Ann Silversides wouldn’t have been able to fly north and dig deeply into Nunavut’s nursing crisis were it not for a grant funding her work. 

By Julie McCann, Field Notes Editor

In September 2012, Perth, Ont.-based independent reporter Ann Silversides spent three weeks travelling to communities in Nunavut investigating the territory’s health situation from the perspective of its nurses. A clear finding: there aren’t enough of them. And most striking for her: despite the fact that 86 per cent of the population is made up of indigenous people, nurses from the south receive minimal cultural orientation. “They are so understaffed,” she said. “It’s all so meager.”

Silversides is well steeped in health policy journalism: her 30-year career has featured stints as the Globe and Mail’s first health policy reporter and as a contributor to the Canadian Medical Association Journal.  She has also been a contributor to CBC Radio’s Ideas and is the author of AIDS Activist: Michael Lynch and the Politics of Community (Between the Lines, 2003). And yet, despite all of this, reporting this story was unlike anything she’s done so far.

Nurse Joanne Dignard sitting at her shack near Qikitarjuaq, Nunavut. Photo courtesy of Ann Silversides

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The idea: Silversides’s experience working with the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Canadian Nurse magazine meant she’d been exposed to both nursing culture and individual anecdotes from the north. “I didn’t know who I was going to be writing for,” she explained of her on-spec piece. Only that it was a story that needed to be explored.

The grant:  Worthiness aside, the idea would have gone nowhere without financial support. Travel in the north is prohibitively expensive. It was only because Silversides won a $20,000 grant from the now defunct Canadian Institutes of Health Research Health Journalism Award that she was able to fund her investigation. “It was only the grant that made this possible,” she said.

The preparations: Attending the International Congress on Circumpolar Health in in Fairbanks, Alaska, in August 2012 introduced Silversides to many of the sources and information she needed to start. It was there, for instance, she met Nunavut’s deputy minister of health, Peter Ma, and he gave her investigation his blessing. She also became an avid reader of Nunatsiaq News, chatted with freelance journalist Lisa Gregoire about her northern reporting experiences (such as her work for her January/February 2011 profile in The Walrus of then-premier Eva Aariak) and poured over books, statistics, journals and studies about the territory.

In the field

Reporting with a shadow: The minister blessed her investigation, but he also insisted she travel with a “minder.” So wherever she went, so did Ron Wassink, a former Ontario community-newspaper-publisher-turned-department-of-health communications employee. “He was a reasonably easygoing guy,” she said. Still, it was a new experience. As she explained in her piece, he’d sit in on most interviews, his recorder beside hers, and even ask the odd softball question. Despite this, Silversides found it didn’t deter the nurses from being straightforward with her. She was able to set up her own interviews and did plenty of solo, off-the-record reporting.

The delicate art of observation: She was an outsider. “I’m very aware of the arrogance of going in there for three weeks and trying to write about it,” she said of that ever-present reporter’s struggle. “There’s also that feeling of, not exactly feeling like an imposter, but you’re going into a whole different culture.” Sensitivity was always top of mind.

It’s a small world: Reporting in small communities has unique snags. In places where, say, a nursing station was working well, speaking publicly to a reporter wasn’t a problem. If the opposite was the case, however, livelihoods could be in jeopardy. “You had to be careful,” she said. “There were several toxic situations” and she had many off-the-record chats as a result.

Verification vexations: Fact-checking was tough. Maisonneuve accepted the piece from her in Fall 2013, a year after she’d done her reporting. When the magazine’s fact-checker got to work on it, Silversides said it took a full month for them to sort it all out. An example of a common problem: the transience of employees in Nunavut, as demonstrated in the piece itself, meant that many of the key people in her story had moved on from their posts and had to be tracked down.

Post production

Writing: Silversides’s years as a newspaper reporter with the Globe and the Calgary Herald initially led her to write the piece a straight news feature. When she showed her poet-husband the first draft he said, “meh.” She knew what to do to strengthen it. In 2012, she’d gone to the Banff Writer’s Workshop to learn how to “relax” in her writing. The result? It was there that she produced her award-winning piece, “First Do No Harm,” also for Maisonneuve, about OxyContin abuse. (It also won the Canadian Medical Association’s Michelle Lang Award for excellence in print reporting.) So with the nursing story, she went back at the draft again and sought to weave in a more personal element.  

On spec: The Walrus, a previous client, said no to the piece, but Maisonneuve said yes. The editors were pleased. They did some rejigging and trimming, and it became their cover story for Summer 2014.

Post-mortem: If it weren’t for the CIHR grant, this story wouldn’t have happened. Silversides fears that without grants like this, independent journalism, and the social justice issues they can fund, are very much at risk. “I am so frustrated with the state of journalism for freelancers,” she said. She may have come home from Nunavut with at least five other ideas that merit investigative attention—dental care, for example—but without the means to fund them, they may remain ideas only. Still, she’s grateful for this experience. “I was just so fascinated. It was so terrific to be up there.”

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.