Remembering Ed Broadbent

Colette Murphy is the Chief Executive Officer of the Atkinson Foundation.

The reality of Ed Broadbent’s death is sinking in slowly. He seemed ageless and invincible at 87. A much respected main character in the story of this country – and in the lives of many individuals and communities with whom he made common cause.

Atkinson was one of the organizations with whom Ed collaborated over several decades to advance a broad, shared vision of an equitable society. In 2001, Ed and Avie Bennett co-chaired a commission on Canadian democracy and corporate accountability with funding from us. Here’s a short description of their recommendations.

In 2014, Atkinson and the three-year old Broadbent Institute entered a new era of collaboration with Ed and Rick Smith to build progressive policy heft and organizing skill. Together, we published Jonathan Sas’ report on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State in 2015, and co-convened a national roundtable on the 75th anniversary of Employment Insurance with the Mowat Centre in 2017.

From 2018 to 2021, we joined forces to create the Power Lab – an innovative leadership learning project. Under Alejandra Bravo and Mercedes Sharpe Zayas’ guidance, it was conceived as an experiment in shifting power from so-called experts to practitioners, and in facilitating “learning while doing” the work of community organizing for a fair economy.

In 2019, Ed was one of 100 participants in My Labour Our Future – our national convening on the occasion of the International Labour Organization’s 100th anniversary. I heard a much younger activist ask him to share one significant change in the practice of politics over the course of his life. He reflected wistfully on the shift from people wanting to exchange thoughts on issues with him to wanting nothing more than selfies. He challenged all of us to stop using jargon, and to speak plainly in concrete terms about public policy and the constructive role governments ought to play in our lives.

Through it all, we’ve learned that the distance between the Atkinson Principles and the Broadbent Principles is not as great as some might assume. Our shared belief that inequality is the result of political choices, and not inevitable, made us collaborators. Ed’s uncommon decency, warmth, and active compassion made us friends.

I’ll never forget Ed’s good humour at our 75th anniversary party six years ago. He spent practically the whole night in front of our “step and repeat” wall. It gave guests the chance to put themselves physically into the story of Canada’s fight for decent work — a story told vividly in a graphic novella released that evening. Everybody from political adversaries and community organizers to journalists and policy wonks  wanted to be photographed in a “panel” with him.

Considering that Ed hoped for much more from his encounters with all of us, maybe the best way to thank him is to carve out more space for real dialogue and to expand our common ground. This video or even this short quote from one of his many op-eds could be a good place to start. 

“There is no big secret about what works. More equality and lower poverty rates exist where there are good jobs, strong unions, generous child benefits, affordable housing programs and comprehensive child care services. Commitment, not new ideas, is what Canada needs.”

I’d say Ed has shown us what a commitment to “what works” looks like. It’s now our turn to deliver what Canada needs. What do you think?