From left: Seneca students Patricia Mohamed, Kabilan Moulitharan and Tess Ha are among a group of journalism students across Canada contributing to Maclean’s obituary project, They Were Loved. (Photos: submitted)
Journalism students pay tribute to COVID-19 victims in Maclean’s
Seneca participating in national magazine’s obituary project
May 13, 2021
It was an assignment Seneca Journalism student Patricia Mohamed initially dreaded.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, a young mother?’” she recalled. “I have to call her family and ask them about their loved one who just passed away.”
Ms. Mohamed, a mother herself, is among a group of journalism students across Canada, including several from Seneca, contributing to Maclean’s obituary project, They Were Loved. It is an initiative paying tribute to Canadians who have died from of COVID-19.
While Ms. Mohamed ran into a language barrier in the beginning — solved by her 16-year-old son translating French — her piece on Laurence Ménard, a 33-year-old single mother from Acton Vale, Que., was published online by Maclean’s in March.
As they begin their research on the victims, students sometimes have only a name and location to begin their search.
“I used the skills I learned in class to find family members,” Ms. Mohamed said. “You don’t ever think this is something you’ll be doing — writing an obituary about a young mother — but this is what journalists do.”
Seneca is one of the journalism schools in Canada partnering with Maclean’s and Carleton University’s Future of Journalism initiative to celebrate the lives of COVID-19 victims. Students are assigned work for submission, but only obituaries that meet the magazine’s editorial standards are published.
Paula Todd is a Seneca professor whose advanced research class participates in the project. An accomplished Canadian journalist and broadcaster, she describes Maclean’s as a “prestigious and highly competitive” publication.
“This assignment is one of the hardest I’ve ever given my students,” she said. “They come into this level of professional journalism cold. Many have never been published in the mainstream press.”
Before joining Seneca, Ms. Todd was a reporter, analyst and television host for major media outlets like the Toronto Star, CBC, TVO, Global and CTV. She has not only written for Maclean’s but the magazine has written about her, including articles on her last two books, Finding Karla and Extreme Mean: Ending Cyberabuse at Work, School, and Home.
An obituary, Ms. Todd says, represents an entire life.
“You are reaching out to families and friends as they mourn,” she said. “Some, very understandably, can’t bear to speak about their lost loved one. So, it’s tough to do the research, and to do justice to the person you are writing about, especially in a concise way.”
For Ms. Mohamed, fitting a woman’s 33 years into 300 words was a daunting task that took several revisions.
“I didn’t want to let her mother down,” she said. “Laurence’s life was so incredibly full. She had a three-year-old son. She was healthy and loved by her community.”
Journalism student Kabilan Moulitharan describes the assignment as “carrying a burden of making sure the person’s story is accurate and put in the best light.”
The obituary he wrote for 90-year-old Sheila Newell of Sarnia was also chosen for online publication by Maclean’s.
“This is the most difficult story I’ve had to do,” he said. “There were gaps in Sheila’s story, and that’s where I had to do a bit of poking around.”
For this assignment, Mr. Moulitharan made cold calls for the first time.
“I was super scared and nervous,” he said. “I’m huge on boundaries and giving people time and space. There was a lot of checking in with my moral compass while at the same time thinking this person might have a story to tell.”
Tess Ha studied in another section of the Seneca journalism class led by Andrew Mair, Seneca professor and former Toronto Sun editor. When her assignment didn’t work out, she took the initiative to seek out COVID-19 victims from Asian communities.
In an opinion piece she wrote for Maclean’s 2021 Canadian Universities Guidebook about her experience, Ms. Ha says she has “always felt there is an under-representation of Asians in Canadian media.”
“Their lives were so rich, it was almost heartbreaking to condense everything into 300 words,” Ms. Ha said.
She hopes her obituaries help share the richness of Asian lives and stories.
“I wanted people to know that that the Asian man you see walking down the street may have done something tremendous,” she said.
“Asians aren’t that outspoken, and I hope people will see how interesting and amazing some of these people’s lives were. I wanted to amplify that and to say, ‘Listen to us, too. We have something we are proud of.’”