Humanity Above All

Atkinson’s Executive Director Colette Murphy‘s offered this toast during a reception for the Atkinson family on November 3rd, 2017 in Toronto on the occasion of the foundation’s 75th anniversary.

She’s pictured here with Emily Mathieu, Erik Mathiesen, Fay Faraday, Colette Murphy, Paul Clifford, Alex Himelfarb, Amy Tong, Kofi Hope and John Honderich — members of the Atkinson Foundation Board of Directors. Missing from this photo are Gail Misra and Irene Gentle.

I’d like to start by thanking you for the opportunity to advocate for “humanity above all” in a world that is too often inhumane.

In preparation for this night, we set out to learn more about this phrase, this timeless mission that Mr. Atkinson placed at the centre of his life and his foundation. We discovered that it has all the characteristics of what’s called a “meme” today —  a social idea that spread like wildfire across two continents long before the internet was a thing.

It turns out that Elihu Burritt was the source of the first spark. He put it this way: “above all nations is humanity”. He was an American born into a poor family 50 years before Mr. Atkinson. He was given the nickname “The Learned Blacksmith” when it was discovered he had mastered 50 languages while working at the forge. He was best known as a peace activist, and a defender of women’s rights and working people. President Lincoln made him his consular agent in Birmingham, England — ground zero of the industrial revolution.

An Oxford-educated British historian and journalist is frequently mistaken to be the original author. Between 1871 and 1910, Goldwin Smith inserted himself in Canadian politics when he landed in Toronto and married the mayor’s daughter. Smith was a prolific writer who placed the “British race” above all. He was actively opposed to universal suffrage as well as Canada’s independence from the US.

The trail stopped at Goldwin Smith in our investigation into Mr. Atkinson’s inspiration. We might have accepted this “alternative fact” if not for the Atkinson Principles. We couldn’t believe this man was the source of this powerful phrase, so we kept digging for an explanation.

We finally found an editorial written by Mr. Atkinson dated 1912. It’s called Art and Humanity, and I’d like to read it to you.

“Somebody asked the question whether, if you were in a garret, with a Dresden Madonna on the wall and a live baby on the floor, and the place caught fire, would you save the picture or the baby?

The question is not even open to argument.

It is amazing that it should be argued at all, that a person named Sir George Birdwood should declare for the picture — saying that you can get plenty of babies, but there is only one Dresden Madonna.

Such a reply might have been expected in the days of Nero, but it is amazing that after two thousand years of Christianity the question should even be debated seriously or as a joke.

Above all art is humanity. Above all nations is humanity. Above all churches is humanity. Above all human institutions is humanity. If Christianity has not taught us that it has taught us nothing.

The imaginary case of the baby and the picture was founded upon a real one.

Some Egyptian temples will be destroyed by the construction of a great dam. The dam is to increase the fertility of Egypt and save millions of Egyptians from semi-starvation.

To save one man from starvation is worth all the monuments of art in the world.”

This editorial led us to the question and answer section of the Star in 1916. There we found the truth in black and white. It said,

“The author of the phrase ‘above all nations is humanity’ was not Goldwin Smith but Elihu Burritt, the ‘learned blacksmith’.”

This was the clue we needed to solve the mystery. It opened the door to a storehouse of evidence that supports Mr. Burritt as the author of the original phrase. We know now Mr. Atkinson and his contemporaries were up against “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Time and time again, they fought back with the truth and helped us understand it more fully. The Star’s Public Editor Kathy English tells us that accuracy and trust go together in the newspaper business. The same applies to the business of leadership, especially the kind that changes the world for the better.

Please raise your glasses.

To Joseph Atkinson, a true leader — who was inspired by the wisdom of working people, and who left us a reliable trail of words and actions to live by.

To humanity above all. Above all prejudice. Above all considerations. Above all else.

And to the Atkinson Foundation’s next 75 years. May we continue to fight the good fight alongside people whose stories can get lost unless we’re determined to find them, trust them, and follow where they lead.