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Concordian nominated for five journalism awards

Aaron Derfel, health reporter with the Montreal Gazette, recognized for COVID-19 coverage
April 28, 2021
By Robin Della Corte

Middle-aged caucasian man against white background. Short-cropped brown hair and seafoam green tee-shirt. Aaron Derfel: “I’m truly humbled and honored to be in the company of so many outstanding journalists.” Photo by John Mahoney, the Montreal Gazette.

In recognition of his COVID-19 coverage with the Montreal Gazette, Concordia journalism faculty member Aaron Derfel (BA Journalism 06) is nominated for five prestigious journalism awards.

The nominations include a National Newspaper Award, the CJF Jackman Award for Excellence in Journalism, the Judith-Jasmin award in the Investigations category and the Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. On May 3, he was nominated for a Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) award in the Written News category.

“It’s a bit overwhelming really because I didn’t expect so many nominations,” says Derfel. “I’m truly humbled and honored to be in the company of so many outstanding journalists.”

Uncovering the story

Derfel is a part-time faculty member in the Department of Journalism, where he’s been teaching for 20 years.

He was one of the journalists who broke the story on the COVID-19 outbreak and the horrific conditions at the long-term care residence CHSLD Herron in Dorval last year.

“The scene described to me was so horrific and disturbing,” says Derfel, who received the information from a long time source in the medical community. “I asked the source to put me in touch with other sources and to help me obtain documents. I always like to base my reporting on documents.”

Derfel obtained several documents and interviewed many sources like family members of residents at the Herron, workers, managers and the West Island health authority.

After his story went live on April 10, 2020, he says the impact was immediate.

“Quebec’s Health Minister at the time, Danielle McCann, promised to look into the matter right away. Family members started pulling their residents out of the Herron after reading the story online. Montreal police showed up at the scene,” he recalls.

His final version of the story reflected that the death toll was much higher than the West Island health authority declared initially.

Premier François Legault, who had been giving daily news conferences for weeks, was supposed to have the day off on Saturday, but he announced he would hold a news conference to talk about the Herron.

“Legault confirmed the story and disclosed that the death toll was in fact higher than what I wrote: 31 fatalities at the 130-bed Herron in the span of about three weeks,” Derfel adds.

“As a reporter, I was relieved that my story was not incorrect, but at the same time I felt sickened to learn the death toll was higher.”

For his following story, he decided to dig deeper into the Herron, piecing together a chronology of the events leading to the abandonment of the residents and uncovering more details that raised questions about the government’s explanation about what had occurred there.

“There’s still much to learn about what happened at the Herron. Montreal police are continuing to investigate allegations of potential criminal negligence and a coroner will eventually hold a public inquest into the circumstances surrounding all the deaths — whether they were the direct result of COVID-19 or perhaps as a consequence of neglect.”

Derfel was also recognized for his daily Twitter threads over the course of the pandemic.

Inspiring students

“Aaron has been a bedrock of teaching journalism research methods and freedom of information requests to our students,” says journalism department chair David Secko.

“It is so nice to see his strong reporting recognized as he strives to keep everyone informed during the pandemic,” he says.

Derfel adds that he hopes to inspire his students and continues to encourage access-to-information requests in his classes.

“I love teaching in the department, and I believe this has made me a better reporter because I emphasize the fundamentals of reporting year after year,” Derfel says.

“Students inspire me, and I hope I’ve inspired them. Concordia has meant so much to me over the years.”

Find out more about the Department of Journalism.


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