What does the spruce budworm have to do with the oil industry?

Let’s start with the budworm.

Last year, I completed a year-long investigation in Quebec’s forestry industry, as a visiting journalist at Concordia University in Montreal. My seven journalism students and I reported on what happened after a cyclical budworm infestation hit the forests around the logging community of Baie-Comeau at unprecedented levels, partly due to climate change.

The workers at the forestry ministry office there tried to order the local companies to harvest the slowly dying trees; the companies balked, and shut down operations. Their workers held demonstrations to try to draw the public’s attention to their plight, and the government officials who were called in to negotiate faced difficult decisions. The changes brought by climate warming and globalization added to the pressures.

In the end, though the Quebec government has been helping the companies in more than 20 different ways, costing taxpayers many millions of dollars, the workers were hurt financially and their union leaders say that those jobs are no more secure. Worse, ecologists say that the aid measures have led to damage to the ecosystem, making the infestation worse in the long term and the local forestry industry ever more precarious – and that damage is still ongoing.

This story is now published as a major feature in The Walrus as “Attack of the Budworms.” The French version is here.

The “Attack” investigation and story wouldn’t have been possible without the data we obtained from Quebec’s forestry ministry, on everything from sales of timber harvest rights to the impact of the infestation over time. That, and the hundreds of interviews our group conducted. What all that information showed us was how the goals of those involved played against each other, in ways that, according to industry experts, sacrifice the community’s future to the companies’ immediate financial goals.

Now we get to the oil. While I was working on the budworm investigation, I learned about the Corporate Mapping Project and its investigative focus on fossil fuel industries. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to join the CMP’s team. We’re experimenting with a new kind of collaboration that teams up a major research initiative (the CMP) with a group of journalism schools, teachers and students at four universities in four provinces. As with the budworm project, our focus is on learning about Canadian communities involved in the oil industry and telling their stories.

The work is fascinating, and difficult – we’re also trying to extract information from the vast corporate database assembled by the CMP in ways that are pretty new. Examining data, you can sometimes uncover interesting anomalies, each of which presents an opportunity to reach out to the people who experienced those events and learn about their perspectives – why a situation unfolded as it did.

The concerns of those who live and work in Canada’s rural areas rarely receive this level of attention from news organizations – budgets are so limited, and most large newsrooms are in urban centres. But these communities are vital to our country’s economy, and deserve our resources and attention.

For me, that’s what the Corporate Mapping Project is about: Looking into stories that are vital, that need to be told.

Author: Patti Sonntag

Patti Sonntag is a managing editor in The New York Times’ News Services division. A recipient of the Michener Fellowship in Journalism Education and a researcher with the Corporate Mapping Project, she is currently leading a group of four journalism programs across Canada on an investigation, in collaboration with the CMP. She teaches investigative reporting and data journalism at Concordia University.

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