Joseph E. Atkinson was born near Newcastle, Ontario in 1865, the eighth child of a poor British immigrant family. His father died when Joseph was just seven months old, leaving his mother with many mouths to feed. She opened a boarding house for labourers from the local mill and it was there that Atkinson first learned the grinding effects of poverty. Hardship and tragedy were childhood companions and would mark him for life.
Though he once dreamed of becoming a Methodist minister, Atkinson found his true calling in journalism. By the 1890s, he had become a reporter in Toronto for The Globe. It was there that he forged a lifelong friendship with a colleague named William Lyon Mackenzie King – and, more important still, fell in love with trailblazing female journalist Elmina Elliott, who would become his wife in 1892.
In 1899, wealthy supporters of Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier bought the struggling Toronto Evening Star, hoping to turn the paper into a Liberal beachhead in a city dominated by the Conservative elite. They recruited Atkinson to run the operation.
Under his leadership, the Star went beyond the expectations of its powerful backers. Atkinson showed a knack for sensationalism that quickly reversed the paper's financial fortunes giving it the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country, which remains true today. But he also proved less pliable than party politicians had hoped. As the Star prospered, Atkinson asserted ever greater independence, focusing the paper's energies on what he considered its most important mission: bettering the lives of the poor in a city where two children in five did not survive to see their first birthday.
Atkinson and his wife Elmina were passionately committed to the "Social Gospel" movement of the early twentieth century, which advocated applying Christian principles to correcting social ills. Elmina was often cited as the “conscience” of the paper and the hidden power behind his rise to prominence. (Click here to read an article about Elmina’s life and her role with the Toronto Star.)
In addition to exposing the realities of life in Toronto's slums and campaigning for clean water and pasteurized milk, Atkinson and his paper took up many progressive social causes, from unemployment insurance to old age pensions. During his years at the helm, The Star also launched two famous charitable programs for children – the Fresh Air Fund and the Santa Claus Fund, both of which continue to this day.
Atkinson infuriated much of the Canadian establishment with his crusades, particularly with his exposés of price-fixing cartels, his incessant editorializing for a wealth tax to pay for social programs, and his support for the labour movement. Just as many are involved today in the fight against the erosion of social programs, Atkinson knew that it would be a constant struggle to protect and improve policies and programs that protect the most vulnerable people. To the day he died in 1948, Atkinson never relented.
Today the Foundation carries on his mission, with a renewed commitment to bringing together individuals and groups in new partnerships, knowing, as he did, that social change requires a collective effort and powerful voice that enables ideas for change to be heard, discussed, and acted upon.