Comment: A great mind and a great character

The name Roy Atkinson used to be one of the most mentioned in the Manitoba Co-operator, but it’s been awhile since it appeared.

Our digital search records go back to 2007 and since then Roy’s name comes up just once, in an interview with Allan Dawson at the National Farmers Union 40th anniversary annual meeting in 2009. A quote in that story couldn’t be more appropriate — “The first person who compromises, loses.”

Reports on Roy’s passing at age 92 last week focused on his role as the NFU’s founding president, but that term ended in 1978. His influence on the organization and on farm politics in Western Canada continued for much longer.

In a previous life as an employee of the Canadian Wheat Board, I spent a lot of time with “Big Roy,” sitting through meetings of the elected producer advisory committee and travelling with him to the committee’s local meetings with farmers. As others will agree, Roy was on one hand one of the most brilliant and on the other most aggravating people you would ever meet in farm politics. He would show up at meetings well briefed and having read all the background material, and he once told me his approach to either running or attending a meeting: “Never ask a question that you don’t know the answer to first.”

That often meant that the person questioned either gave a correct answer that he or she would have preferred not to give, or gave the wrong answer and then got skewered by Roy.

His ability to seek out the weak spot in an argument wasn’t only directed at his opponents in other organizations. Roy’s years as first NFU president were marked by militant activity — he even spent a few days in jail after a demonstration in P.E.I. In later years some of the NFU officials and members were inclined to take a less confrontational approach, but Roy remained in the background as the “éminence grise” of the organization, with an unofficial Prairie-wide network of members backing his “never compromise” approach.

However, in the end one reason that some found Roy so aggravating was that they consciously or subconsciously knew — or feared — that he was right. At wheat board advisory meetings in the 1980s, some of his fellow members would roll their eyes at Roy once again predicting a world with unfettered international transfer of capital, and how it would mean the end of the Pools and the takeover of the Canadian grain industry by multinationals. That seemed like paranoia at the time, but for better or worse, Roy’s predictions came true.

Even those who think for the better should recognize Roy and the organization he founded for not being afraid to take a stand against conventional wisdom.

Roy lost many battles, but never his principles.

The day before he died, he reportedly refused a glass of orange juice from a hospital nurse because he’d seen reports of bad practices by California corporate farms.

Prairie agriculture has lost one of its great minds and great characters.

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