Arielle Godbout - 2010 Award Recipient

A behind-the-scenes look at gun smuggling in Canada -- Ottawa

It took only two weeks for me to become irrevocably intrigued by the illicit gun trade in Canada.

Albeit, an interest that went hand-in-hand with disgust — but a fascination all the same.

It started on July 14, when I stumbled across a small news brief on an American site about a Winnipeg man who had pled guilty for his role in smuggling 22 handguns into the city from the United States — a story that was unreported on in our local media.

Then, on July 26, I found myself covering the aftermath of a wedding reception with a very unwelcome guest — a gunman who opened fire, killing an innocent bystander and injuring two others.

In those two weeks, I had been exposed to both the people who feed the illicit gun trade and those affected by it. I wanted desperately to understand more about this trade — even more so when I found out, through court records, that two of the guns smuggled into Winnipeg had been recovered by police in connection to crimes.

But that’s not the type of information police like to talk about, and I was forced to give up the story.

Still, the issue haunted me. And when my editor proposed I apply for the Greg Clark Award, I knew immediately I wanted to explore the gun trade issue in more depth.

And this is where the unique nature of the Greg Clark Award worked in my favour.

Because it’s intended to allow young journalists to grow professionally through an off-the-record experience, I dreamed big — I wanted to visit the RCMP’s National Firearms Tracing Centre in Winnipeg.

And the national police force agreed — as long as everything remained strictly off the record.

In the time leading up to my week in Ottawa, many people were curious about the award. Even more curious, it seemed, when I explained it was off the record.

Stories are, of course, our currency as journalists, and it seemed odd to some that I was investing so much time in a project that wouldn’t immediately lead to a story.

But as my week with the RCMP unrolled, I found myself with more and more answers for those who asked: why?

First, I didn’t just get access to the tracing centre. I was able to interview, in depth, people involved with multiple RCMP programs dealing with the illicit gun trade.

It was a knowledge that couldn’t be gleaned by the meager descriptions on the police force’s website.

More importantly, understanding how these units works and interact with each other will allow me in to ask more specific questions when I cover the illicit gun trade in the future — which I fully intend to do.

Another incredible benefit I gained was that suddenly — through my conversations with RCMP members — I became alert to a number of resources that are available to the public but off the beaten track. I also became aware of possible stories that are in the public sphere and can be verified by third parties, which I am excited to pursue.

Finally, I felt like I managed to start building professional relationships with some of the biggest players in the enforcement side of the illicit gun trade in Canada — many of them know me now and will be, I hope, willing to work with me in the future.

All in all — because of the nature of the organization I wanted to work with — the experience provided through the Greg Clark Award didn’t give me an immediate byline.

But it did give me the knowledge to attach my byline to future stories that will be more in-depth, more involved and more complete.