One of the founders of the National Farmers Union has died at the age of 92. Roy Atkinson, born on the family homestead in Springwater, Sask., started out as president of the Saskatchewan Farmers Union in 1962 and was instrumental in creating the national organization seven years later.
He served as president of the NFU — the most militant agricultural organization of its time — until 1978.
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During its heyday in the early 1970s, the NFU went beyond traditional agricultural laments over prices and profits and addressed problems such as Third World development, multinational corporations and stewardship of the soil, sometimes with picket lines and boycotts.
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Atkinson was arrested in Prince Edward Island during a tractor demonstration for what his lawyer jokingly described as “trying to intimidate a road.”
In 1974, the federal government admitted the RCMP used a Saskatoon travel agency to monitor his movements.
In 1977, rumours circulated that the NFU had been placed on a so-called security blacklist by the RCMP. It was a move that outraged Atkinson, who viewed it as interference with legitimate union activity.
“It is often said that we can see as far as we do today because we stand upon the shoulders of giants,” Jan Slomp, NFU president, said in a release. “Roy Atkinson is certainly one of those giants. His legacy as our farm movement’s leader is unmistakable. He was one of the visionaries who brought provincial farm unions together to create the foundation of our present national organization.”
That sentiment was echoed by Stewart Wells, who headed the organization between 2001 and 2009.
“Roy was a man of tremendous intellect and discipline,” Wells said. “He believed if you gave people all the information they would make the right decision, and that people should be able to control their own means of production and marketing.”
His activism was remembered by Nettie Wiebe, the organization’s president from 1995 to 1998.
“Roy fought for and with farm families to protect their economic interests and their way of life,” Wiebe said.
Atkinson, who was large, genial and shrewd, once laughed when it was suggested that he was regarded as a folk hero by some Canadian farmers.
During his years at the helm of the NFU, he continued operating the thousand-hectare farm his grandfather, father and uncles had homesteaded since 1905.
He grew up in the Depression in a family where politics and farming were discussed over the dinner table.
“It always seemed strange to me that farmers were going bankrupt while other businesses were growing,” he said in a 1977 interview. “I guess I had to find out why.
“The other thing was coming to realize that workers had to organize in order to earn a decent living, to get decent wages.”
His obituary noted that Atkinson also served on the Economic Council of Canada and was a member of the Canadian Council for Rural Development. He was a board member of Federated Co-operatives Limited and was a “grassroots general” in Saskatchewan’s fight for universal medicare, serving on the Community Health Services Association formed in opposition to the 1962 doctors strike.
He was inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame and in 2002 was invested into the Order of Canada.
A memorial celebration for Atkinson will be held in Saskatoon on May 27.