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A voice for those in need: remembering Alan Pickersgill

In this month's Journeys, we look at the life and times of Alan Pickersgill, a community activist, columnist, library champion and social justice warrior

For Alan Pickersgill, being a voice in the community was a lifelong commitment.

As an active union member throughout his life, Pickersgill was an outspoken advocate, especially for those in need within the Guelph community.

On Feb. 3, after a year-long battle with cancer, Pickersgill passed away at the age of 74. 

Wayne Samuelson, president of the Workers Health and Safety (WHSC) Board of Directors and former president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, says that Pickersgill always fought for the oppressed and marginalized. 

“WHSC, and indeed workers from across Ontario, benefited from Alan’s commitment to working people through his words, but more importantly, through his actions,” Samuelson says in a tribute to Pickersgill.

With exceptional writing skills, Pickersgill joined WHSC in 1991 as a program developer. Later, he worked as a communications officer and then as director of training services in Toronto in 2002. 

He was a dedicated supporter of universal public health care, environmentalism, non-violence, social justice, democratic socialism and public education. 

As treasurer for Friends of the Guelph Public Library, Pickersgill’s campaigning efforts continue to have long lasting impacts.   

“His decades long campaign for a new library is evident. He raised over $100,000 a year in helping build a new library and this is something we can all be proud of today,” says Guelph city councillor Phil Allt, a longtime friend of Pickersgill. 

Virginia Gillham, Chair of Friends of the Guelph Public Library, said Pickersgill was a huge supporter of both the library and Friends of the Library. 

“Alan was an executive member and our treasurer for many years. He was central to the success of our first several book sales,” Gillham said.  

With a love for reading, came a passion for writing for Pickersgill. 

He was a regular freelance columnist for the Guelph Tribune from 1995-2014.

“He had a large following,” says Pickergill’s close friend, Jim Robinson. 

Robinson met Pickersgill in 1980. They were both involved in the labour movement and quickly became friends.

“He was such a talented writer. He had a unique way of taking a complicated issue and putting it in layman’s terms. He would tell a story while always making a significant point,” Robinson said. 

“Even after retiring, Alan was always connected with community either with the library or politically.”

Pickersgill was also involved with political campaigns including when Robinson ran for the NDP in 1984.  

Allt remembers the night the late Jack Layton decided to run for NDP leadership.

Pickersgill and his wife, Lynne hosted a garden party. “It was at their house that Jack Layton declared he was going to stand for NDP leadership by playing the piano and singing ‘Hit the Road Jack’,” Allt said 

Allt says he got to know Pickersgill in the 1980’s when the two worked at a housing cooperative in Guelph.

“Alan was a coordinator, and he was so patient. He did this with passion and sensitivity because he knew many of the people were struggling,” Allt said. 

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Pickersgill and his family emigrated to Canada in 1957 and moved to Guelph in 1971. 

Among many family and friends, Pickersgill is survived by his wife Lynne Hulley, sons Dylan, Chris and Ian, daughter Emily and brothers Edward, Ronald and James. 

His grandchildren, Madelaine, Nathan, Edwin, Taryn, Rhys and Rowan and his west highland terrier, Charlie will miss him deeply.

According to family, Pickersgill was a voracious reader. He enjoyed photography, scrabble, darts and building Lego. He could fix anything household or mechanical. Pickersgill always supported his local community. His smiling face will be missed at the Guelph Farmer’s Market. 

“He loved going to the River Run Centre and he always supported local music,” Robinson says. 

“Guelph has lost someone special. Alan was so connected to the community. He made you feel like you were part of his family. He was always thoughtful and always made you feel welcome.”

Visiting with Pickersgill during the pandemic was not possible for his close friends.

“In the last year, he had to be careful because of COVID. So, I couldn’t see him unless it was on Facetime and there were a couple socially distanced events,” Robinson said. “Normally, we would get together a lot.”

Allt, in a tribute to Pickersgill, wrote that his friend fought cancer with determination and optimism. 

“It was his misfortune to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic. I personally only saw him once in the flesh over the past nine months. He feared getting more ill, and of course, we understood,” Allt said. 

More recently, Pickersgill shared his writings and photography on his blog. 

“I consider myself to be an advocate for peace, for social justice, democracy and socialism. My interests now are in writing, about things that occur to me, photographing the world around me and playing scrabble and darts,” Pickersgill wrote.

His blogs describe his experiences with cancer in his last year. Allt says Pickersgill never gave up, even in the face of cancer.

“Alan may be gone but he lives on through all of us and through his writing,” Allt writes in his tribute. 

“We can all learn from Alan. We can all persevere, we can all stand by our principles, we can all have fun listening to music, cherishing family, wishing better for a world so unequal. Alan found beauty in nature and shared it in his photos. Alan found partnership and beauty. We can do the same: take time to look around, see what needs correcting, what needs nurturing, what needs admiring and what needs loving. When we lost Alan, we lost a gruff, kind, funny, warm Glaswegian, the likes of which we might not see again for some time.”