Off the Page, with investigative journalist Virgil Grandfield

Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview we chat with freelance journalist Virgil Grandfield, who won the 2016 National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting.

In his award-winning investigative story “The Cage” (Eighteen Bridges) Virgil Grandfield describes one particular day of his multi-year investigation into human trafficking allegedly linked to Red Cross humanitarian efforts in Indonesia, post-tsunami. “Eva” is his assistant; “Mulyo” is a labour agent who may have been involved in human trafficking; “Otong” is a worker who disappeared while working on a Red Cross project and was allegedly murdered while trying to escape.


NMAF: In 2008, you decided to resign your position as spokesperson for the Red Cross / Red Crescent reconstruction efforts in Indonesia’s Aceh province. The international community had poured millions into rebuilding the region after the 2004 tsunami and 2005 earthquake, and from your position you were able to observe human trafficking creeping into the humanitarian project. How did you start down this road?

Virgil Grandfield: I was spokesperson for all Red Cross Red Crescent tsunami relief operations in Aceh in 2005-2006. In that time, I was proud of our work there. Only when I returned to Aceh in 2007-2008 as a delegate for the Canadian Red Cross did I uncover evidence of an epidemic of modern slavery in our housing reconstruction operations.

Before I go on, I should say that when describing the focus of my investigations in Aceh, I never use the term “corruption.” That word can sometimes be racially loaded, and too vague, subjective and misleading. As you mentioned, what I found on Red Cross and other tsunami projects in Indonesia was the very specific and clearly-defined crime of human trafficking—a discovery that rocked me to my core, in part because I immediately understood that it was our own fault. We had lost our way. 

In short, the British, Canadian, Australian and American Red Cross had decided that rather than working with local people to rebuild, they would take a massive short cut and outsource all of our reconstruction projects to private contractors. Agents working for those contractors brought in tens of thousands of workers to our projects from more than 2,000 km away in Java. The agents and contractors deceived the workers, stole their pay and forced them to work against their will, often as outright slaves in squalid, malaria-ridden labour camps and often provided them little more than one bowl of rice per day.

This happened to virtually all of the thousands of construction workers on Red Cross and other tsunami rebuilding projects. It was the second, secret disaster of Aceh.

 

 

"The Cage" by Virgil Grandfield, Eighteen Bridges, Winter 2015. Two girls sit at the graves of their mother and father, who died because of trafficking on a British Red Cross tsunami project. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)
“The Cage” by Virgil Grandfield, Eighteen Bridges, Winter 2015. Two girls sit at the graves of their mother and father, who died because of trafficking on a British Red Cross tsunami project. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)

 

NMAF: What was the breaking point for you, and why did you decide to become a whistle-blower?

Virgil Grandfield: When I first discovered and confirmed the trafficking problem, I was really sad and angry. Another worker had died of malaria in one of our project camps the day before I had arrived there. And yet, management was refusing even to allow us to provide bed nets or spray for mosquitos in our camps, claiming the workers were not our responsibility. They had become so focused on material results—numbers of housing completions—they had totally ignored the humanity of the workers on our projects.

I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.”

At the risk of losing my amazing career, I kept investigating and demanding action. Management agreed to look into the issue, but only interviewed the contractors and agents, the very men who had been doing the trafficking. They never spoke with the workers. After an incident where some of our workers were beaten by a local mob accusing them of stealing some jewelry to pawn in order to escape, I broke protocol and informed the Canadian Red Cross board of governors of the trafficking and implied that if we did not act within the month, I would go public. Only then did management approve anti-malarial measures in worker camps. They also promised me they would begin a feeding program for the workers and would hire the Ernst & Young auditing firm to do a more thorough investigation. And, I was offered a new contract and a possibly a promotion, on the condition that I drop the worker issue.

I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”

A few months later, I heard from one of my former field officers that our head of mission in Aceh had interfered in the auditors’ investigation when he gave the contractors weeks of advance warning, and had tried to restrict the auditors to only two of our twenty-two housing projects. I also learned that the Red Cross also never implemented the promised feeding program for our workers. And although the auditing firm Ernst & Young confirmed my findings, Red Cross refused to consider compensating the victims.

That was the last straw for me. I resigned my Red Cross Overseas Delegate status and eventually leaked the story to a producer at Radio Canada in Montreal where I had done a graduate program in journalism at Concordia University.

A relative of a Red Cross worker who was trafficked on tsunami projects and died. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)
A relative of a Red Cross worker who was trafficked on tsunami projects and died. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)

 

NMAF: Having made the bold move to resign, you launched your own investigation, returning to Indonesia not as a delegate but as an independent journalist? How did you manage that?

Virgil Grandfield: Radio-Canada said they needed more proof of the trafficking before sending a team to Indonesia to investigate and film a documentary—an investment of at least $100,000. So, a year after I had resigned, I mortgaged my home in Alberta to fund a more thorough, preliminary investigation. I returned to Indonesia in 2009-2010, rented vehicles and equipment and enlisted teams of human rights workers—and at one point, even a local mafia boss—to help me find hundreds of Javanese labourers who had been trafficked on Red Cross tsunami projects in Aceh.

The evidence and video testimonies we took from those victims and scores of witnesses were enough to convince Radio Canada to send their own investigative team to Indonesia. Unfortunately, after their documentary “The Forgotten Workers” was broadcast on Radio Canada and CBC in March 2010, Canadian Red Cross denied all findings and shut the issue down. And it seemed like Canadians just kind of shrugged.

I was devastated, and it took me a long time to recover.

 

NMAF: In “The Cage” you describe a second journey you made to Indonesia in the summer of 2015 to meet a man named Mulyo, who may have been a trafficker of slave labour during the Red Cross reconstruction. You put your own life (and that of your assistant, Eva) at risk just to try to gain access to some of the workers who were exploited. What was the significance of that particular journey, and what did you expect to discover that day?

A man who was trafficked and worked on Red Cross reconstruction projects in Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)
A man who was trafficked and worked on Red Cross reconstruction projects in Aceh, Indonesia. (Photo: Virgil Grandfield / Eighteen Bridges)

Virgil Grandfield: In 2015, with a little money from a writer’s grant and an income tax rebate, I headed back to Indonesia to try again. This time I could only afford to hire one person to help me, not whole teams. During my first investigation five years before, I had met families of men who had died on Red Cross projects or while trying to escape. I promised some of those families I would try to find the graves of their dead fathers, sons and husbands. So, this time, instead of searching for hundreds of surviving victims, my assistant and I would only search for the dead.

My assistant Eva (not her real name) is a gutsy, smart elementary school teacher about the size of a half sack of potatoes. She started searching for leads in North Sumatra even before I arrived. She found a labour agent named Mulyo (also not his real name) who claimed that 160 of his workers had been forced to work at gunpoint on an American Red Cross tsunami project.

Mulyo had told Eva that one of those workers, a young man named Otong, had been murdered by his guards, likely as a warning after trying to escape the project with a group of 30 other workers. Soon after my first meeting with Mulyo, Eva and I began to suspect that he himself had been a guilty party in the trafficking of Otong and the other men.

We tried to gain Mulyo’s trust, and that meant we had to give him our trust, too. We stayed in his home. We brought him gifts. We even went night fishing with him a few times at a kind of gambler’s pond where everyone treated Mulyo like the Godfather. We kept telling Mulyo we had to meet Otong’s co-workers in order to verify his story and perhaps find a way to meet and help his surviving family. Mulyo kept making excuses for not taking us to the surviving victims. Eventually, though, he said he was ready to take us to meet Otong’s former co-workers. But, he said we would have to go alone with him.

Eva and I knew there were two possibilities: either Mulyo had decided to try to help us, or he had decided to take us out somewhere to get rid of us once and for all—to kill us. If it was the first, we would be that much closer to getting the story that might finally get people to understand and care about this issue, a story that might shock the American public in a way that had not happened in Canada.

I had spent years of my life fighting this battle. I had sacrificed the career I had loved. I felt I had little left to lose and that I had come too far to fail. Getting to the bottom of this particular story about the murder of one worker might be my only way to finally get publishers and readers to care about the bigger story. And because the stakes were so high and there had only been denial on the part of the Red Cross, getting this story second or third-hand was not going to work. I had to meet the eyewitnesses—starting with the men who had also been trafficked—and record their stories. The only way to do that was to trust Mulyo.

I was prepared to risk death. The more important question was whether Eva understood the danger and was willing to make the same gamble. That is the moment at which our story “The Cage” begins, when Eva answers that she also was not afraid to die. It would not be the last time she would say that, in even more dangerous situations.

It felt important that this story reach Eighteen Bridges readers, for two reasons: First, because I felt our audience and the wider audience that might come across the story would greatly enjoy and benefit from Virgil’s mix of compelling storytelling and scrupulous moral inquiry. Second, because we at Eighteen Bridges really do believe in the power of the written word to open eyes and enact change, and it would have been wrong not to publish Virgil’s story.
Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine

 

NMAF: “The Cage” is now one chapter in a larger book project you have planned about the Red Cross reconstruction in Indonesia. On the one hand, your investigation focuses on the large-scale labour trafficking involving thousands of Indonesians who essentially became slaves to the agents and contractors who pocketed large sums of humanitarian funds. And then you’re also trying to unravel the mystery of the murder of Otong. What is it about his death that you think illuminates a piece of the larger investigation?

Virgil Grandfield: One problem I have had in speaking with literary agents was that they did not think this issue would be relevant to Canadians. They also said the fact I was a former employee of the Canadian Red Cross might create legal problems or doubts about motivations. Also, when I spoke to people in Canada about the trafficked workers, they just didn’t get it. Everyone has that uncle or brother-in-law who has been stiffed on a job. No big deal. And quite frankly, when people hear the numbers—that up to half a million men were trafficked on tsunami projects—they tune out because it sounds like statistics.

So, when I returned to Indonesia in 2015, I decided firstly that I would not look for any more victims from Canadian Red Cross tsunami projects—not even one. I would only look for victims from other Red Cross or UN or other tsunami projects. Americans have not yet heard about this scandal, and neither has the rest of the world..

Secondly, this time I wanted to investigate and tell, as well as I could, the story of just a few victims—people who had died because of the trafficking. I wanted readers to really feel and understand how horrible this thing was, how cruel and deadly it had been for humanitarian agencies to turn their operations over to profiteers and criminals and look the other way and even cover things up.

So, I thought the story of one man—among tens of thousands of tsunami slaves in Aceh—being murdered for trying to escape an American Red Cross tsunami project might get that point across. This was not your uncle being cheated for work he did on someone’s house. It was outright slavery and even murder. And I believed then as I do now that people will care more about one or two or three persons whom they feel they know than they will about thousands they don’t.

 

NMAF: “The Cage” ends with a bit of cliffhanger—Mulyo points you towards people who might know about the fate of Otong, but he advises you against speaking to them. Without giving too much away from your forthcoming book, have you since discovered more of the truth about Mulyo and Otong?

Virgil Grandfield: Mulyo eventually did take us to meet Otong’s co-workers, the witnesses to his murder. After telling us the story of their own ordeal as tsunami slaves and their escape from an American Red Cross project, they drew us a map. Eva and I then used the map to go on a kind of “Heart of Darkness” journey to follow the investigation of Otong’s murder to its end. What we experienced and discovered will be thrilling and mind-blowing to readers: a cat-and-mouse story of facing and narrowly escaping death—in typhoons and at gunpoint—in order to investigate and solve a crime implicating those in the “whited sepulchers” of Ottawa, London, Melbourne and Washington D.C. as much as anywhere else..

Eva and I are both currently writing those chapters for a section of the book called “The Map.” Using a mix of narrative and raw transcripts, we have also recently finished putting together an experimental work of literary non-fiction called “The Monument,” about a man and wife who were victims of trafficking on a British Red Cross project.

And, we will soon be writing our third main section of the book about keeping a promise I had made five years earlier to find the grave of one Javanese family’s father and husband who had died because of trafficking on an Australian Red Cross tsunami project. Our two-month search for his grave took us to an island where as many people died because of labour trafficking on tsunami reconstruction projects as died in the tsunami itself.

 

NMAF: At the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala, you accepted your award for “The Cage” on stage with a passionate call for critical Canadian attention to humanitarian relief and reconstruction projects, and the gaps in the system that enable corruption and trafficking. Can you talk a bit about your vision for a better system of oversight and implementation of these projects?

Virgil Grandfield: I was so utterly shocked and grateful to win the award at the NMA gala. I had originally written “The Cage” as a chapter for my book, so, I felt it was a fragment at best. Other stories in my category were more complete, I thought, and more polished, and by excellent and well-known journalists. But, I also figured that in the very remote case I did win, I had better be ready to speak. I told myself: “You carry a lot of responsibility, Virgil. You have fought for a long time to uncover and get the truth out. And you might have only this one chance to say some important things.”

In my speech, I thanked Eva and other people like her who have over the years risked their lives with me to investigate this story for little or no reward. I acknowledged the pain the family members of the victims had to endure in opening old wounds to tell me their stories. I spoke of the trust those families put in me, and through me, the trust they were putting in Canadians to finally make things right.

I also reminded my colleagues at the NMA gala that Aceh was not the first tragic misadventure the Red Cross has had in outsourcing its humanitarian responsibilities. Thousands of Canadians lives were ruined or lost because of the HIV or Hepatitis they contracted from the tainted blood bought by the Red Cross from American prisons in the 1980s. Not only did the Canadian Red Cross deny that problem and refuse to take responsibility for its victims in the Tainted Blood Scandal. It also refused to clean house after it was censured by the Krever Report.

Virgil Grandfield accepts the National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting at the 2016 NMA Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)
Virgil Grandfield accepts the National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting at the 2016 NMA Gala in Toronto. (Photo: Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)

 

NMAF: What do you think Canadians should expect of the money and goodwill that they and their government contribute overseas?

Virgil Grandfield: At certain times, even our most noble institutions fail.. Yes, there is something very broken in the world now, and that was and is the deeper problem. Neo-liberal organizations like the WTO and World Bank have been forcing the poorest countries to do away with protections for their most vulnerable workers. So they share responsibility for what happened in Aceh.

But the labour trafficking scandal in the Aceh reconstruction was also due to a massive failure of humanitarian leadership. The directors of the Red Cross, for example, deliberately chose—against all of our stated principles—to use a deeply-flawed and inhumane outsourcing system, instead of working with local people to rebuild. And they chose to continue to do so, even when they became aware of the trafficking. The agencies had too much money, their boards were in too much of a hurry, and their managers acted in ways that were ambitious, heartless or blind.

The great danger for humanitarian organizations—especially the large, well-funded ones—is that they work in places where institutional corruption and failures of leadership can have immense and deadly consequences. Even at the field level, professional aid workers can also let themselves become divided from their own compassion and humanitarian principles and responsibilities. They focus on careers and promotions and perks, and because there is no job security in humanitarian work, they don’t rock the boat. They turn the other way, or compromise with corruption, or cover things up.

I reported what I had found to management in Aceh and Ottawa. They warned me to drop the issue. One told me that I was “too close to the people,” and said I had a choice: “You can either be with us, or you can be on the side of the workers.

And meanwhile, the media give them a free pass, as if they are somehow better than normal, flawed humans. Reporters never ask hard questions, don’t investigate, and when told the truth, like most Canadians, they don’t want to believe. But the stakes are so high and the dangers and consequences of failure so prevalent and drastic, especially for vulnerable people like Otong and countless others.

That is why the press must be far, far more curious, independent and critical. You must seek out the powerless, the voiceless workers and others in our projects, and ask them for the truth. You will only help prevent more human-made disasters and save more lives.

As for oversight and implementation, the so-called “Aceh Model” of privatizing humanitarian work has been touted as a huge success to be emulated in other disaster zones. That is an outrageous and inestimably dangerous lie that must be refuted at every level and opportunity. Everyone living in Aceh saw the disaster we caused there by outsourcing our projects; we caused far more harm and pain than would have been if we had never gone there. Only smaller, community-minded organizations refused to take the easy, outsourcing path, and only they avoided the trafficking disaster.

Unfortunately, after disasters, Canadians give the vast majority of their donations to the Red Cross—an organization which at its best only handles first stage relief work. There are other organizations which specialize in actual reconstruction work which is done with communities, and I am certain that some have better leadership than the Red Cross, at least right now. Canadians must demand that the Red Cross clear out anyone involved in the Aceh or the Tainted Blood scandals. Our government must legislate open-book auditing requirements for any agencies receiving public funds, diversify disaster funding to include small organizations through a national umbrella funding agency, and establish a related but fully-independent unit of anti-trafficking investigators and project evaluators, as well as independent ombudspersons for humanitarian sector whistleblowers.

Aid organizations must establish an international convention on standards for payment and living conditions for all workers on humanitarian projects and must ban outsourcing in all relief and reconstruction work. I mean, why use the worst, least-humane business practices for what is supposed to be the noblest of human endeavors–to help others?

And finally, it is my personal hope that we find and compensate at least some of the families of those men and women who died because of our gross negligence in Indonesia. We cannot fix the huge mess we created, but at least we can try to help those most harmed by our mistakes. It is our unfinished business.

 

NMAF: Can you talk a bit about the process of having Eighteen Bridges publish this story and help it gain a larger audience? And what has been the significance to you of winning the National Magazine Award?

Virgil Grandfield: At the NMA Gala, I also thanked Curtis Gillespie for his faith and support as an editor and mentor, and for his uncommon courage in publishing a story others would be afraid to touch. Without Curtis and his terrific team and the supporters of Eighteen Bridges, you and I would not be doing this interview.

As for the award’s significance, I think it will help me get over a huge wall that has blocked me and my work for years. People have called me a “whistleblower”; there is even a Wikipedia entry to that effect about me. It is something that can be a badge of honour, but in my case, the label is not quite right, not anymore, at least.

A whistleblower is someone who tells the public what he or she learned while on “the inside.” I did discover the tsunami slave trafficking scandal while employed by the Red Cross, but 99 percent of what I know about the story is what I dug up often at extreme effort and cost—only after I resigned.

Before I worked for the Red Cross, I was a journalist. The skills I had learned as a reporter helped me to first sniff out the problem in Aceh, and I have relied on those skills in all my work in the region since. I have done hundreds of interviews and asked thousands of questions. I have done endless research. I have triple-checked every fact and cross-verified every story. I have geo-tagged photos with victims and witnesses, gotten signed affidavits, recorded and transcribed interviews. I have had to treat every case as if it would go before a judge, and so, I have put aside scores of unverifiable stories for every solid one that I am reporting. I have also had to take unbelievable risks to follow stories to their rock bottom.

After the NMA Gala, a couple of the judges in my category came to shake my hand and to commend me for having done all that of that work. Their congratulations, and the award from the NMA, and the kind reception I received from my journalist colleagues at the gala were a terrific validation and homecoming. And when I introduce myself to publishers, from now on I can and will do so not as a whistleblower but as an award-winning investigative journalist.

I was thrilled for Virgil winning the National Magazine Award. I don’t think there are many writers who have suffered—literally suffered, physically and spiritually—as much as Virgil did for this story. On a different plane, I was pleased to see him win because it reinforces our overall message to Virgil, which is that he has a unique talent he is meant to pursue. And so when he won I could only say, Bravo, but this is just the beginning!
Curtis Gillepsie, editor-in-chief, Eighteen Bridges magazine

 

NMAF: When will we be able to read the entire story in your book? Have you been able to complete your journey that you started all those years ago, to finally illuminate the truth about Indonesia’s reconstruction?

Virgil Grandfield: To paraphrase a saying from Texas, where I grew up, “It’s all over but the writin’.”

On the very last day of my search in Indonesian in 2015, by a series of investigative miracles, I found a family I had been searching for half a decade. They told me the heartbreaking tale that will form the first and last chapters of the book.

I am now finishing coursework for a graduate program at the University of Lethbridge, with a research focus in Narrative and Social Justice. After that, I will get right to work full-time on the book. I don’t know if it is possible, but I would like to publish the book in early 2018. That will be the 10-year anniversary of a crucial moment in my life when I had to decide whether or not I was in the Red Cross for the career or to help people. It was also when I had to answer whose side I was going to be on—that of the powerful or that of the powerless.

In the decade since then, I have learned the hard way that I cannot force a resolution. I am too small. What I can do, however, is investigate and try to tell the whole story of what really happened in Aceh. I must do that.

What comes afterwards will be up to the rest of you.


Virgil Grandfield is a National Magazine Award-winning investigative journalist and a former overseas delegate for the Red Cross. He is doing graduate work in social justice and literary non-fiction at the University of Lethbridge and is writing a book about labour trafficking in Indonesia during Red Cross post-tsunami reconstruction work. 

Read the original story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges from the National Magazine Awards archive.

The opinions and perspectives presented in this interview reflect those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the National Magazine Awards Foundation, its board or staff.

Virgil Grandfield’s National Magazine Award-winning story “The Cage” in Eighteen Bridges magazine was a work of first-person, narrative journalism which does not customarily bear the same requirements as standard news reporting for obtaining official replies from all concerned parties. Nonetheless, Virgil has emphasized that although in November, 2008, the secretariat of the Canadian Red Cross officially terminated all communication with him concerning the tsunami slave trafficking scandal, the organization has been offered multiple opportunities to respond to his findings and those of other journalists. Virgil has also said that he continues to welcome any initiative by Canadian Red Cross to reverse its decision not to communicate with him about the findings of his and others’ investigations.

Interview by Richard A. Johnson for the National Magazine Awards Foundation

The nominees for the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards will be announced on April 20. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Twitter @MagAwards for all the news.

Our thanks to all NMA40 Submitters! Let the Judging Commence

The submissions to the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards are in, and we are excited to have over 1000 submissions and 197 Canadian magazines represented in this year’s program, competing for awards in 25 categories.

Our thanks to all of the publishers, editors, art directors and creators who submitted their work this year, especially to the more than 200 freelancers who participated.

The National Magazine Awards Foundation strives above all to represent and support the work of Canada’s creators. It’s why, for forty years now, we have facilitated an awards program that celebrates the excellence, determination and innovation that characterize the best of our country’s journalism.

Now we turn to our judges—120 of the leading experts in magazine publishing, design and creation from across Canada and the world—to lend their expertise in service to their peers.

The role of the judges is central to the NMAs. Their judgment, perspectives and integrity represent the very best of journalism, too. Their appraisal of these submissions will not only reward the individuals and teams who’ve achieved success, but it will also become the measure by which our future work is appreciated by readers and audiences across the country. The NMAF offers its sincerest thanks to all of our judges for taking on this important role.

How does judging work? Great question. We believe all awards programs should be clear and transparent about their judging procedures, and our goal has always been the same. That’s why we publish our Judging Process–so you know exactly what the judges are looking for when they review your entry to the National Magazine Awards.

The nominations for the 40th Anniversary National Magazine Awards will be announced on April 20.

Subscribe to our MagAwards Blog or Newsletter to receive the nominations to your inbox, and follow us on Twitter @MagAwards for updates throughout the spring, including the announcement of the 40th Anniversary National Magazine Awards Gala. Awards in Writing and Visual categories include a cash prize of $1000.

The NMAF is also accepting nominations for the Outstanding Achievement Award and the new International Impact Award. Deadline March 1.

Thank you for participating in the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards. We look forward to a great year ahead, Celebrating Canadian Creators.

Enter: 2017 NMA Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement

The National Magazine Awards Foundation is calling for nominations for the 2017 Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement, presented annually to an individual whose creativity and innovation over the course of their career have made a significant impact on the Canadian magazine industry.

Previous winners include Kim Pittaway, Kim Jernigan, Michael Fox, Stephen Trumper, Heather Robertson, Stephen Osborne, Jean Paré, Sally Armstrong, and more.

Nominations are welcome from anyone working in Canadian magazines, and must consist of:

  • A letter of nomination, including a brief bio of the nominee and a summary of their career achievements;
  • At least two (2) supporting letters from other individuals in the Canadian magazine industry or colleagues of the nominee.

There is no cost to nominate someone for the Outstanding Achievement Award.

Nominations are due by March 1, 2017 and can be emailed as a PDF to staff@magazine-awards.com or sent by mail to:
National Magazine Awards Foundation
2300 Yonge St, Suite 1600
Toronto, ON, M4P 1E4

The winner will be announced in April and will be presented with their award on stage at the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala.

For more information visit magazine-awards.com/oa

Story Board: Canadian freelancers turn to the US market to secure higher-paying gigs

This post is part of a series called “E-Lancer Writes,” exploring the working conditions, rights and collective organizing strategies of freelance journalists, interns and other low-wage or temporary digital media workers. Originally published on The Story Board and re-posted here with permission. By Errol Salamon.

When Canadian-based freelancer Katherine O’Brien started working as a web content and blog writer, she hadn’t made a conscious decision to publish with US companies to make a decent living.

Yet for over a year and a half, O’Brien has written mostly for companies south of the Canadian border, specializing in senior care, health and aging. O’Brien said it’s possible to make a decent living in Canada as long as it’s doing corporate work, but she has found it easier to get gigs in the US, given her specialty.

“When I started, I thought I’d be doing a lot of work with Toronto companies, thinking it would be an advantage that I was based in Toronto. I think it still could be an advantage to live in a market like Toronto where there are publications and you could meet or network with people,” O’Brien said in a recent interview. “But I get the majority of my business through email prospecting, not face-to-face networking, so it doesn’t seem to really matter where I live.”

It may not work for everyone, she said, but email prospecting has been her saving grace because she has found significantly more US companies in her field of specialization.

“Plus you get paid so much more in US funds. That’s a real bonus working in the US,” she said. “Some of the places I’ve worked at in Canada set the rates and they weren’t great. I’m doing better financially with what I’m doing now in the US.”

While digital communications have made it easier for Canadian freelancers like O’Brien to find clients outside of the country, writing for Canadian companies also has its advantages, said Aaron Broverman, a Canadian-based freelancer who writes for both US and Canadian publications.

“The community is smaller and everybody knows each other, so chances are good that you’ll be working with that person again, and they usually bring you back, or remember you or hire you for something else,” he said in an interview. “It’s just nice to represent the home team for Canadian publications.”

However, Broverman agrees that US companies generally pay better than Canadian ones.

“US companies seem to value the work a little bit more,” he said. “Whereas with Canadian publications, there’s always the story of ‘I don’t know where we’re going to get the funding.’”

Broverman also said he sometimes gets paid more writing for a US site than he does writing for the Canadian version of that site, such as CreditCards.com US and CreditCards.com Canada. Like other freelancers interviewed for this post, he speculated that the lower rates are a result of the smaller Canadian magazine market.

“When I write for the American site, I get a dollar a word US, but when I write for the Canadian site, I get only $350 US per article,” he said.

However, like some Canadian publications, not all US companies pay freelancers decently and some pay nothing, said Canadian-based freelancer Leslie Garrett, who also writes mostly for US companies. With 20 years of experience, Garrett targets employers she knows pay well, regardless of the side of the border the publications are on.

“I place a value on my work and those are the publications that I seek out,” she said in an interview. “I think that when writers give their work away, it devalues that work and we all end up being hurt by it.”

O’Brien, Broverman and Garrett are contemporary examples of Canadian freelancers who turn to US publications to make a decent living. But their income-boosting strategy has deep historical roots.

According to University of Toronto professor Nicole Cohen, as far back as the 1800s, Canadian freelancers struggled to earn a living from publishing in Canadian magazines that didn’t guarantee income in the country’s underdeveloped market. In her new book Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age, Cohen says that in 1819, Canadian freelancers turned to the US, where magazines started paying writers for articles that year.

“Many American magazines paid for contributions, so Canadian writers sold their work in the United States while publishing for no pay at home,” writes Cohen.

By 1961, the Royal Commission on Publications, chaired by M. Grattan O’Leary, had recognized that Canadian freelance magazine writers had to look to the US to sell their work because Canada still had a small publishing market.

“As it is now, a professional freelance writer cannot live on the proceeds of writing only for Canadian periodicals,” wrote the O’Leary Commission in its report.

But despite the O’Leary Commission report, Canadian freelancers continued to earn low incomes over subsequent decades, according to a survey conducted by the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC). The survey, which contains the most comprehensive and current data available, reveals that freelance writers in Canada made an average annual salary of $25,000 per year before tax in 1979, $26,500 per year in 1995 and only $24,035 per year in 2005. When these salaries are adjusted for inflation, they actually represent a decrease in income.

For Canadian freelancers who seek work abroad to increase their incomes, there are collective organizations here at home that offer support systems.

According to Don Genova, president of CMG Freelance, a branch of the Canadian Media Guild since 1998, the Guild doesn’t provide special services for its freelance members who do work for US companies.

“But within the services we offer to all of our members, we would definitely take on any queries people have about foreign contractors, including but not limited to reviewing contract language, suggestions on negotiating tactics and communicating with a foreign contractor if there are problems with payment,” Genova said in an email.

Although he hasn’t been asked for help with foreign contracts often, he does recall writing an email on behalf of a freelance broadcaster who was having problems getting paid by a BBC program.

“I sent the email, laying out the details of the work that had been done, and the next day, the freelancer finally heard back from the producer of the program, giving details of the payment about to be sent.”

Like CMG Freelance, PWAC, a not-for-profit writers’ organization since 1976, doesn’t offer a specific program for members who write for US publications.

“However, a key member benefit is the internal networking and peer support system we have in place through our members-only forums and internal listserv,” said Stephanie Lasuik, PWAC national communications committee chair, in an email.

“Members with questions or queries on any aspect of their writing business receive immediate feedback from peers across Canada.”

With 10 years of experience, Broverman has his own frank advice for his freelancer peers across the country:

“Freelancing is hard, and it’s hard to make a living just freelancing, so find American clients and don’t apologize for it,” he said. “You don’t hear about more Canadians doing this on a regular basis. At first it seemed like I cracked some sort of code to get more money, but everybody should try.”


Errol Salamon is a freelance writer and a visiting scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also co-editor and contributor to the book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @errolouvrier.

Enter: 2017 National Magazine Award for International Impact

New for 2017, the NMAF presents the International Impact Award. Deadline March 1. 

This award honours a Canadian who is making a significant contribution to a field of magazine journalism beyond the borders of Canada.

This award may recognize writers, photographers, illustrators, editors, publishers, art directors, circulation experts, marketing, sales and promotion professionals, production managers, digital journalism gurus—in short, anyone working in magazine journalism. It cannot be given posthumously.

Nominations must consist of:

  • A cover letter indicating the candidate’s name, title, and a summary of their career achievements, including links to or examples of their work;
  • At least two (2) supporting letters from other individuals–colleagues, mentors, teachers or others.

All nominations will be considered by the Board of Directors of the NMAF, which will select 1 winner to receive his or her award at the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala. The award includes 2 tickets to the National Magazine Awards, an Awards Certificate, and promotion in NMAF publications reaching the entire Canadian magazine industry.

Submit your nomination by email to staff@magazine-awards.com or by mail to:

National Magazine Awards Foundation
2300 Yonge Street, Suite 1600
Toronto, ON, M4P 1E4

The deadline for nominations is March 1.

For more information visit magazine-awards.com/international-impact

Your Guide to Winter/Spring 2017 Canadian Magazine Writing Contests

In her 2016 National Magazine Award-winning story “The Beguiling” (sub-Terrain) Zsuzsi Gartner pens a portrait of an amputee cinephile named Zoltan whose sense of the world is derived from the human stories that pass through his (and others’) camera lens. In one scene, at the hospital, the ailing character is suddenly inspired to think of himself as a “little dog,” the kind that audiences root for to overcome challenges. The narrator explains:

He meant the North American penchant for happy endings. Fairy tales. But in the original fairy tales we all know the most diabolical things happen, eyes are pecked out by birds, there’s cannibalism and decapitation, and the little mermaid doesn’t marry the prince but dissolves into sad foam on the sea.

What inspires your sense of the world? What’s your penchant for endings? Happy ones with strong little dogs, or more of a dissolution into empty water? Whatever your approach to the craft–and whether fiction, poetry, memoir or photography–you’ll find plenty of outlets for your stories in Canadian magazines.

And so the NMAF presents its annual Winter/Spring Guide to Canadian Writing (and Photography) Contests.

All contests and awards listed below accept previously unpublished works of Canadian poetry, short fiction, creative non-fiction and photography; listed in chronological order by deadline date. If you know of one that we missed, please let us know or Tweet at us @MagAwards.

And for more inspiration, check out the National Magazine Awards Archive, with hundreds of winning and nominated stories and poems to read.

Room Creative Short Forms Contest
Genre: Fiction, Poetry or Creative Non-fiction (max 500 words)
Deadline: January 29, 2017
Prizes: 2 prizes of $500 + publication (1st); $50 + publication (Honourable Mention)
Entry Fee: $35 ($7 for each additional entry); includes subscription
Detailshttp://roommagazine.com/contests

Prism International Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction*
Genres: Fiction (max 6000 words)
Deadline: January 31, 2017
Prize: $1500 (1st); $600 (2nd); $400 (3rd); publication
Entry Fee: $35; includes subscription
Detailshttp://prismmagazine.ca/contests/
* Judged by National Magazine Award-winning fiction writer Jess Taylor

Arc Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Contest
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: February 1, 2017
Prize: $5000 (Poem of the Year); $500 (Honourable Mention); paid publication for shortlisted works
Entry Fee: $35 ($5 for each additional entry); includes subscription
Detailshttp://arcpoetry.ca/contests-page/

The Malahat Review Long Poem Prize*
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: February 1, 2017
Prize: $1000 to each of 2 winners; publication
Entry Fee: $35; includes subscription
Detailshttp://www.malahatreview.ca/contests/long_poem_prize/info.html
* Judged by National Magazine Award winners Louise Bernice Halfe, George Elliott Clarke and Patricia Young

Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition
Genres: Non-fiction; Fiction
Deadline: February 1, 2017
Prize: $2500 + assistance with publication
Entry Fee: $29
Detailshttp://www.writersunion.ca/short-prose-competition

Pulp Literature Magazine Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest
Genre: Short Fiction (max 750 words)
Deadline: February 15, 2017
Prize: $300 + publication
Entry Fee: $15 (includes subscription)
Detailshttp://pulpliterature.com/contests/

CBC Canada Writes Creative Non-Fiction Prize
Genre: Creative Non-fiction (1200-1800 words)
Deadline: February 28, 2017
Prize: $6000 + publication in enRoute + Banff Centre residency (1st); $1000 each to 4 runners up
Entry Fee: $25
Detailshttp://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/01/cbc-creative-nonfiction-prize-is-now-open.html

The New Quarterly Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: February 28, 2017
Prize: Two prizes of $1000 + publication
Entry Fee: $40 (for first 2 poems; $5 each for additional); includes subscription
Detailshttp://www.tnq.ca/contests

Alberta Views Public Spaces Photography Contest
Genre: Photography
Deadline: February 28, 2017
Prizes: $1000; publication
Entry Fee: $30 ($15 for each additional entry)
Detailshttps://albertaviews.ab.ca/contests/
Note: The contest is open to residents of Alberta and Alberta expats.

Matrix Magazine Robert Kroetsch Innovative Poetry Award*
Genre: Poetry (manuscript)
Deadline: March 1, 2017
Prize: Publication contract with Insomniac Press
Entry Fee: $25
Detailshttp://www.matrix-magazine.org/robert-kroetsch-award
* Judged by National Magazine Award-winning writer Wayde Compton

13th annual Geist Literary Postcard Story Contest
Genre: Very short fiction or non-fiction (500 words max)
Deadline: March 1, 2017
Prize: $500 (1st); $250 (2nd); $150 (3rd); publication
Entry Fee: $20; includes subscription ($5 each additional entry)
Detailshttp://www.geist.com/contests/postcard-contest/

The RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: March 6, 2017
Prizes: $10,000 (1st); $2500 (to two honourable mentions)
Entry Fee: $0
Details: http://www.writerstrust.com/Awards/RBC-Bronwen-Wallace-Award-for-Emerging-Writers/Prize-Guidelines.aspx

Room Creative Non-fiction Contest
Genre: Creative Non-fiction
Deadline: March 8, 2017
Prizes: $500 (1st); $250 (2nd); $50 (3rd); publication
Entry Fee: $35 ($7 for each additional entry); includes subscription
Detailshttp://roommagazine.com/contests

The New Quarterly Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest
Genre: Creative Non-Fiction
Deadline:  March 28, 2017
Prize: $1000
Entry Fee: $40; includes subscription
Detailshttp://www.tnq.ca/contests
Note: All submissions will be considered for publication ($250) in the magazine.

Vallum Chapbook Award
Genre: Poetry (chapbook 12-20 pages)
Deadline: March 31, 2017
Prize: $125 + publication
Entry Fee: $25
Detailshttp://www.vallummag.com/chapbookrules.html

Grain Magazine 29th annual Short Grain Writing Contest
Genres: Fiction (max 2500 words); Poetry (max 100 lines)
Deadline: April 1, 2017
Prize: $1000 (1st); $750 (2nd); $500 (3rd); publication
Entry Fee: $40 (for two entries in one category); includes subscription
Detailshttp://www.grainmagazine.ca/short-grain-contest/

Alice Munro Festival Short Story Contest
Genre: Short Fiction (max 2500 words; separate categories for adults and youths)
Deadline: April 1, 2017
Prizes:  $1,500 (adults prize); $500 (youth prize)
Entry Fee: $25 (adults); $10 (youth)
Detailshttp://alicemunrofestival.ca/?page_id=1317

Exile Literary Quarterly Carter V. Cooper Fiction Competition
Genre: Fiction (max 10,000 words)
Deadline: April 3, 2017
Prizes: $10,000 for best story by an emerging writer; $5000 for best story by a career writer; publication
Entry Fee: $30; includes subscription
Details: http://www.theexilewriters.com/

Exile Literary Quarterly Gwendolyn McEwan Poetry Competition
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: April 3, 2017
Prizes: $1500 for Best Suite; $1000 for Best Suite by an Emerging Poet; $500 for Best Poem; publication
Entry Fee: $25; includes subscription
Details: http://www.theexilewriters.com/

CV2 2-Day Poem Contest
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: April 3, 2017 (registration; competition is held April 8-9)
Prize: $500 (1st); $300 (2nd); $150 (3rd); publication
Entry Fee: $26; includes registration + subscription (registration only is $16)
Detailshttp://www.contemporaryverse2.ca/en/contests/2-day-poem-contest

Pulp Literature Magazine Magpie Award for Poetry
Genre: Poetry (max 100 lines)
Deadline: April 15, 2017
Prize: $500 + publication (1st); $50 for each of 2 runners-up
Entry Fee: $25 (includes subscription); $10 for each additional entry
Detailshttp://pulpliterature.com/contests/

Event Magazine Non-Fiction Contest
Genre: Creative Non-fiction (5000 words or fewer)
Deadline: April 15, 2017
Prize: $1500 in total cash prizes; publication
Entry Fee: $34.95; includes subscription
Detailshttp://www.eventmagazine.ca/contest-nf/

The Malahat Review Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction
Genre: Fiction (max 3500 words)
Deadline: May 1, 2017
Prize: $1000; publication
Entry Fee: $25 (additional entries are $15); includes subscription
Detailshttp://www.malahatreview.ca/contests/far_horizons_fiction/info.html

The New Quarterly Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award
Genre: Fiction
Deadline: May 28, 2017
Prize: $1000 + publication
Entry Fee: $40; includes subscription
Details: http://www.tnq.ca/contests
Note: All submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine.

CBC Canada Writes Poetry Prize
Genre: Poetry
Deadline: May 31, 2017
Prize: $6000 + publication in enRoute + Banff Centre residency (1st); $1000 each to 4 runners up
Entry Fee: $25
Detailshttp://www.cbc.ca/books/literaryprizes/poetry/
Note: The submission form can be downloaded as of April 1, 2017

Ricepaper ACWW Emerging Writer Award
Genre: Poetry (book-length manuscript)
Deadline: June 1, 2017
Prize: $250 + publication (1st); prize packs + publication (2nd & 3rd)
Entry Fee: $25; includes subscription
Detailshttp://ricepapermagazine.ca/contests/

Antigonish Review Sheldon Curray Fiction Prize
Genre: Fiction (max 20 pages)
Deadline: June 1, 2017
Prize: $600 (1st); $400 (2nd); $200 (3rd); publication
Entry Fee: $25 (includes subscription)
Detailshttp://www.antigonishreview.com/

Pulp Literature Magazine Hummingbird Flash Fiction Contest
Genre: Short Fiction (max 1000 words)
Deadline: June 15, 2017
Prize: $300 + publication
Entry Fee: $15 (includes subscription)
Detailshttp://pulpliterature.com/contests/

Other contests may be added to the list as Winter melts into Spring. Stay tuned.

Did we miss one? Send us a note or grab us on Twitter @MagAwards. We’ll update this post throughout the winter and spring as more contests are announced.

Find more awards, prizes and contests for magazine journalism on the Awards and Contests pages of this blog.

Summer Magazine Contest Guide
Fall Magazine Contest Guide
Writer’s Guide to Canadian Literary Magazines & Journals

Digital Publishing Awards accepting Freelancer Submissions

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The NMAF is very pleased to share that the Freelancer Support Fund is also available for the Digital Publishing Awards, whose deadline to enter is Tuesday January 31.

The discounted entry fees allow freelance creators to submit their first two (2) entries at the discounted rate of $50 per submission.

With the 2nd Annual DPAs officially underway, we are very happy to offer this special discount to the freelance creators – the writers, videographers, editors, designers, developers, video and podcast producers, photographers and illustrators, and others – who are establishing excellence in Canadian digital publishing. There is a $500 cash prize for individual winners.

An eligible “freelancer” is someone:

  • who is not a staff member of a publication whose work they are submitting, and
  • whose byline appears on the work they are submitting.

If your magazine work also appeared in an online platform, it may be eligible to enter. Check out the full list of Rules & Eligibility.

The Freelancer Support Fund applies to your first two (2) entries only. The regular rate of $110 will apply to any submission entered in addition to the first two. Fees paid for submissions to the Digital Publishing Awards may be tax-deductible for freelancers. The DPAs are operated by the non-profit registered charity NMAF.

There is exactly one week left to enter, as the final deadline to submit is Tuesday January 31.

To submit your best, visit submissions.digitalpublishingawards.ca. If you have any questions about entering the Digital Publishing Awards, please get in touch: info@digitalpublishingawards.ca.