By: Jaclyn Mika (RSJ ’08)
Since 2009, the Betty Michalyshyn Memorial Scholarship has celebrated RSJ students who produce outstanding academic achievement in cultural journalism or critical writing on the arts.
It seems a fitting tribute to a woman who is remembered for her kindness and efforts to champion Canadian film, television and the arts.
“She was the kindest, sweetest, biggest-hearted person I ever knew. She was the epitome of class. She brightened up any room with her smile,” said Cherri Campbell, a friend of Michalyshyn’s and executive assistant at Serendipity Point Films.
That kindness, and her passion for Canadian arts and culture, was evident in in her work as a publicist, trying to get journalists to consider the Canadian content she was promoting.
“She really made people feel that she cared about them. She made their jobs easier by supplying what they
needed, whether that was photography or access to the right person or background information. She was unfailingly helpful and unfailingly good-natured,” said Pauline Couture, President of PCA, who spearheaded the efforts to establish the award. “Journalism is, in some respects, an adversarial profession, but the information-gathering part of it is also collaborative. You need sources to collaborate with you and she was an unfailingly collaborative person.”
Couture said she wanted to establish this award after Michalyshyn died in 2005, at age 51, because of the contribution she made in changing the perception in Canadian media that Canadian films, television and art were inferior, particularly to American products.
“It was very uphill to get the media to look at your product and take it seriously. There were very few…champions of Canadian talent,” Couture said. “Without Betty, who would actually be in the trenches, phoning journalists, bringing things to their attention, providing them with pictures, providing them with access to movie stars for interviews, and framing things in a way that was interesting and would get their attention, I think it would have been much harder. She made a big contribution breaking through to Canadian journalists to get them to pay attention to our own cultural product.”
It may seem a little odd to establish a scholarship “on the other side of the fence,” said Couture, but Michalyshyn “was all about enabling journalists to do their jobs better.”
At the time, Couture did not see any similar opportunities for young journalists interested in Canadian arts and culture.
“I saw a parallel between what Betty had done for me as a client, having Canadian cultural programs to promote, and awakening interest in Canadian journalists in that subject matter,” Couture said. “I thought that this award could do the same thing.”
The scholarship was funded by Michalyshyn’s family, friends and CTV colleagues. It remains the only one at the Ryerson School of Journalism to specifically reward cultural or arts journalism.
“Winning the Betty Michalyshyn Memorial Scholarship empowered me to keep doing what I was doing—learning about Canadian culture and thinking about what stories needed to be told and how to actually tell them,” said Patricia Karounos, who won the scholarship in 2016 and is now an editorial assistant at ELLE Magazine. “It really reinforced that arts/cultural reporting has a value, both at Ryerson and in the broader community within Canada. It’s easy to overlook our own cultural creation in favour of bigger, buzzier foreign creation. In that vein, it’s important that we celebrate Canadian arts and culture, but also evaluate with a critical eye so that it’s upheld to the highest standards.”
Kate Spencer, who won the scholarship in 2012, said the financial support provided by the award meant she could focus better on classes. She said it was “very affirming and encouraging” to be recognized “as having skill and talent in a type of journalism that meant a lot to me.”
Spencer is now a content writer for the Canadian Red Cross and freelances as a writer and editor with a focus on arts and culture.
“Arts and cultural reporting in Canada are important because we live in a country with a rich and diverse artistic landscape, and our role as journalists is to acknowledge, celebrate and examine that output,” Spencer said. “Some of my favourite writing is in the arts and cultural scene because there’s so much scope for creativity when writing about the creative.”
Couture said she thinks Michalyshyn would have been proud that a scholarship in her name was helping students.
“She was extremely humble and modest. Like a lot of women, she undervalued herself. She didn’t promote herself, ever. She was always promoting other people,” Couture said. “I think she would have been deeply moved to see that she has this legacy of wave after wave of young people taking an interest in Canadian culture.”
To date, about $10,000 has been given to 10 students to reward them for their work in Canadian arts and cultural writing, and to encourage them to pursue their interest in it.
Michalyshyn is still missed by those who knew her.
“Betty was my publicist on several shows. She was one of the most amazing publicists I ever worked with and she was an absolute doll,” said film producer Mary Young Leckie. “I cried a little seeing her picture. I loved that woman.”
“Betty was an idealist. A true believer in the importance of homegrown cultural content. She was a tireless promoter of Canadian-made television dramas,” said producer and executive Robert Lantos. “We first worked closely together on the prime time series, Mount Royal, which I produced for CTV in 1986/7. “Always elegantly attired and soft spoken, she was a generous fountain of ideas and initiatives. Her most memorable quality was her kindness toward everyone. In the years I knew her, I never once heard her utter a negative word about anyone. I miss her.”