It was about time the focus was clearly on Canadian photographer and philanthropist Michelle Valberg for a change.
Many of those who know and admire the award-winning Ottawa-based entrepreneur came together Tuesday for a reception to celebrate her recent appointment to the Order of Canada — one of our country’s highest honours.
The gathering was held at 50 Sussex, a scenic venue that also serves as the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It publishes Canadian Geographic, which hosted the reception, seeing as Valberg is photographer-in-residence at the magazine and all.
Valberg has spent a good chunk of her career capturing the country's wildlife and natural surroundings through patience, passion, perseverance and talent. Her work has been featured on Canada Post stamps and a commemorative coin produced by the Royal Canadian Mint. This past spring at the 2022 World Photographic Cup held in Rome, she won a gold medal in the nature category for her image of the white-coated Kermode bear, or spirit bear, in the Great Bear Rainforest on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia.
Valberg, who was born and raised in Ottawa, has also continually given back to her community and to Canada, most notably through her creation of Project North to bring hockey equipment to children living in remote communities in the Arctic. It's a region of Canada that she's brought attention to through her work.
At the podium, Valberg steered the attention away from herself and toward all those who’d come out to raise a glass of champagne in her honour. “I just look around the room and am filled with so much love and joy and so much appreciation for all of you, sharing in my journey and supporting me and elevating me through it,” said Valberg, who wore an inukshuk pendant necklace, as well as her new Order of Canada pin. “Because, without you, none of this would have been possible.”
It was Valberg’s dear friend and mentor, Leslie Coates, who, without telling Valberg, quietly nominated her for the Order of Canada. Coates, who has worked for decades in the travel industry, was named Ottawa businesswoman the year in 2003, just one year before Valberg won the same award.
Three of Valberg's close friends gave references, including: author, speaker, coach and podcaster Kathie Donovan, CTV News Ottawa host Leanne Cusack and Jeff Turner, who’s the senior manager of Indigenous partnerships and special projects at Algonquin College, as well as incoming board president of Project North. He also emceed the gathering.
While Valberg joined the Order of Canada on June 29th, the official insignia ceremony with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon won’t be happening anytime soon because of delays related to COVID-19 and to Julie Payette’s resignation from her post last year. “Instead of waiting two or three years, I’m pleased to be here with all of you who play a very special part in my life,” Valberg told her friends, neighbours, co-workers and family members.
Valberg expressed her gratitude to Dorothy Jackson for being there that night. Her late husband, Dennis Jackson, who passed away in April from cancer, had been instrumental in building up Project North back when he was district vice president at Scotiabank. His support was carried on by his successor, Frank Bilodeau.
“It became more than just an idea; it became something tangible,” said Valberg of how the charity has made such a difference in enhancing the lives of hockey-loving children in the Arctic. “I have not done it alone by any means.”
Valberg made sure not to repeat a mistake she made at an awards ceremony years ago — forgetting to thank her husband, Scott MacLennan, whom she considers “one of the most important people in my life”. The retired fire platoon chief was there with their son, Ben MacLennan, 17, who recently graduated from Ashbury College and is headed off to Western University in a couple of weeks.
There was also Thyme & Again Creative Catering owner Sheila Whyte to acknowledge. She’d been invited as a guest but, once she caught wind of Valberg’s plans to purchase run-of-the-mill cracker and cheese platters for the reception from a global retailer, stepped up to provide the lovely food, wine and service for guests.