The Atkinson Story

We proudly carry the name of Joseph E. Atkinson, the editor and later the publisher and owner of the Toronto Star from 1899 to 1948.  Joseph and his wife Elmina Elliott were principled journalists, activists, civic leaders, and life-long partners in the fight for social and economic justice. They were also faithful philanthropists who established the Atkinson Foundation in 1942 to continue their fight when they no longer could. This is their story.

The Atkinson Foundation turned 75 in 2017. We marked the milestone with a graphic novella  that tells the story of Canada’s fight for decent work in Joseph Atkinson’s times.  You can click here  for a print copy. The first $75,000 Atkinson Good Fight Prize was awarded to the Fight for $15 and Fairness campaign. We also convened a national roundtable on Canada’s 75-year old Employment Insurance program– what Mr. Atkinson called “the greatest fight” of his life.

The Foundation's story (so far)

Joseph Atkinson’s design for the Foundation started with a single idea: “humanity above all.” In other words, in a complex world of multiple considerations, Mr. Atkinson believed people came first. Five principles anchor this idea and the Atkinson Foundation: a strong and united Canada, civic engagement, individual and civil liberties, the necessary role of government, and workers’ rights. Betsy Murray, Joseph and Elmina’s granddaughter and Chair of the Atkinson Board from 1994 to 2005, tells the Foundation’s story in brief here.

The First Chapter

From 1939 to 1945, Canada was at war. During this time of collective sacrifice and responsive public policy, Mr. Atkinson laid the groundwork for a significant philanthropic gift before his death in 1948. He planned to turn the ownership of the Toronto Star over to his charitable foundation — “returning the paper to the people”, and dedicating future profits to social causes.

The years immediately following his death Mr. Atkinson’s final wishes were challenged by the provincial government. Finally incorporated as a charity in 1950, the Atkinson Foundation’s relationship to the Star remained hotly contested for the better part of the next decade. In this shadow, the Foundation’s trustees got to work.

They invested big in health and education like nurses’ training at George Brown College, a professional school for public administrators at Carleton University, and Atkinson College at York University for part-time students with full-time jobs. The first immigrant welcome centres and Stratford’s Shakespearean Festival benefited from trustees’ commitment to social services, arts and culture. They played their part in Toronto’s recovery from Hurricane Hazel and many other poverty relief efforts in the first decades.

During Canada’s centennial celebrations, trustees made a grant to the Bureau of Municipal Research for an international conference on “big city problems”. This grant kicked off a period during which “big ideas” about poverty, housing, the environment, race, justice, and civil liberties were priorities. For example, they supported a new journalism program for Indigenous students at Western University. The program became the centre for Indigenous activism on the Western campus and a spark for transformative change in the field of journalism.

The Second Chapter

Game-changing public policy ideas took centre stage in 1989. The Atkinson Foundation, The Toronto Star, and the Honderich Family formed a partnership to create the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy for outstanding journalists. A few short years later, trustees transformed how the Foundation operated. They hired Charles Pascal to be its first Executive Director in 1996. Dr. Pascal led the transition from funding “bricks and mortar” to the “architecture of ideas”, and a ground-breaking economic and social justice agenda over fifteen years.

The Ruth Atkinson Hindmarsh Award was established in 1998 to celebrate and encourage the outstanding efforts of organizations whose work significantly improved the wellbeing of children. This annual award, the largest of its kind in Canada, provided a one-time gift of $50,000 to an Ontario-based charitable organization.

The Canadian Index of Well-Being, the Government of Ontario’s Full Day Learning Strategy, and the province’s Poverty Reduction Strategy are three of the policy innovations cultivated by the Foundation over many years. 

The Atkinson Economic Justice Fellowship fuelled the work of economist Armine Yalnizyan, former premier and Medicare champion Roy Romanow, housing activist Cathy Crowe, Gitxsan child welfare activist Cindy Blackstock, immigrant rights advocate Uzma Shakir, and early childhood educator Kerry McCuaig.

The Foundation supported Voices from the Street, the Community Undertaking Social Policy Project (CUSP) at St. Christopher’s House (now West Neighbourhood House), and other initiatives to bring people who live on the economic margins into the public policy development process. Atkinson was a founding member of the Shareholder Association for Research and Education, and a backer of the award-winning film, The Corporation.

Dr. Pascal retired from the Foundation in 2010. He was succeeded by Olivia Nuamah as Executive Director.

The Third Chapter

Colette Murphy became Atkinson’s Executive Director in 2012, and Chief Executive Officer in 2020.

In 2014, the Board of Directors set its strategic direction for the next ten years: strengthening movements for decent work and a fair economy. 

The Government of Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review set the stage for community organizing, policy research and advocacy by Atkinson’s partners and collaborators, leading to the historic Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. A $15 minimum wage, paid sick days and other legislative reforms made this one of the most significant wins for workers in a generation.

Atkinson formed a “philanthro-journalism” partnership with the Toronto Star to create a “work and wealth” beat at the start of this dynamic period in public policy reform. After a decade of decline in Canadian labour reporting, this investment ensured workers’ perspectives and experiences would be part of the public discourse on these critical issues.

The development of the province’s Infrastructure for Jobs and Prosperity Act created another significant opening for community organizing and policy advocacy for decent work and a fair economy. The legislation created opportunities to leverage multi-billion dollar public investments in capital in ways that build community wealth in low-income neighbourhoods. Community organizers, policy innovators and advocates including Atkinson collaborated with Metrolinx to demonstrate how to develop a Community Benefits Framework.

The Foundation invested in three innovative leadership learning initiatives to support these strategies:

AnchorTO is a ‘learning-while-doing’ collaborative led by the City of Toronto. It’s about channeling the economic power of public anchor institutions to create jobs and procure from community-based and diverse enterprises. 

The Power Lab is a leadership learning initiative convened by the Broadbent Institute and led by organizers who are building economic and democratic power within persistently excluded and racialized communities.

Civic Tech for Civic Voice, written by the Atkinson Associate on Civic Tech Jennifer Hollett, introduced community organizers to new digital strategies and tools.

Policy research has included ground-breaking studies into decent work, public investment in innovation, employment insurance reform, community benefits, social procurement, and co-op conversions as a strategy for small business succession plans.

In 2019, Atkinson convened a national gathering of 100 decent work activists and advocates in Montréal to mark the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization. It was called My Labour Our Future.

Everyday, we write a few lines of this chapter through the Atkinson Decent Work Fund, public policy initiatives, shareholder advocacy, mission-related investment strategies, and creative program partnerships.

Follow us in social media to find out what we’re working on right now or reach out by e-mail to Atkinson’s Chief Executive Officer Colette Murphy to learn more.

The Backstory

Atkinson’s mission is to promote social and economic justice in Ontario. Our values are:

TRUST as the basis for long-term, creative and productive relationships

OPENNESS to and RESPECT for differences in opinion, outlook and experience

COLLABORATION with allies in all sectors and fields for collective impact

ACCOUNTABILITY and TRANSPARENCY in the stewardship of resources

SMART RISK as a prerequisite for innovation and progress

We’re guided by the Atkinson Principles  as a grant maker, advocate and investor. These principles are our inheritance from Joseph Atkinson along with a sizeable endowment. They direct us to focus on equity, stick with people on the economic margins, amplify their voices, and support their development as leaders in everything we do. Making visible the connections between private troubles and public issues is key to our approach.

Our strategic priority is to strengthen movements for decent work and a fair economy. We’ve chosen four integrated philanthropic strategies to this end:

NARRATIVE CHANGE. Advance a powerful narrative about work, workers and the economy that challenges inequality.

LEADERSHIP LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT. Grow the base of deeply committed and highly effective movement leaders.

PUBLIC POLICY AND CORPORATE ADVOCACY. Campaign for change in public policy and corporate behaviour.

KNOWLEDGE CREATION AND SHARING. Generate information, knowledge and insights from practice to build related fields.

We measure impact over generations, not months or years. So, we track “signs of progress” toward these goals:

EQUITY. An economy that treats all workers fairly and impartially, and does not drive income, wealth or democratic inequality.

SUFFICIENCY. An economy that produces enough for everyone.

SUSTAINABILITY. An economy that has ecological integrity, and enables health and well-being.

SOLIDARITY. An economy that promotes mutual trust and the understanding that we’re all in this together

For even greater impact, we collaborate with foundations and other funders to harness the power and resources of philanthropy.  We also work with foundation colleagues to share information and strategize to best support movement leaders.

The Early Child Development Funders Working Group prioritizes decent work for early childhood educators as part of a national strategy to ensure access to quality and affordable child care across Canada. We’re one of seven Canadian foundations that collaborate to make impact investments through a mission-related investing funders’ collaborative.  Atkinson’s Colette Murphy, is a board member of the Philanthropic Foundations of Canada. We also listen and learn as members of two national networks of foundations and other philanthropic organizations, The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada and Environment Funders Canada. Director of Mission and Money Jenn Miller is a member of the Governing Circle of The Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada.

With the threat to these issues and workers in the times of COVID-19, we continue to collaborate to make sure that philanthropy is doing its part in Canada. We’ve committed to supporting our grant partners and the nonprofit sector through this crisis, in collaboration with major funder networks and GIVE5.

Reach out by e-mail to Atkinson’s Director of Strategy, Communications and Learning Pat Thompson for more details about how we size up the potential, value and impact of our philanthropic strategies.

Meet Atkinson's Board and Staff

We’ve come to Atkinson from the academy, journalism, labour, business, government, health care, and the wider community. What we share is a commitment to the Atkinson Principles and the Foundation’s mission and values. Amy Tong chairs the Board of Directors. Colette Murphy has been Atkinson’s Chief Executive Officer since 2012.