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Concordia’s Institute for Investigative Journalism earns national recognition for Broken Promises project

July 21, 2021
By Robin Della Corte

iij-broken-promises-newsletter-2-768 Students of Concordia's Institute for Investigative Journalism.

In 2019, a consortium led by Concordia's Institute for Investigative journalism (IIJ) embarked on an ambitious nationwide project to map out why the water crisis continues in First Nations despite more than $1.74 billion in federal spending on water and wastewater systems. 

The results? Systemic racism is one of the main barriers.

“Broken Promises has created an awareness of issues still impacting First Nations communities across Canada,” said Darla Ponace, a student in the Indigenous Communication Arts program at the First Nations University, “That was really a step forward in the right direction.” 

The consortium found that First Nations leaders, engineers and residents face a series of obstacles to infrastructure improvements and maintenance that their counterparts in non-Indigenous communities do not—legacies of colonial structures, still in place and reinforced by decades of underfunding, as the documents revealed. 

The series was launched in Feb. 2021. The collaborative’s findings prompted debate in the House of Commons, calls for a federal investigation by the Southern Chiefs Organization and a campaign by Engineers Without Borders for fair pay for First Nations water operators. 

CJ_Loyola_Oct2017 The CJ building at Loyola Campus, home to the journalism program.

Now, the project has a won a Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) in the digital investigative category in the Central Region for one of the initial stories in its Broken Promises investigation.

The award-winning story was released in advance of the launch and reported by a team coordinated by the IIJ’s former managing editor, Annie Burns-Pieper. Reporters from Global News, APTN News, Concordia University and University of King’s College all contributed.

This award comes after the IIJ-led network won six awards and four nominations for its “Tainted Water” project, which revealed elevated lead levels in drinking water in cities nationwide, including the Grand Prix Judith-Jasmine, the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Data Journalism Award, the Atlantic Journalism Award for Enterprise Reporting and others. The IIJ was the first educational institution ever to be nominated for the Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. And the IIJ’s 2017 pilot project, “The Price of Oil,” garnered nine awards and award nominations.

“I’m really proud of the students, reporters and collaborators, and grateful to all the community members who shared their stories,” says Patti Sonntag (BA 00), director of the IIJ, about the “Broken Promises” project.

“It’s widely known that First Nations don’t get the best materials and contracts, but documenting and verifying it was difficult. With the guidance of First Nations engineers, researchers and leaders, the team was able to carry out the reporting despite the pandemic.”

“The more the department can provide spaces to train students to appropriately tell these stories, the better,” says David Secko, Chair of the Department of Journalism, who hopes the focus on these important issues will continue and acknowledges the hard work of everyone involved.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 project was restructured. Students, faculty and reporters had no option but to build community connections virtually. 

“Despite the barriers, Indigenous and non-indigenous students, journalists and researchers were able to forge relationships with community members and each other across vast distances,” says Sonntag.

“We’re looking forward to meeting again in person when the pandemic is over,” she adds.

Broken Promises features more than 50 published articles and three documentaries, with more stories to come.

Student experience

Ponace was among a select group of students who gathered in Montreal to design the consortium’s investigative approach in Dec. 2019. “Canada can now start rectifying their wrongdoing by making clean water a priority moving forward into the future,” she said, looking back.

Laurence Brisson Dubreuil (BA 20), one of ten IIJ fellows who worked together on the project in summer 2020, said “It was a huge responsibility to be trusted with these stories and I'm grateful to have been part of the team.”

She adds that the guidance and support of Burns-Pieper, Sonntag and the entire Broken Promises team was invaluable as everyone learned to run an investigation during a pandemic.

“As someone who wasn't used to spending so much time online, I never expected our team to bond the way that it did,” she says. “The topics we were dealing with were incredibly sensitive, so it was a huge source of comfort to know we had the support of one another.”

About the Institute for Investigative Journalism

The IIJ launched in June 2018 and is the first institute of its kind in Canada. The institute brings together students, researchers and journalists across the country to carry out large-scale investigations in the public interest.

Sonntag is an award-winning journalist and producer, a former managing editor in The New York Times' News Services division and Concordia’s first journalist-in-residence.


Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Journalism.

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