On Turning 80

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation. Colette sent this letter on December 21, 2022, to Atkinson’s extended community. You can subscribe to receive her occasional updates here.


The Atkinson Foundation turned 80 this year. We arrived at the threshold of a new decade quietly, in stark contrast to the boisterous celebration of our 75th anniversary at 1 Yonge Street, in the space that once housed the Toronto Star’s printing presses. In  October, Atkinson’s Board and staff members raised their glasses to Joseph Atkinson and Elmina Elliott, and their “good fight”, in our new office at Daniels Waterfront just a few blocks east on Queens Quay.

Earlier that day, the Board made the decision to recognize the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) with the $80K Atkinson Good Fight Prize. We give this award every five years to a grassroots campaign, coalition or network that has found pragmatic ways to rewrite unjust economic rules and redraw the so-called margins of society. Unlike most prizes, this one is about collective achievement. It acknowledges individual and organizational merit, and honours the work that requires all of us to pull in the same direction. No exceptions. No exclusions.

TCBN’s decade-long campaign to put equity at the centre of Ontario’s infrastructure development process fits that description perfectly. This Toronto Star article about the announcement provides the details. What stands out for me is the evidence that there is more than enough wealth and prosperity to go around. Hoarding economic opportunities hurts everyone eventually. Only a few wealthy people benefit from persistent inequalities whereas all of us benefit when we build community wealth.

Just a year before Joseph Atkinson established a charitable foundation in his name, he wrote this about wealth:

“Great wealth is amassed, accumulated, collected, gathered, taken. There are many words to describe the process but ‘earned’ is not one of them… The wealthiest among us do not operate alone in the world. What they enjoy has been brought to their door by the labour of a vast number of people.”

When he died seven years later, he gave the Toronto Star to the working people of Ontario. The same people who had brought such great wealth to his own door. 

This ultimate philanthropic gift marked the pinnacle of a life devoted to people the world has labelled unlucky and undeserving. Joseph Atkinson believed that merit and hard work have little to do with success. Thrift and initiative are no guarantee against poverty. He argued for the necessary role of governments in taking on the problems that no one can solve on their own, and in fixing unfair social structures and systems. He valued democracy and the role of an independent press in making it work.

That’s why he deployed the Star to fight for workers’ rights, universal social protections and a progressive tax system in his lifetime. And that’s why he set up the Atkinson Foundation: to fuel the fight for as long as it takes to win and to invest in the place he called home.

We’ve used this anniversary to reflect deeply on Joseph Atkinson’s relationship with Toronto, known also as Tkaronto. The treaty lands and territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. The traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and Haudenosaunee peoples. The expanse of stolen land the Atkinson family helped colonize when they fled labour strife in England’s Cumberland Hills during the 1840s. The geography of their lives and livelihoods over several generations.

The transformative work of excavating stories and living into their lessons continues. It’s central to the complex work of aligning our mission and money over the next ten years. In 2022, we began a relationship with the Yellowhead Institute at Toronto Metropolitan University and caught the excitement of their dream for the Yellowhead School. We’re grateful for their openness to walking and talking with us on this  new path.

We’re ending this anniversary year in need of rest and with mixed emotions. Sad to lose Atkinson stalwart John Honderich and several other friends and family members. Angry that democratic values like majority rule, and protected lands like the Greenbelt, are under attack. Afraid there is no end in sight to the suffering caused by the ‘tridemic,’ price inflation, inadequate wages and unsafe working conditions, especially for Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities.

At the same time, we feel enormous pride that our co-worker of six years, Ausma Malik, was elected to Toronto City Council. A similar feeling came with the announcement of the first-ever Atkinson Artist, Rollie Pemberton aka Cadence Weapon, in the spring. And Armine Yalnizyan, the Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers and one of Canada’s hardest-working economists, has made us more confident that a more inclusive economic recovery is within reach.

Gratitude is, however, the strongest feeling of all. Our long-time partners and collaborators continue to be the most reliable source of endorphins, adrenaline and hope when we’re running low. While they seem tireless, this movement building work takes a big toll. We can’t thank them enough for their leadership.

A final word of thanks is reserved for the Atkinson board and staff team. They demonstrate what an ethic of care and cooperation looks like and can accomplish. Their wholehearted engagement with the Atkinson legacy and its obligations, individually and collectively, is what makes our unique contribution valuable and impactful in this time and place.

My wish for 2023 is that all of us will continue to find hope and strength in this good fight.

Colette Murphy
Chief Executive Officer

December 2022