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Concordia’s Institute for Investigative Journalism continues to win big for its Tainted H20 project

Recent accolades include the Grand Prix Judith-Jasmin and the first educational institution nomination for a Michener Award
May 13, 2020
Photo by Mackenzie Lad
Photo by Mackenzie Lad

Concordia’s Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ) is making headlines of a different sort these days — not for its hard-hitting investigations, but for high-profile recognition of its critically hailed Tainted H₂O project.

The investigation’s public-service journalism — which exposed high levels of lead and other contaminants in Canada’s drinking water — won an Atlantic Journalism Award in the Enterprise Reporting: Newspaper category on May 8. And less than a week earlier, on May 3, the project also won the Grand Prix Judith-Jasmin, the prestigious jury prize awarded by the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec.

In addition to earning Radio Television Digital News Association’s Dan McArthur Investigative Award (multi-platform category) and the 2020 Emerge Media Award in the Video Documentary category, the Tainted H₂O project is also a finalist for the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Data Journalism Award (the winner will be announced on May 30) and is a finalist for the Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism.

The IIJ submitted the project on behalf of all the universities, colleges and news organizations involved — and became the first educational institution to be nominated for a Michener, says IIJ director Patti Sonntag (BA 00).

“It is a testament to the ability of new journalists to learn and do quality research and reporting. I am incredibly proud of all that the teams across the country achieved by working together. It is moving to witness so many journalists going above and beyond as they carry out excellent public service reporting.”

A former managing editor of the News Services division for The New York Times, Sonntag returned to Concordia in 2016 when she was named the first journalist-in-residence in the university’s Department of Journalism.

The Price of Oil series

Shortly after, she was granted the Michener-Deacon Award for Education and launched The Price of Oil series. It brought together four universities and three media companies to uncover previously unreported toxic emissions from oil and gas facilities in Saskatchewan and Ontario.

The series garnered many awards and nominations, including an international Investigative Reporters and Editors award for student work and an honourable mention from the Canadian Hillman prize.

In 2018, Sonntag returned to Canada to found the IIJ at Concordia. The first of its kind in the country, the IIJ unites media organizations and journalism schools across the country to provide journalism students with practical training and to carry out large-scale investigations in the national public interest.

‘An incredible team of journalists has come together, from large and small communities’

Inspired by the success of The Price of Oil series, nine universities and several newsrooms — including the Toronto Star, Le Devoir, Regina Leader-Post, Global News, National Observer and Star Halifax/Vancouver — came together to carry out a group project coordinated by the IIJ.

Toronto Star investigative reporter Robert Cribb proposed to the group several investigations in the area of water, including lead in water. As the consortium began to work together, and based on the results of student reporting in the fall 2018 term, the group’s main focus narrowed to the topic of lead. This project became Tainted H2O.

The Tainted H₂O project involved more than 120 reporters, editors, students and faculty members and 10 partner media companies, making it the largest collaborative investigation in Canadian history. The project surveyed 900 homes in 34 communities coast-to-coast for the first phase of the project, with more than 220 hours of interviews recorded and 700 access-to-information requests filed.

The investigation found that older homes in Saskatoon, Regina and Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; and Montreal and certain areas of Gatineau, Quebec had lead levels comparable or higher than those measured in Flint, Michigan during its 2015 lead crisis.

While the IIJ has won much acclaim and awards for its Tainted H₂O project, the institute is not sitting on its laurels. On April 1, it launched Project Pandemic: Canada Reports on COVID-19, bringing together a dozen other universities and colleges to provide free reporting and hyperlocal maps that track COVID-19 infections to news organizations. The focus is on assisting local news organizations in underserved areas.

“At a time of crisis for the industry, it’s important that we support local journalists,” says Sonntag. “A regional map tracking infections is a great tool anyone can use.” (See an example posted by the Prince Albert Daily Herald.)

Dozens of news organizations have joined, including national broadcasters CTV and APTN, and news organizations such as the National Observer, Regina Leader-Post, Hamilton Spectator and La Presse.

Says Sonntag, “An incredible team of journalists has come together, from large and small communities. I am really excited to see what they can do next!”


The Rossy Foundation is the founding supporter of the Institute for Investigative Journalism.


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