The Toronto Star is Canada’s largest daily newspaper, with the largest readership in the country.
By Gordon Cressy
Throughout the many years I have spent in activism, I have witnessed tonight’s award recipient maintain a strong presence during moments of great moral challenge and great moral confusion. I have witnessed their swift and rightful responses in times of disgrace, when others have faltered.
For more than a century, this wonderful media organization has covered issues that should matter to any civil society. It has created concerns and brought awareness for the right kinds of topics. Not only that, but it has searched for alternative answers and alternative to our celebrity-saturated mainstream media, declaring, ‘No, this is what matters.’
I have come to heavily depend on its capacity to behave as a gauge for justice, its willingness to call out for attention whenever it sees the codes of equality being undermined. At a time of distrust, jingoism, parochialism and retreat from pluralist principles, most mainstream media depend on merely to beating the drums of sensationalism, driving groups and individuals into further fear and isolation. Not the Toronto Star.
It is with great honor that we present the Toronto Star with the Harmony Award for its relentless commitment to equality, intelligent discourse, anti-racism, civic engagement, and peace. This very commitment emanates from every page of the Star, with stories penned by an immensely diverse team of talented, diligent individuals including David Lewis Stein, Michele Landsberg, Haroon Siddiqui, Nicholas Keung, Linda McQuaig, and Royson James. And now, making history, Jagoda Pike has become both the first female and first immigrant to take on the role as publisher. As clearly shown, the Star’s commitment to diversity is not empty rhetoric; it is a commitment that is put into practice not only by the issues it values as newsworthy, but also by those whom it chooses to represent.
This gifted team embodies the standards of responsible, engaging, and engaged journalism, done with integrity and an unfaltering hope for a better world. And perhaps the Toronto Star could never have managed to attract such a high number of qualified, quality journalists were it not for Joseph E. Atkinson, the Star’s late publisher – who ran the newspaper from 1899 to 1948 – and who set in motion the ideas and values that have become synonymous with the publication.
The courageous Atkinson is the man credited for turning the dying, conservative newspaper into the blooming, forward-thinking daily that it is today – boasting a vast readership spanning far beyond the borders of Toronto.
Atkinson was a man of tremendous vision. The newspaper, he believed, should be used for the social good; it should perform a community function, meaning that it needed to act – first and foremost – in the interests of the citizens i served. As long ago as the early stages of the 1900s – when Atkinson first took over the reins of the paper – he was already speaking the language of justice that we now take for granted.
The Atkinson Principles, for instance, is a set of guidelines he developed. Atkinson felt it was imperative that a large city newspaper, lik/romeo%20da;;aire explore, its stories becoming a launching ground for people to demand change in the face of injustice.
The examples of its outstanding content are endless.
The Star could be counted on to document the outcry that resulted after W5, a televisions newsmagazine program which broadcasted the infamous “Campus Giveaway” story. The story argued that Canadian universities were facing a crisis; namely, that ‘foreigners’ were taking the places of Canadian students. In making this claim, however, W5 used examples of Chinese citizens who were either born in, or were legal citizens of, Canada – serving as reinforcement of the racist view that non-white citizens did not constitute ‘real’ Canadians.
The Star could also be counted on to report on the various struggles that immigrants and refugees to Canada have had to experience: housing discrimination; difficulties in finding employment that honored their dignity and professional backgrounds; emotional pains in adjusting to their new country; subjection to bigotry in their daily lives.
It can be counted on to demonstrate to Canadians the degree to which the nation’s economic, cultural, and political health is fuelled by the various waves of newcomers that enter each year, advocating for inclusive immigration policies and discouraging the scourge of xenophobia that encumbers the development of any dynamic and just society.
The Star could be counted on to counteract the post-9/11 climate of Islamophobia, by drawing our attention to the people that our nation failed – such as Maher Arar – while also featuring the accomplishments of members of Muslim communities who have offered thought-provoking, incisive responses to this discrimination.
It could be counted on to take on an advocacy role when it launched a brave inquiry into allegations indicating that some actions of the Toronto Police were motivated by racism. The inquiry discovered that police treated African Canadians harsher than whites. This report was long overdue, serving as a document that black communities would later use in their fight against racial profiling.
It could be counted on to remind us of the cruelty of human history. Recently, Royson James was sent to do a story in Ghana, exploring the history of the slave trade in order to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of one of the “most brutal and destructive institutions in history.” Gifted with a natural aptitude for compelling prose, James recounted his journey with twenty-one other Canadians – themselves descendants of the slave trade – who were determined to make sense of the excruciating struggles of their ancestors and to reconnect with their roots. And this journey, readers discovered, came with its own tremendous emotional toll.
The Star can be counted on to remind us of the continuing legacies of colonialism in our own country, tracking the struggles that exist of First Nations communities today: from issues of land claims and fishing rights, to issues of systemic poverty and daily discrimination. And, most recently, it could be counted on to shed light on the recent racist assaults on Asian fishermen in Ontario, which have consisted of angry local residents attacking anglers of Asian descent.
Finally, it can be counted to put Atkinson’s principles into practice, in a quiet rather than a loud way. Whether it’s through Fresh Air or Santa Claus Funds, or any of the employee-driven United Way campaigns, the newspaper can be counted to give back to the community it serves.
The Harmony Movement – on behalf of all justice-loving Canadians – would like to congratulate the Toronto Star for helping to forge the world that so many of us desire – for making our communities safer, kinder, and more inclusive of the differences which animate human lives. Because the Toronto Star has been involved in improving the lives of ordinary citizens for so long, this award can only be a small token of our appreciation.
In a world of newspapers with names like Ledger, Chronicle, or Tribune, our recipient tonight is most aptly named. We have always relied on the stars for direction, energy, light, and sense of place. There is perhaps no better descriptor for the virtues of this fine publication than its own namesake.
Gordon Cressy is a co-founder of Harmony Movement. A visionary and agent of change, Gordon has been building community at local, national and international levels for over forty years.