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2014 Mary Stuart Education Award - Tom Spears

The Mary Stuart Education Award is given in recognition of outstanding achievements in the field of natural history education in the Ottawa region. In most years, the awards are made to schoolroom teachers or those associated with the local Boards of Education, but this year, we have cast our net more broadly.

Newspaper reports on scientific discoveries and environmental issues are notorious for errors, half-truths and exaggerations. Too often, scientists and environmentalists avoid interviews with the local media due to the fear of being misquoted or misunderstood. Not so in Ottawa, where the Ottawa Citizen has Tom Spears looking after these topics. His clear and illustrative reporting of often complex and seemingly academic issues that are nonetheless important for both the invested and general public to understand, has been remarkable. Tom has dealt with topics ranging from exposing the antics of pirate scientific journals, reporting important conservation achievements, tracing the redevelopment of forests after fires, wolf studies in Gatineau Park, and the discovery of rare and ecologically critical species, to unravelling unwieldy and environmentally counter-productive bureaucratic processes.

Often as not, his writing captures quirky aspects of the subject, never getting more serious than necessary but always mindful and respectful of the important core message. Tom Spears employs only solid, verifiable and science-based documentation before he speaks. He checks first with scientists and researchers with proven credibility concerning the issue and frequently consults scientific primary sources including our own Canadian Field-Naturalist for references. Tom puts the needs, nature and remarkable characteristics of the natural world front and centre in a credible, verifiable and accessible manner that both informs and inspires his readers.

In doing this Tom has contributed to a greater level of ecological awareness in and of the Ottawa Valley and beyond (his articles frequently being picked up nationally or internationally). Perhaps his greatest contribution is promoting a greater public understanding of the need for informed, fact-based decision-making in natural environment management.

Tom Spears is from the Toronto area and developed his love of the outdoors during cottage summers by Lake Huron with his parents. He and his wife now own 13 acres of forested land in the Gatineau Hills. Although Tom doesn't regard himself as a naturalist and lacks formal education in science (having majored in French and history at York University), he has a strong love of the outdoor experience and can recognize many of the birds and flowers he encounters.

Tom came to the Ottawa Citizen 25 years ago, after having been a reporter for the Peterborough Examiner, the Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette and Toronto Star. He was on night shifts at the Star when the environmental reporting job opened up, which would mean day shifts Monday to Friday, so he jumped at the chance. Although Tom is a "general assignment reporter," the Citizen normally directs the science stories to him, for which he is very grateful, and we should be too. Tom has done an exceptional job of teaching science to the layperson, and for this, we award him this year's Mary Stuart Education Award.

Prepared by Irwin Brodo and Dan Brunton

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