

 

1995

Catherine Keachie, the long-time president of the Canadian Magazine Publishers’ Association, is presented with the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement. Keachie was also an instructor of journalism at Ryerson University and today the program offers an annual scholarship in her memory.

In order for us to make the case for how Canadian magazines mattered, Catherine knew that it was essential for the industry to work together. The major publishers needed the cultural legitimacy of the small and literary publishers. The smalls and literaries needed the financial and political heft of the bigs… Catherine’s words have guided me throughout my career, and her passion for the possibility of what the many talented people in this industry can accomplish together continues to inspire me.
Kim Pittaway, on Catherine Keachie’s inspiration to her career, from Kim’s acceptance speech at the 2016 NMAs

 

1996

For the only time in its history, the NMAs present an award for best Display Writing, at a gala hosted for the first time by Ian Brown. Vancouver Magazine wins the award, but the category is discontinued the following year.

  • In 2008 Julia Belluz won the NMA Best Student Writer Award for her profile of Ian Brown in the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

 

1997

Photo Edward Burtynsky 

Edward Burtynsky wins the gold medal in Photojournalism for his famous “Tailings” series—highlighting the environmentally degrading waste produced by heavy industry—published in Canadian Art.
 

1998

Hosting the NMA gala for the second consecutive year, Massey College master John Fraser presents the Outstanding Achievement Award to former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford.

  • Since 1978, Fulford has won more NMA gold medals (15) than any other writer or artist. But fashion photographer Chris Nicholls is the winningest creator in NMA history, with 20 total medals (10 gold; 10 silver).

 

1999

Jane O’Hara’s investigative report “Rape in the Military” (Maclean’s) wins two National Magazine Awards, including the President’s Medal. It remains one of the most significant and studied feature stories in the history of Canadian magazines.

It [“Rape in the Military”] was such a groundbreaking and heartbreaking story—20 years later, it haunts me still. The raw honesty of the women who shared their stories, and the abusive betrayal of those who destroyed their lives and careers. You can feel the mastery of the interviewer in how she was able to get these victims to open up to her and feel her sensitivity in how she told the story.
– Dawn Chafe, editor-in-chief, Atlantic Business Magazine

 

2000

The upstart Shift magazine wins 9 National Magazine Awards, including a sweep for art directors Carmen Dunjko and Malcolm Brown in the categories Art Direction and Best Cover. From 1994 until it folded in 2003, Shift won 27 NMAs and became a notorious rival to Saturday Night. After the magazine won its huge haul of awards, much to the chagrin of its critics, editor Laas Turnbull told The Globe and Mail: “I have found that people’s reaction to Shift often says a great deal more about them than it does about the magazine. It’s so unusual to launch something new in this country and then to actually survive.”

Shift on Beck… never forget it.
– Malcolm Brown, 15-time National Magazine Award-winning art director

 

2001

The National Magazine Awards expands to 37 categories, up from 14 at the 1978 awards. George Whiteside wins the first gold medal in the category Food Photography, for President’s Choice magazine. (The category is discontinued in 2003.)

  • Other discontinued categories in the history of the NMAs include Conceptual Photography, Food Writing, Leisure Pursuits, Community Feature, Studio Photography, Best Repurposed or Adapted Content, and Best New Magazine.

 

2002

George Elliott Clarke. Photo credit: Carmelita Linta / CBC

George Elliott Clarke wins the gold medal in Poetry, for a suite of six poems in Prairie Fire.

  • Prairie Fire has won 15 National Magazine Awards since 1996, most recently a silver medal in 2016 for Poetry (Harold Hoefle).

 

2003

Don Obe. Photo by John Reeves

For the 25th NMA gala, Don Obe edits a special anniversary magazine featuring the top stories, issues, photography, and design from each year since the first National Magazine Awards. A beloved Ryerson University instructor and former editor at Maclean’s, The Canadian, and Toronto Life, Obe received the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in 1994. He passed away in 2014.

  • At the 25th anniversary NMA gala, hosted by Second City comedienne Judy Croon, Adbusters won for Best Art Direction of a Single Article, The New Quarterly swept the gold medals in Fiction and Poetry, Elm Street won for Portrait Photography, and Outpost won Magazine of the Year.

 

2004

Marci McDonald’s investigation into Paul Martin’s controversial private business dealings, published in the inaugural issue of The Walrus, wins that magazine its first (of many) National Magazine Awards.

  • Marci McDonald won the gold medal in Business at the very first NMAs in 1978, and has won 11 in total since then. In 2017 she served on the NMA jury in the category Long-Form Feature Writing.

 

2005

Gerald Hannon is a double gold medallist for his story “The Eyes of Edward Burtynsky” (Toronto Life) in the categories Profiles and Arts & Entertainment.

Lynn Cunningham, my editor at Toronto Life, assigned me a major feature on the AIDS crisis in 1988 when I had no magazine experience and when I was mostly known for having been on trial for publishing immoral, indecent, or scurrilous matter. She took a chance on me, and thanks to her support and encouragement my writing career took off.
– Gerald Hannon, 13-time National Magazine Award-winning writer

 

2006

The June 1969 cover of Saturday Night

Saturday Night, after folding (for the second and final time) in November the previous year, wins 7 National Magazine Awards, bringing its legendary haul to 231 NMAs since 1978. The same night, The Walrus breaks Saturday Night’s record by winning 13 gold medals (and 16 overall).

  • In 2015, Toronto Life finally passed Saturday Night for most NMAs in history, when writer Lauren McKeon won the gold medal in Personal Journalism for “Save Me From My Workout.” Toronto Life now has 244 NMAs heading into the 2017 awards.

 

2007

Program cover of the 30th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala. Illustration by Dan Page. Art direction by Levi Nicholson.

At the 30th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala at the Carlu in Toronto, Scott Feschuk hosts, David Gilmour‘s “My Life with Tolstoy” is a double gold medal winner, and The Walrus wins Magazine of the Year. Jeremy Klaszus is presented with the award for Best New Magazine Writer (formerly known as the Alexander Ross Award) for his investigation into unsavoury practices in Alberta’s oil industry, published in Alberta Views.

 

2008


Maisonneuve’s “Food Issue,” featuring a cover photo of miniature explorers attempting a dangerous crossing of the surface of a crème brûlée, wins the gold medal for Best Magazine Cover (art direction by Anna Minzhulina).

  • Recently the NMAF’s Richard A. Johnson interviewed Anna Minzhulina about her ten-year tenure at Maisonneuve, her creative process as an art director, and the importance of supporting emerging women magazine artists.

 

2009


Chris Turner wins the gold medal in Essays for “The Big Decision” (Alberta Views), arguing in favour of nuclear energy at a time when the province’s Oil Sands are booming.

  • Moose Jaw native Chris Turner, a 9-time NMA winner, hosted the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala, featuring a cameo from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

 

2010

Up Here magazine, published in Yellowknife, wins Magazine of the Year, becoming the first magazine from Canada’s North to win the grand prize.

  • At the 2010 National Magazine Awards gala, Terry Sellwood of Cottage Life Media received the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement. At the 2017 gala, Penny Caldwell will become the third member of the Cottage Life family to win the award, after Terry and founder Al Zikovitz (2002).

 

2011

Image: CBC

Sean Michaels wins the One-of-a-Kind gold medal for an account of his exploration of the catacombs of Paris, published in Brick. Michaels would later go on to win the Giller Prize for his novel, Us Conductors.

  • Other NMA winners for Brick literary magazine include Michael Ondaatje (1981), Alex Pugsley (2005), Patrick deWitt (2013), and Linda Spalding (2014), all in the Fiction category.

 

2012

The Grid, a weekly Toronto city magazine that launched the previous May, wins six National Magazine Awards, including three gold medals for art director Vanessa Wyse. The Grid’s boisterous cheering section remains one of the most enduring memories of its first NMA gala.

  • In 2013 The Grid won 7 National Magazine Awards, edging The Walrus (6). It’s the only time since 2004 that winningest magazine at the NMAs was not Toronto Life or The Walrus.

 

2013

For the first time, the NMAs honour outstanding achievement by tablet editions. Canadian House & Home wins the first award for Tablet Magazine of the Year.

  • In subsequent years, Today’s Parent and Sportsnet won the National Magazine Award for Tablet Magazine of the Year. The award was discontinued in 2016 as the NMAF launched the Digital Publishing Awards to recognize achievement in Canadian digital publishing. The 2017 Digital Publishing Awards are coming up on June 1.

 

2014

Edmonton newcomer Eighteen Bridges magazine wins four National Magazine Awards among 11 nominations, including two gold medals for editor and feature writer Curtis Gillespie.

  • In 2016 Eighteen Bridges also won four NMAs, including the gold medal in Investigative Reporting. Recently the NMAF’s Richard A. Johnson interviewed journalist Virgil Grandfield about his incredible 10-year investigation of human trafficking and murder related to Red Cross reconstruction projects in Indonesia.

Also, remember this:


 

2015

Crimes sexuels dans l’armée,” an extensive investigative report by journalists Noémi Mercier and Alec Castonguay about sexual assault in the Canadian military, published in L’actualité, wins two gold medals (Investigative Reporting and Politics & Public Interest).

  • Lainey Lui and Jessica Allen from CTV’s “The Social” co-hosted the 38th NMA gala in 2015, featuring a cameo by 4-time host Scott Feschuk.

 

2016

Desmond Cole accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer to a standing ovation at the 2016 National Magazine Awards in Toronto (Photo: Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)

Desmond Cole is nominated for four National Magazine Awards for his exposé of Toronto police discrimination against the city’s Black community, “The Skin I’m In” (Toronto Life). Cole wins the gold medal for Best New Magazine Writer and two silver medals (Essays and Personal Journalism), and receives a standing ovation on stage at the gala.


Take a deeper dive into the history of the National Magazine Award by perusing the NMA archive.
The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards will be held on Friday, May 26, at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. Tickets are on sale now. Check out all the nominees.
Not able to make it to the gala? Follow our exciting live tweet @MagAwards to catch all the live action.

Off the Page, with investigative journalist Virgil Grandfield


Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview we chat with freelance journalist Virgil Grandfield, who won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting.
In his award-winning investigative story “The Cage” (Eighteen Bridges) Virgil Grandfield describes one particular day of his multi-year investigation into human trafficking allegedly linked to Red Cross humanitarian efforts in Indonesia, post-tsunami. “Eva” is his assistant; “Mulyo” is a labour agent who may have been involved in human trafficking; “Otong” is a worker who disappeared while working on a Red Cross project and was allegedly murdered while trying to escape.


NMAF: In 2008, you decided to resign your position as spokesperson for the Red Cross / Red Crescent reconstruction efforts in Indonesia’s Aceh province. The international community had poured millions into rebuilding the region after the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake, and from your position you were able to observe human trafficking creeping into the humanitarian project. How did you start down this road?
Virgil Grandfield: I was spokesperson for all Red Cross Red Crescent tsunami relief operations in Aceh in 2005-2006. In that time, I was proud of our work there. Only when I returned to Aceh in 2007-2008 as a delegate for the Canadian Red Cross did I uncover evidence of an epidemic of modern slavery in our housing reconstruction operations.

Before I go on, I should say that when describing the focus of my investigations in Aceh, I never use the term “corruption.” That word can sometimes be racially loaded, and too vague, subjective and misleading. As you mentioned, what I found on Red Cross and other tsunami projects in Indonesia was the very specific and clearly-defined crime of human trafficking—a discovery that rocked me to my core, in part because I immediately understood that it was our own fault. We had lost our way. 

In short, the British, Canadian, Australian and American Red Cross had decided that rather than working with local people to rebuild, they would take a massive short cut and outsource all of our reconstruction projects to private contractors. Agents working for those contractors brought in tens of thousands of workers to our projects from more than 2,000 km away in Java. The agents and contractors deceived the workers, stole their pay and forced them to work against their will, often as outright slaves in squalid, malaria-ridden labour camps and often provided them little more than one bowl of rice per day.
This happened to virtually all of the thousands of construction workers on Red Cross and other tsunami rebuilding projects. It was the second, secret disaster of Aceh.
 
 

"The Cage" by Virgil Grandfield, Eighteen Bridges, Winter 2015. Two girls sit at the graves of their mother and father, who died because of trafficking on a British Red Cross tsunami project. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)
“The Cage” by Virgil Grandfield, Eighteen Bridges, Winter 2015. Two girls sit at the graves of their mother and father, who died because of trafficking on a British Red Cross tsunami project. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)

 
NMAF: What was the breaking point for you, and why did you decide to become a whistle-blower?
Virgil Grandfield: When I first discovered and confirmed the trafficking problem, I was really sad and angry. Another worker had died of malaria in one of our project camps the day before I had arrived there. And yet, management was refusing even to allow us to provide bed nets or spray for mosquitos in our camps, claiming the workers were not our responsibility. They had become so focused on material results—numbers of housing completions—they had totally ignored the humanity of the workers on our projects.
I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.”
At the risk of losing my amazing career, I kept investigating and demanding action. Management agreed to look into the issue, but only interviewed the contractors and agents, the very men who had been doing the trafficking. They never spoke with the workers. After an incident where some of our workers were beaten by a local mob accusing them of stealing some jewelry to pawn in order to escape, I broke protocol and informed the Canadian Red Cross board of governors of the trafficking and implied that if we did not act within the month, I would go public. Only then did management approve anti-malarial measures in worker camps. They also promised me they would begin a feeding program for the workers and would hire the Ernst & Young auditing firm to do a more thorough investigation. And, I was offered a new contract and a possibly a promotion, on the condition that I drop the worker issue.

I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”

A few months later, I heard from one of my former field officers that our head of mission in Aceh had interfered in the auditors’ investigation when he gave the contractors weeks of advance warning, and had tried to restrict the auditors to only two of our twenty-two housing projects. I also learned that the Red Cross also never implemented the promised feeding program for our workers. And although the auditing firm Ernst & Young confirmed my findings, Red Cross refused to consider compensating the victims.
That was the last straw for me. I resigned my Red Cross Overseas Delegate status and eventually leaked the story to a producer at Radio Canada in Montreal where I had done a graduate program in journalism at Concordia University.

A relative of a Red Cross worker who was trafficked on tsunami projects and died. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)
A relative of a Red Cross worker who was trafficked on tsunami projects and died. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)

 
NMAF: Having made the bold move to resign, you launched your own investigation, returning to Indonesia not as a delegate but as an independent journalist? How did you manage that?
Virgil Grandfield: Radio-Canada said they needed more proof of the trafficking before sending a team to Indonesia to investigate and film a documentary—an investment of at least $100,000. So, a year after I had resigned, I mortgaged my home in Alberta to fund a more thorough, preliminary investigation. I returned to Indonesia in 2009-2010, rented vehicles and equipment and enlisted teams of human rights workers—and at one point, even a local mafia boss—to help me find hundreds of Javanese labourers who had been trafficked on Red Cross tsunami projects in Aceh.
The evidence and video testimonies we took from those victims and scores of witnesses were enough to convince Radio Canada to send their own investigative team to Indonesia. Unfortunately, after their documentary “The Forgotten Workers” was broadcast on Radio Canada and CBC in March 2010, Canadian Red Cross denied all findings and shut the issue down. And it seemed like Canadians just kind of shrugged.
I was devastated, and it took me a long time to recover.
 
NMAF: In “The Cage” you describe a second journey you made to Indonesia in the summer of 2015 to meet a man named Mulyo, who may have been a trafficker of slave labour during the Red Cross reconstruction. You put your own life (and that of your assistant, Eva) at risk just to try to gain access to some of the workers who were exploited. What was the significance of that particular journey, and what did you expect to discover that day?
A man who was trafficked and worked on Red Cross reconstruction projects in Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)
A man who was trafficked and worked on Red Cross reconstruction projects in Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)

Virgil Grandfield: In 2015, with a little money from a writer’s grant and an income tax rebate, I headed back to Indonesia to try again. This time I could only afford to hire one person to help me, not whole teams. During my first investigation five years before, I had met families of men who had died on Red Cross projects or while trying to escape. I promised some of those families I would try to find the graves of their dead fathers, sons and husbands. So, this time, instead of searching for hundreds of surviving victims, my assistant and I would only search for the dead.
My assistant Eva (not her real name) is a gutsy, smart elementary school teacher about the size of a half sack of potatoes. She started searching for leads in North Sumatra even before I arrived. She found a labour agent named Mulyo (also not his real name) who claimed that 160 of his workers had been forced to work at gunpoint on an American Red Cross tsunami project.
Mulyo had told Eva that one of those workers, a young man named Otong, had been murdered by his guards, likely as a warning after trying to escape the project with a group of 30 other workers. Soon after my first meeting with Mulyo, Eva and I began to suspect that he himself had been a guilty party in the trafficking of Otong and the other men.
We tried to gain Mulyo’s trust, and that meant we had to give him our trust, too. We stayed in his home. We brought him gifts. We even went night fishing with him a few times at a kind of gambler’s pond where everyone treated Mulyo like the Godfather. We kept telling Mulyo we had to meet Otong’s co-workers in order to verify his story and perhaps find a way to meet and help his surviving family. Mulyo kept making excuses for not taking us to the surviving victims. Eventually, though, he said he was ready to take us to meet Otong’s former co-workers. But, he said we would have to go alone with him.
Eva and I knew there were two possibilities: either Mulyo had decided to try to help us, or he had decided to take us out somewhere to get rid of us once and for all—to kill us. If it was the first, we would be that much closer to getting the story that might finally get people to understand and care about this issue, a story that might shock the American public in a way that had not happened in Canada.
I had spent years of my life fighting this battle. I had sacrificed the career I had loved. I felt I had little left to lose and that I had come too far to fail. Getting to the bottom of this particular story about the murder of one worker might be my only way to finally get publishers and readers to care about the bigger story. And because the stakes were so high and there had only been denial on the part of the Red Cross, getting this story second or third-hand was not going to work. I had to meet the eyewitnesses—starting with the men who had also been trafficked—and record their stories. The only way to do that was to trust Mulyo.
I was prepared to risk death. The more important question was whether Eva understood the danger and was willing to make the same gamble. That is the moment at which our story “The Cage” begins, when Eva answers that she also was not afraid to die. It would not be the last time she would say that, in even more dangerous situations.

It felt important that this story reach Eighteen Bridges readers, for two reasons: First, because I felt our audience and the wider audience that might come across the story would greatly enjoy and benefit from Virgil’s mix of compelling storytelling and scrupulous moral inquiry. Second, because we at Eighteen Bridges really do believe in the power of the written word to open eyes and enact change, and it would have been wrong not to publish Virgil’s story.
Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine

 
NMAF: “The Cage” is now one chapter in a larger book project you have planned about the Red Cross reconstruction in Indonesia. On the one hand, your investigation focuses on the large-scale labour trafficking involving thousands of Indonesians who essentially became slaves to the agents and contractors who pocketed large sums of humanitarian funds. And then you’re also trying to unravel the mystery of the murder of Otong. What is it about his death that you think illuminates a piece of the larger investigation?
Virgil Grandfield: One problem I have had in speaking with literary agents was that they did not think this issue would be relevant to Canadians. They also said the fact I was a former employee of the Canadian Red Cross might create legal problems or doubts about motivations. Also, when I spoke to people in Canada about the trafficked workers, they just didn’t get it. Everyone has that uncle or brother-in-law who has been stiffed on a job. No big deal. And quite frankly, when people hear the numbers—that up to half a million men were trafficked on tsunami projects—they tune out because it sounds like statistics.
So, when I returned to Indonesia in 2015, I decided firstly that I would not look for any more victims from Canadian Red Cross tsunami projects—not even one. I would only look for victims from other Red Cross or UN or other tsunami projects. Americans have not yet heard about this scandal, and neither has the rest of the world..
Secondly, this time I wanted to investigate and tell, as well as I could, the story of just a few victims—people who had died because of the trafficking. I wanted readers to really feel and understand how horrible this thing was, how cruel and deadly it had been for humanitarian agencies to turn their operations over to profiteers and criminals and look the other way and even cover things up.
So, I thought the story of one man—among tens of thousands of tsunami slaves in Aceh—being murdered for trying to escape an American Red Cross tsunami project might get that point across. This was not your uncle being cheated for work he did on someone’s house. It was outright slavery and even murder. And I believed then as I do now that people will care more about one or two or three persons whom they feel they know than they will about thousands they don’t.
 
NMAF: “The Cage” ends with a bit of cliffhanger—Mulyo points you towards people who might know about the fate of Otong, but he advises you against speaking to them. Without giving too much away from your forthcoming book, have you since discovered more of the truth about Mulyo and Otong?
Virgil Grandfield: Mulyo eventually did take us to meet Otong’s co-workers, the witnesses to his murder. After telling us the story of their own ordeal as tsunami slaves and their escape from an American Red Cross project, they drew us a map. Eva and I then used the map to go on a kind of “Heart of Darkness” journey to follow the investigation of Otong’s murder to its end. What we experienced and discovered will be thrilling and mind-blowing to readers: a cat-and-mouse story of facing and narrowly escaping death—in typhoons and at gunpoint—in order to investigate and solve a crime implicating those in the “whited sepulchers” of Ottawa, London, Melbourne and Washington D.C. as much as anywhere else..
Eva and I are both currently writing those chapters for a section of the book called “The Map.” Using a mix of narrative and raw transcripts, we have also recently finished putting together an experimental work of literary non-fiction called “The Monument,” about a man and wife who were victims of trafficking on a British Red Cross project.
And, we will soon be writing our third main section of the book about keeping a promise I had made five years earlier to find the grave of one Javanese family’s father and husband who had died because of trafficking on an Australian Red Cross tsunami project. Our two-month search for his grave took us to an island where as many people died because of labour trafficking on tsunami reconstruction projects as died in the tsunami itself.
 
NMAF: At the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala, you accepted your award for “The Cage” on stage with a passionate call for critical Canadian attention to humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects, and the gaps in the system that enable corruption and trafficking. Can you talk a bit about your vision for a better system of oversight and implementation of these projects?
Virgil Grandfield: I was so utterly shocked and grateful to win the award at the NMA gala. I had originally written “The Cage” as a chapter for my book, so, I felt it was a fragment at best. Other stories in my category were more complete, I thought, and more polished, and by excellent and well-known journalists. But, I also figured that in the very remote case I did win, I had better be ready to speak. I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”
In my speech, I thanked Eva and other people like her who have over the years risked their lives with me to investigate this story for little or no reward. I acknowledged the pain the family members of the victims had to endure in opening old wounds to tell me their stories. I spoke of the trust those families put in me, and through me, the trust they were putting in Canadians to finally make things right.
I also reminded my colleagues at the NMA gala that Aceh was not the first tragic misadventure the Red Cross has had in outsourcing its humanitarian responsibilities. Thousands of Canadians lives were ruined or lost because of the HIV or Hepatitis they contracted from the tainted blood bought by the Red Cross from American prisons in the 1980s. Not only did the Canadian Red Cross deny that problem and refuse to take responsibility for its victims in the Tainted Blood Scandal. It also refused to clean house after it was censured by the Krever Report.

Virgil Grandfield accepts the National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting at the 2016 NMA Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)
Virgil Grandfield accepts the National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting at the 2016 NMA Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)

 
NMAF: What do you think Canadians should expect of the money and goodwill that they and their government contribute overseas?
Virgil Grandfield: At certain times, even our most noble institutions fail.. Yes, there is something very broken in the world now, and that was and is the deeper problem. Neo-liberal organizations like the WTO and World Bank have been forcing the poorest countries to do away with protections for their most vulnerable workers. So they share responsibility for what happened in Aceh.
But the labour trafficking scandal in the Aceh reconstruction was also due to a massive failure of humanitarian leadership. The directors of the Red Cross, for example, deliberately chose—against all of our stated principles—to use a deeply-flawed and inhumane outsourcing system, instead of working with local people to rebuild. And they chose to continue to do so, even when they became aware of the trafficking. The agencies had too much money, their boards were in too much of a hurry, and their managers acted in ways that were ambitious, heartless or blind.
The great danger for humanitarian organizations—especially the large, well-funded ones—is that they work in places where institutional corruption and failures of leadership can have immense and deadly consequences. Even at the field level, professional aid workers can also let themselves become divided from their own compassion and humanitarian principles and responsibilities. They focus on careers and promotions and perks, and because there is no job security in humanitarian work, they don’t rock the boat. They turn the other way, or compromise with corruption, or cover things up.

I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.

And meanwhile, the media give them a free pass, as if they are somehow better than normal, flawed humans. Reporters never ask hard questions, don’t investigate, and when told the truth, like most Canadians, they don’t want to believe. But the stakes are so high and the dangers and consequences of failure so prevalent and drastic, especially for vulnerable people like Otong and countless others.
That is why the press must be far, far more curious, independent and critical. You must seek out the powerless, the voiceless workers and others in our projects, and ask them for the truth. You will only help prevent more human-made disasters and save more lives.
As for oversight and implementation, the so-called “Aceh Model” of privatizing humanitarian work has been touted as a huge success to be emulated in other disaster zones. That is an outrageous and inestimably dangerous lie that must be refuted at every level and opportunity. Everyone living in Aceh saw the disaster we caused there by outsourcing our projects; we caused far more harm and pain than would have been if we had never gone there. Only smaller, community-minded organizations refused to take the easy, outsourcing path, and only they avoided the trafficking disaster.
Unfortunately, after disasters, Canadians give the vast majority of their donations to the Red Cross—an organization which at its best only handles first stage relief work. There are other organizations which specialize in actual reconstruction work which is done with communities, and I am certain that some have better leadership than the Red Cross, at least right now. Canadians must demand that the Red Cross clear out anyone involved in the Aceh or the Tainted Blood scandals. Our government must legislate open-book auditing requirements for any agencies receiving public funds, diversify disaster funding to include small organizations through a national umbrella funding agency, and establish a related but fully-independent unit of anti-trafficking investigators and project evaluators, as well as independent ombudspersons for humanitarian sector whistleblowers.
Aid organizations must establish an international convention on standards for payment and living conditions for all workers on humanitarian projects and must ban outsourcing in all relief and reconstruction work. I mean, why use the worst, least-humane business practices for what is supposed to be the noblest of human endeavors–to help others?
And finally, it is my personal hope that we find and compensate at least some of the families of those men and women who died because of our gross negligence in Indonesia. We cannot fix the huge mess we created, but at least we can try to help those most harmed by our mistakes. It is our unfinished business.
 
NMAF: Can you talk a bit about the process of having Eighteen Bridges publish this story and help it gain a larger audience? And what has been the significance to you of winning the National Magazine Award?
Virgil Grandfield: At the NMA Gala, I also thanked Curtis Gillespie for his faith and support as an editor and mentor, and for his uncommon courage in publishing a story others would be afraid to touch. Without Curtis and his terrific team and the supporters of Eighteen Bridges, you and I would not be doing this interview.
As for the award’s significance, I think it will help me get over a huge wall that has blocked me and my work for years. People have called me a “whistleblower”; there is even a Wikipedia entry to that effect about me. It is something that can be a badge of honour, but in my case, the label is not quite right, not anymore, at least.
A whistleblower is someone who tells the public what he or she learned while on “the inside.” I did discover the tsunami slave trafficking scandal while employed by the Red Cross, but 99 percent of what I know about the story is what I dug up often at extreme effort and cost—only after I resigned.
Before I worked for the Red Cross, I was a journalist. The skills I had learned as a reporter helped me to first sniff out the problem in Aceh, and I have relied on those skills in all my work in the region since. I have done hundreds of interviews and asked thousands of questions. I have done endless research. I have triple-checked every fact and cross-verified every story. I have geo-tagged photos with victims and witnesses, gotten signed affidavits, recorded and transcribed interviews. I have had to treat every case as if it would go before a judge, and so, I have put aside scores of unverifiable stories for every solid one that I am reporting. I have also had to take unbelievable risks to follow stories to their rock bottom.
After the NMA Gala, a couple of the judges in my category came to shake my hand and to commend me for having done all that of that work. Their congratulations, and the award from the NMA, and the kind reception I received from my journalist colleagues at the gala were a terrific validation and homecoming. And when I introduce myself to publishers, from now on I can and will do so not as a whistleblower but as an award-winning investigative journalist.

I was thrilled for Virgil winning the National Magazine Award. I don’t think there are many writers who have suffered—literally suffered, physically and spiritually—as much as Virgil did for this story. On a different plane, I was pleased to see him win because it reinforces our overall message to Virgil, which is that he has a unique talent he is meant to pursue. And so when he won I could only say, Bravo, but this is just the beginning!
Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine

 
NMAF: When will we be able to read the entire story in your book? Have you been able to complete your journey that you started all those years ago, to finally illuminate the truth about Indonesia’s reconstruction?
Virgil Grandfield: To paraphrase a saying from Texas, where I grew up, “It’s all over but the writin’.”
On the very last day of my search in Indonesian in 2015, by a series of investigative miracles, I found a family I had been searching for half a decade. They told me the heartbreaking tale that will form the first and last chapters of the book.
I am now finishing coursework for a graduate program at the University of Lethbridge, with a research focus in Narrative and Social Justice. After that, I will get right to work full-time on the book. I don’t know if it is possible, but I would like to publish the book in early 2018. That will be the 10-year anniversary of a crucial moment in my life when I had to decide whether or not I was in the Red Cross for the career or to help people. It was also when I had to answer whose side I was going to be on—that of the powerful or that of the powerless.
In the decade since then, I have learned the hard way that I cannot force a resolution. I am too small. What I can do, however, is investigate and try to tell the whole story of what really happened in Aceh. I must do that.
What comes afterwards will be up to the rest of you.


Virgil Grandfield is a National Magazine Award-winning investigative journalist and a former overseas delegate for the Red Cross. He is doing graduate work in social justice and literary non-fiction at the University of Lethbridge and is writing a book about labour trafficking in Indonesia during Red Cross post-tsunami reconstruction work. 
Read the original story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges from the National Magazine Awards archive.
The opinions and perspectives presented in this interview reflect those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the National Magazine Awards Foundation, its board or staff.
Virgil Grandfield’s National Magazine Award-winning story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges magazine was a work of first-person, narrative journalism which does not customarily bear the same requirements as standard news reporting for obtaining official replies from all concerned parties. Nonetheless, Virgil has emphasized that although in November, 2008, the secretariat of the Canadian Red Cross officially terminated all communication with him concerning the tsunami slave trafficking scandal, the organization has been offered multiple opportunities to respond to his findings and those of other journalists. Virgil has also said that he continues to welcome any initiative by Canadian Red Cross to reverse its decision not to communicate with him about the findings of his and others’ investigations.
Interview by Richard A. Johnson for the National Magazine Awards Foundation
The nominees for the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards will be announced on April 20. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Twitter @MagAwards for all the news.

Holiday Magazine Subscription Guide


Looking for that perfect (okay, perfect last-minute) stocking stuffer? Do they love to read, laugh, cook or shop? Do they love great writing, photography and illustration? Then stuff a great, National Magazine Award-winning magazine in that stocking. Here are some of our favourites from 2016. (And for more ideas, check out our holiday book guide, with new books by NMA-winning writers.)
Maisonneuve
A quarterly magazine of arts, literature, ideas and culture, published in English in Montreal. You’ll find a great mix of new and established writers, artists and photojournalists packaged around award-winning design. A perfect magazine for an afternoon on the sofa or a long train ride home. Also, it’s Canada’s Magazine of the Year in 2016 (1 of 5 NMAs it won this year), so you know every issue is a must-read.
2 years (8 issues) for just $30
Ricardo
Absolutely required magazine reading for any foodie and aficionado of food culture. Ricardo won the National Magazine Awards for Best Brand and Best Service Editorial Package, and delivers recipes, dinner party plans and lots of other great ideas.
6 issues for $30, plus a gift, a free iPad edition, and 15% discount at the online store
Eighteen Bridges
Winner of 4 National Magazine Awards in 2016 including Essays and Investigative Reporting, this thought-provoking magazine of longform journalism published in Edmonton is consistent in introducing readers to Canada’s best writers and important stories.
4 issues for $26
CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries
Winner of the 2016 National Magazine Award for Fiction, CNQ publishes some of this country’s finest literary criticism, poetry, graphic works, and short fiction.
1 year (3 issues) for just $25
Vallum
Winner of the 2016 National Magazine Award for Poetry, Vallum is one of Canada’s very best publications for poetry and literary reviews, and regularly features Canada’s best poets as well as emerging ones.
1 year (2 issues) for $20
Globe Style Advisor
Also a winner of 4 National Magazine Awards in 2016 for its photography and design, Globe Style is one of our favourites for fashion and style journalism. Get it with your Globe & Mail subscription. And you can get award-winning Report on Business magazine, too.
Western Living
An award-winning magazine of design, decor, lifestyle and more, Western Living was a 2016 National Magazine Award winner and consistently delivers quality ideas that are in line with the latest and greatest trends.
1 year (10 issues) digitally for just $18
The Feathertale Review
A literary magazine dedicated to great humour (twice an NMA winner in that category), Feathertale makes a great gift for anyone who loves to laugh and enjoys the lighter side of CanLit.
1 year (4 issues) for $30
Cottage Life
A Canadian tradition in a magazine, Cottage Life is not only the perfect companion to country living in all four seasons, it mixes practical advice with award-winning journalism. Don’t go into the woods without it.
1 year all access print and digital for $30
Check out all the winners from the 2016 National Magazine Awards for more great gift ideas.


Submissions are now being accepted for the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards. Read all about it and enter at magazine-awards.com. Deadline January 20