An Architect at Heart

Betsy Murray was the Chair of the Atkinson Foundation Board of Directors from 1994 to 2005. She is Joseph Atkinson and Elmina Elliott’s granddaughter and a member of the Toronto Star Voting Trust.  She delivered these remarks at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Atkinson Foundation in Toronto, Ontario on Friday, November 3rd, 2017.

When my grandfather established the Atkinson Foundation in 1942, he had been a journalist and the publisher of the Toronto Star for over 40 years. There are signs, however, that he might have been an architect at heart. 

Not only did he envision the Toronto Star’s first home on King Street in the late 1920s –- the building that would become the inspiration for the Daily Planet in the comic world of Superman. But he was among those who constructed the architecture of progressive ideas that would turn Canada from a colonial outpost into an independent country.

Joseph Atkinson’s design for his Foundation was built on the single idea, “humanity above all.” In other words, in a complex world of multiple considerations, he believed people came first. Five principles anchor this idea: a strong and united Canada, civic engagement, individual and civil liberties, the necessary role of government, and workers’ rights.

While my grandfather was setting up the Foundation, a national consensus was taking shape. There was a growing willingness to use the power of the state to lift everyone – but especially those trapped by poverty — to a higher standard of health, education, security and prosperity. This was the goal to which Joseph Atkinson had dedicated his life, so it is not surprising it would also become the focus of his legacy.

During the Atkinson Foundation’s first 50 years, we put our energy and resources behind efforts to shore up this fragile consensus. In partnership with governments at all levels, we invested in building Canada’s social architecture – the creation of our public healthcare system, the development of our public universities and colleges, and the expansion of our social safety net.

Over 20 years ago, the Foundation’s Board hired its first executive director, Dr. Charles Pascal. Charles was, in his own right, a master architect. He helped us make the turn from investing mostly in bricks and mortar to backing people and ideas with the power to drive significant public policy change. 

It was an era of remarkable creativity and productivity. Brilliant and relentless advocates made great strides with the Foundation’s support. They pursued an agenda that included early childhood education, Medicare, public education, Indigenous rights, corporate social responsibility, and several issues related to economic justice. Bold ideas like the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development at OISE/University of Toronto, the Atkinson Economic Justice Fellowship, and the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy were advanced. And together we helped make Canada stronger and more resilient even as the country started showing the signs of stress caused by growing inequality.

 Many of you participated in this work and continue to be among the Foundation’s trusted partners to this day. I’m encouraged by all the new faces in the crowd tonight, by your commitment to our shared values, and by the progress you’re making everyday. On behalf of the Atkinson family, I want to thank you for your friendship and for your perseverance in fighting this good fight.