How a j-student broke the Bev Oda “not” story

By Chantaie Allick

Few people in the media know that the firestorm that has engulfed Bev Oda began, in part, as the result of the reporting efforts of a graduate student  at Carleton University.

Bev Oda memo

By Chantaie Allick

Few people in the media know that the firestorm that has engulfed Bev Oda began, in part, as the result of the reporting efforts of a graduate student  at Carleton University.

Bev Oda memo

Kim Mackrael, a second-year masters student with natural news instincts, is quick to give credit to Lee Berthiaume at Embassy newspaper for his role in the story. But Mackrael also played a crucial role in uncovering the document that has led to the current furor faced by the minster of international co-operation. She filed the original access to information request that revealed the Canadian International Development Agency memo to which the now-famous “not” had been added. That hand-written edit, and the Minister’s changing explanations about her role in making it,  have led to calls from the opposition for her to resign and charges that she mislead a commons committee.

So, as a result of Mackrael’s work on a class assignment back in January 2010, a cabinet minister may be found in contempt of parliament for the first time since 1913.

When the story broke about the loss of funding to Kairos, a Christian aid organization, Mackrael was doing an internship at The Guelph Mercury. She tried to find a local angle on the story as a lot of people involved with Kairos live in Guelph.

 “There was this whole confusion around what the reason for the decision was,” said Mackrael. This was after Jason Kenney’s speech in Israel linking the decision to anti-Israeli sentiments of the organization. Mackrael attempted first to contact Margaret Biggs, the president of CIDA. Frustrated with the types of answers she was getting, she decided to pursue the story. “It seemed like a good story to do an access request on.”

Mackrael filed the request in January 2010 as part of a reporting methods course at Carleton. She sent a number of requests related to CIDA funding decisions for the assignment. Seven months and numerous requests for extensions later, Mackrael received a package from CIDA. Buried in the pile of documents was the now-famous one about funding for Kairos with the word “not” inserted.

The student immediately recognized the significance of the documents she had and attempted to freelance the story. When she didn’t hear back from the newspapers she first approached, she contacted the Canadian Press.

“They were interested right away,” Mackrael said.

CP bought the final article on Oct. 19. Editors told Mackrael they wanted to get it out on Monday, Oct.  25th to get the story some attention but, in the end, it didn’t go out on the wires until Wednesday, Oct.  27th — the same day the article by Embassy’s Berthiaume was published. The Globe and Mail picked it up immediately and posted it to the website hours after the Embassy article was posted.

Mackrael is viewed as a keen reporter among her peers. She’s sensitive to details and has a natural instinct for, not just good, but, important stories. She has long been interested in social justice issues and has made good use of her bachelor’s degree in international development from the University of Guelph.

The tenacious young journalist had submitted a number of accesses to information requests before this. While she’s still in the process of honing her skills as a journalist, she’s proven she’s got a knack for recognizing the story in a simple “NOT.” So did mainstream political reporters, though it took them a few months after her CP piece and the Embassy article were published.

Mackrael considers the impact of her efforts: “I think partly it demonstrates how important the ability to use access to information laws is because it gives us a window into some of the workings of government.” She added, “It’s really important for people to be able to hold politicians accountable.”

Opposition members have demanded Oda’s resignation and the tumult continues to intensify around the issue. It’s a story that Mackrael, just starting out in her career, made sure was told.

“It’s really interesting to watch how this has become something much more significant than just a ‘NOT,’ Mackrael said. Now the story is really about how she portrayed that decision months and even a year later.”

Chantaie Allick is in the final year of Carleton University's two-year graduate program and is a classmate of Kim Mackrael's.

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