(May 20, 2016) It may well be a universal human affliction to suffer from “home blindness.”  Many of us seem to think the wonderful places and great people are somewhere else.

Occasionally, however, the passing of someone reminds us that powerful individuals who will take their place in the history books for great deeds and great hearts also live here in western Canada.  Certainly the news that Roy Atkinson, farmer activist and the founding President of the National Farmers Union passed away a few days ago in Saskatoon marks just such a milestone.

Addressing CWBA convention 2011

Addressing CWBA convention 2011

I first met the legendary Roy Atkinson in 1976 when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alberta.  Even then he was a larger than life figure.  As a farm activist he championed the institutions which made it possible for many farming families to send their children through higher education.

At that time Roy was making the rounds with Les Benjamin, the NDP transportation critic, talking about that perennial western subject: rail transportation.  Roy warned us that changes to the Crow Rate would mean the farmer-owned grain handling cooperatives known as the Wheat Pools, which owned almost 90% of the grain elevators on the prairies would be forced to close most of their facilities and engage in a ruinous effort to centralize thousands of “prairie sentinels” into a few inland terminals.  It would, he told us, create huge hauling distances for farmers and ultimately undermine the single-desk selling system.

To this writer’s eternal shame, I scoffed at the whole notion.  Farmers, I thought, would not let their cooperative grain handling system be destroyed, let alone give up the market power they had achieved using the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.  As events have shown, Roy knew better.  In 1976 there were a little over 3,900 primary elevators on the prairies, and now almost exactly as Roy predicted, there are a mere 327 licensed primary elevators left.

Roy and political prod

Roy and political prod

Some decades later I well remember Roy at the founding convention of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance reminding us, while holding up a pitch-fork on a plaque (text below), that the only thing any politician understands is public pressure and the expectation of a more or less figurative pitch fork in the behind at the next election if they do not pursue the policies we want.

Roy’s death marks the end of an era in western politics where farmers were able to command government attention though their numbers.  Roy foresaw the dangers of commodity specific check-off groups fragmenting and thereby limiting the political power of farmers.  He strongly supported groups like the National Farmers’ Union that spoke for the common interests of farmers across the country.

It is often said that the first generation of a family builds the wealth, the second generation consolidates it and the third generation fiddles it away.  As the current generation of western farmers comes to the realization that the institutions which enabled them to create their wealth are no longer there, the work of the next generation will be to follow in Roy’s not inconsiderable footsteps, and rebuild that single, independent farm voice.

I would recommend reading this tribute from NFU members who worked closely with Roy over the years and we reprint Roy’s complete obituary as it appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix here:

The pitchfork plaque reads:

 Presented with pride to R. Roy Atkinson, Advisory Committee member for District 6, 1965 to1994 by his friends on the 1991-94 Advisory Committee in memory of his staunch defense of the Canadian grain marketing system and the presentation to CWB commissioners in April 1970 when he instructed them in the use of this pitchfork to defend the CWB.


  1. Harry Atkinson

    Roy spoke eloquently for his generation. He learned the essence of family farm survival from the pioneers he grew up listening to and watching through the twenties and thirties; as they built institutions such as the Wheat Pool and CWB. Although he was not able to defeat the greed and avarice of international capital that destroyed those institutions it wasn’t for lack of effort, courage or vision.

  2. Darrell Stokes

    Who could speak to power better than Roy Atkinson? Nobody! Roy was able to get the attention of the political class by speaking the truth, however painful.
    Unfortunately the truth he spoke was ignored by many who thought they knew better what was good for farmers.
    I met Roy late in his life but knew of him long before as an advocate for the kind of Western Canadian farmer that I wanted to be. He told me `Don`t believe the crap you hear, no matter the source, including me. It will always be tainted with support for the view of the speaker, whose interests may differ from yours.
    Make your own judgments and stand behind them.
    Roy will always have my greatest admiration.

  3. Pat Atkinson

    Excellent reflection on dad and his work on behalf of family farmers. Thank you.

  4. Excellent piece. Farmers have lost a great advocate for them in the passing of Roy.