Migrant Dreams, Connie Oakes Story, WSIB investigation honoured at 2017 Hillmans

From top: teams from TVO, the Toronto Star and APTN were recognized at the 2017 Hillman awards.

The plight of temporary foreign workers, a broken WSIB system and and the wrongful murder conviction of an Indigenous woman were the stories told by journalists honoured at the 2017 Canadian Hillman Prize for Journalism that took place March 30 in Toronto at the Drake Hotel.

Unifor representatives, including Unifor President Jerry Dias, were in attendance to help celebrate journalists making a difference in the lives of Canadians.

The 2017 prize, in part sponsored by Unifor, went to Min Sook Lee and Lisa Valencia-Svensson for their TVO documentary Migrant Dreams, which exposed the conditions of women toiling in Ontario greenhouses as part of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. These workers were brought over by recruiters who charged them thousands of dollars in illegal fees and would skim their wages, all while workers lived in often substandard housing and faced difficult working conditions. The team put their story out to the public even as they encountered threats of libel.

Two teams were also awarded honourable mentions that night.

The Toronto Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh was recognized for her investigations into serious problems at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. Mojtehedzadeh found a system with doctors who had never even met workers denying claims, patients with chronic stress treated differently than workers with physical disabilities, a drug claims system that was nearly impossible to navigate and other serious issues. As a result of her work, the WSIB has pledged to go over its drug policies and its treatment of workers with mental-health issues. Photographer Melissa Renwick, web designers Paul Watson and Cameron Tulk, video editor Kelsey Wilson and team editor Frances Kelly were also recognized for their work on the series.

Jorge Barrera was honoured for Quest for Innocence, the Connie Oakes Story, which he put together for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. The two-year long investigation culminated in the freeing of Oakes, a woman from the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan who was wrongfully convicted of murder solely based on the testimony of Wendy Scott, a woman with an IQ of 50. APTN was able to obtain footage from Scott’s police interrogation tapes, which shows Scott identifying three different people as the murderers. Executive producers Mark Blackburn and Francine Compton were also recognized for their role in the investigation.

Other speakers included Tzazna Miranda Leal from Justicia for Migrant Workers who spoke of the discrimination migrant workers face and badly needed reforms to the system, and Dias, who emphasized the need for government funding to help support the important work that journalists do.

The Sidney Hillman Foundation was started in 1950 in America, and in 2011 the first Canadian Hillman Prize was given out.

It is named after Sidney Hillman, an American labour leader who headed up the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.