Imagine the Thread

Ausma Malik is Atkinson’s Director of Social Engagement. She is responsible for engaging and encouraging Canada’s next generation of decent work activists — online and offline.

I was a kid who loved the weekend comics but who never quite became a comic book nerd. I discovered Chester Brown’s now acclaimed graphic novel on Louis Riel while in university.

It was a revelation to me to see such serious information delivered in an entertaining and sensitive way. While the playful illustrations pulled me in, I knew this book was no joke.

Back then, I was grappling with big ideas about imperialism, nationhood and leadership as an undergraduate. These big ideas were threaded through the 214-pages, demonstrating what we all know: that nobody and nothing is ever perfect, least of all history itself. As the chapters unfolded, I recognized heroic qualities in the people depicted but did not meet a flawless hero. I celebrated moments of triumph even when it was apparent the battle was lost. I learned more than I had expected, and found a more tangible way to confront some difficult parts of history — and to imagine a different way forward.

For these and other reasons, it wasn’t difficult for us to choose a graphic novel-style format to tell a story that is particularly important to the Atkinson Foundation as it turns 75 this year — the story of Canada’s fight for decent work in the last century. Joseph Atkinson, who established the foundation, was the publisher of the Toronto Star from 1899 to 1948 and a leading advocate for workers throughout his life. By all accounts, Mr. Atkinson was a pretty serious businessman but he was the first to introduce the “funnies” (that I enjoyed so much growing up) to readers in weekend newspapers years ago. There were people, including his wife Elmina Elliott, who didn’t think it was dignified for a serious paper to print comics. But he decided that the Star ought to fight for — and win — the hearts as well as the minds of its readers.

So today, the Atkinson Foundation is releasing A Share in the Honour: Canada’s Fight for Decent Work in Joseph Atkinson’s Times. It’s a 50-page graphic novella created by Willow Dawson and Patricia Pearson. Willow is best known for her award-winning graphic novel on suffragette Nellie McClung, Hyenas in Petticoats. Patricia is a seasoned journalist who has won prizes for her books, articles and reporting on matters ranging from wildlife conservation to mental health to murder. Historian Jon Weier provided invaluable guidance and support to the creative team.

From start to finish, the team had just sixteen weeks to assemble a collection of historical moments that would inspire, surprise and delight readers but also challenge and motivate them to continue fighting for decent work. It was a very short time to develop a book that would not unintentionally gloss over the injustices and erasure of history, but would intentionally enter into the tensions and ambiguities presented by history.

I’m taking away three key things from this experience.

First, history is continuously being revised. Sometimes by new information, sometimes by looking at it through new eyes from a new vantage point, and sometimes by asking better questions, we hope. Lately, I’ve been listening to UNCIVIL, a new podcast about the American Civil War. Journalists Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt take on the conventional understanding of this historical event in this podcast. In a recording from the launch, Christy Coleman of the American Civil War Museum shared her frustration with accusations about “revisionist history”. “That’s what all history is,” said Coleman. “Because we are always asking new questions. And when new questions are brought to the table, that’s when we go back to the source material to find the answers.”

When we went back to the source material on Mr. Atkinson and his times, for example, we asked new questions about his mother, his wife and the role of women in journalism and unions. We were also curious about the power dynamics between institutions and movements, “thought leaders” and community organizers, and politics and the media.

Second, the more things change, the more things stay the same. When I read this book, I saw many parallels between Mr. Atkinson’s times and ours. Just as the Toronto Star’s Work and Wealth reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh’s story about going undercover as a temp worker hit the Star’s front page, we were learning about how Elmina Elliott (who wrote under the byline Madge Merton) went undercover 130 years ago. She posed as a “domestic servant” in a wealthy home and later as a desperate woman seeking charity from a church to get inside the realities of poverty and then to sound an alarm.

Similarly, streetcars “shocked” a young Jimmy Simpson into political activism and to run for Mayor. To this day, transit is at the centre of campaigns for a renewed vision for public services. There are other threads running through the narrative from then to now — shared causes, convictions, and consequences that connect us. Not only in how their wins and losses opened up or closed the way for us, but how they spur us on.

Third, lost stories must be found and told. “History is written by victors,” said wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. We looked for Indigenous people, racialized communities, religious minorities, women and young people in source documents and found scant evidence of leadership roles or relationships. It is deeply disturbing to me how brazenly people’s very existence can be marginalized or even erased from history. As author Arundhati Roy states: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

So, we listened more closely. It took a little digging but we surfaced a few lost stories. A colleague who studied labour history at the PhD level introduced us to Margaret Gould, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who organized garment workers in Spadina Avenue sweatshops. Mr. Atkinson hired her to be an editor at the Toronto Daily Star. We know there are others who are just beyond our sightline. Like Margaret Gould, they deserve their own graphic novels.

If this book inspires people to critically examine Canada’s historical narrative and to locate themselves, ancestors, and responsibilities in it, we will have achieved at least one of our goals. But there is an even greater ambition behind the re-telling of these particular stories. We hope it will help all of us see the progress made in the lifespan of a single individual and inspire a renewed commitment to the fight for decent work in our lifetimes.

While we no longer have to fight for an unemployment insurance program, we do have to fight for its relevance in a changing labour market. The fight for a $14 weekly wage in the 19th century has become the fight for a $15 hourly minimum wage in the 21st century. And the future of work will be as dependent on a green economy as it was in the past on a war economy.

What has not changed is the urgent need to dismantle the structures of power and privilege. Regrettably, they persist but so do those who organize and resist. The people and stories in this book have reminded me what it looks like to live with the courage of our convictions over decades. Surrounding ourselves with people who help us honour them and enact them in our lives is crucial to making progress.

The thread that connects the present to the past and the future is in your hands now. You’re invited to help the Atkinson Foundation celebrate turning 75 by putting yourself into this big story. We’ll be using #imaginethethread to share hopes and fears for the future of work. Please follow along and jump into the conversation. Instead of only reflecting on what it would have been like to be a decent work activist in the 1900s, we had some fun imagining Joseph Atkinson and his contemporaries clicking, chatting and texting in 2017. Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook over the next week and you’ll see what I mean.

75 years from now — in 2092 — a new generation might pore over this digital archive for clues and signs of what mattered to each of us and what we did about it. Let’s give them something unforgettable and encouraging to build on.

PS: Here’s a preview of the graphic novella. Take a look and then download it here!