CCNAwards Showcase: 2023 Outstanding Reporter Initiative

The Canadian Community Newspaper Awards (CCNAwards) honour outstanding work in editorial, photography, multimedia and overall excellence in community newspaper publishing across the country.

Congratulations to the CCNAwards first place winner for 2023 Outstanding Reporter Initiative, The Eastern Graphic’s Paul MacNeill and Rachel Collier!

Said one judge: “A clear winner due to the massive amount of work and dedication required by this two-person newsroom to publish this series looking at addiction and mental health in Prince Edward Island. A series with impact.”

Read the winning entry below:

The Eastern Graphic’s groundbreaking investigation, Through the Cracks, began in earnest in December 2020, shortly after Charlottetown City Police blocked entrance to a tunnel that for many years acted as meeting place, safe haven and community defined safer injection site for some of Prince Edward Island’s most vulnerable citizens.

Politicians paid lip service of support, but no programs were enhanced or new services added to support the more than 50 Islanders displaced by closure of ‘The Cave’.

Publisher/Editor Paul MacNeill met with Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Rachel Collier, and told her that the Graphic would tell the story of mental health and addiction on PEI. They are issues that impact a huge number of families, but have never been told with a focus on lived experience as it relates to government programming.

We had two primary goals:

  1. Put a face to the issue by telling stories through the voice of those living with mental health and addiction
  2. Hold government accountable for a system that is chronically underfunded and structurally dysfunctional.

We committed to not publish until we could tell the whole story.

Over the course of a year we interviewed dozens of policy experts, politicians, bureaucrats, community leaders, and service providers. We combed public databases and filed freedom of information requests.

The heart and soul of Through the Cracks, published over four Wednesdays in March, were profiles of Islanders impacted by a failing system.

Building trust was not easy; these are residents who have been lied to and let down routinely by the system. It was a lengthy and significant accomplishment to win their trust, with the result being gritty, often searing, but dignified profiles.

Within hours of the first issue hitting the street its impact was felt. Both opposition parties quizzed government on what we reported (this happened every week of the series).

Week 1: Premier Dennis King stood in the Legislature and promised to fix how Islanders access publicly funded alcohol and opioid addiction treatments. Weeks later $4 million in new money was announced to make PEI the first province to fully fund such treatment. In its first year, this program benefitted more than 1,000 Islanders. Premier King has stated: “Without the Through the Cracks series, this initiative may never have come to fruition.”

Week 4: Then Attorney General Bloyce Thompson responded to a profile of Jason Sark, an Indigenous Islander who suffered a miscarriage of justice at the hands of the PEI justice system, with a promise to do what no one else would – apologize.

Soon after, Thompson, without handlers, sat across from Sark in a talking circle. First, he listened to Sark tell his story, then he apologized on behalf of the Government of PEI. It is the first time in Island history a provincial cabinet minister has apologized to an Indigenous Islander for mistreatment received from the justice system.

In a cabinet shuffle shortly after the series published, the minister of Social Development and Housing was demoted to the backbenches. His replacement was given the mandate to make all change necessary to build a more effective system.

Native Council of PEI credits MacNeill and Collier’s reporting with elevating NCPEI’s credibility with government, resulting in funding for new shelter beds and other programming, including being contracted to operate a new six-bed shelter for men in Summerside.

Chief Lisa Cooper says the series spurred many positive benefits, not the least of which being finding housing for 13 clients, including Kayla Gifford and Caitlin Alder, a couple featured in Week 2.

Paul MacNeill and Rachel Collier did not set out to publish the largest investigative effort ever undertaken by an Island media, but they went where the story took them. In the end, more than 50 pages (ad-free) and 40,000+ words were published. The series generated massive public and political reaction and generated discussion and debate across the province. For weeks, PEI’s political leaders, leading daily newspaper and the CBC were forced to follow the Graphic’s reporting. Click the links below to read the four Through the Cracks features:

Click here to view all 2023 CCNAwards Outstanding Reporter Initiative category winners.