Saskatchewan

Percy Schmeiser, farmer known for fight against Monsanto, dead at 89

Percy Schmeiser, the Saskatchewan farmer whose name became synonymous with the legal fight against patent rights centred around Monsanto's genetically modified canola, has died at age 89.

Schmeiser is remembered by his son as a dedicated father who loved taking his grandchildren fishing

Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, who battled agrochemical giant Monsanto in court, has died at age 89. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Percy Schmeiser, whose name became synonymous with the legal fight against patent rights centred around Monsanto's genetically modified canola, has died.

John Schmeiser told CBC News his father died peacefully in his sleep Tuesday afternoon at the age of 89. Schmeiser had Parkinson's disease.

The Saskatchewan farmer became famous in the late 1990s after agrochemical giant Monsanto took him to court. The company had found its genetically modified canola in Schmeiser's field, but he had never paid for the right to grow it.

Schmeiser insisted the seeds had blown onto his field in the wind and that he owned them.

Monsanto sued him, and in the end, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that the farmer had knowingly violated Monsanto's patent. 

Recently, a movie based on Schmeiser's life was released. 

WATCH | Archival video of Percy Schmeiser's battle with Monsanto:

As the world media descends on Percy Schmeiser and his battle with Monsanto, neighbours and scientists question the validity of his defence. 7:46

Schmeiser's son John said the court case was only one part of his life, as it happened when Schmeiser was getting ready to retire. John said he'll remember Percy as a dedicated father, grandfather and businessman. 

"I am privileged to this day to be his son," John said. "Growing up, it was very, very evident right from the beginning about how concerned he was about his community and his family."

Schmeiser served on town council in Bruno, Sask., for several years, both as mayor and as a councillor. He also ran a couple of businesses and ran a farm, John said. 

"We were always busy," John said. "And he always made time to be with family. And when grandchildren started to rise, it just took it to another level for him because he had more children to be around."

Schmeiser, who had Parkinson's disease, is survived by his wife, Louise Schmeiser. (The Associated Press)

Schmeiser would spoil his children and grandchildren but also pushed them to be their best. 

"He also challenged us … in a good way, to make sure that whatever we did or whatever we chose as a vocation, there's something that had a little difficulty with it," John said. "That challenge was all always done in a very friendly 'I have your best interests at heart' way."

It is an inspiration about Percy, not just standing up for oneself, but to meet our burdens and challenges with enthusiasm.- Terry Zakreski

John said the family was pleasantly surprised when Christopher Walken was announced to play his dad in the film, which is called simply Percy. He said he's been a fan of Walken's for a long time, but it was awkward to see his family's story on screen. His father was more joyful than Walken portrayed, he said. 

"My mom was a little disappointed that Christopher Walken had a goatee, as my father never did," John said with a laugh. "But in the end, we're very happy with his portrayal."

Schmeiser's longtime lawyer, who was with him throughout the landmark Monsanto case, said there were some things the movie got right and some it got wrong. 

Schmeiser was portrayed by Walken as somewhat grumpy or curmudgeonly, which Terry Zakreski said was very different from real life. 

"Notwithstanding all that pressure that he was under every morning … when we went to court, he had a smile on his face as big as all of Saskatchewan," Zakreski said.

Terry Zakreski, Schmeiser's longtime lawyer, said the farmer was unlike anyone else he had met. Together, the two took the Monsanto case all the way to Canada's Supreme Court. (Terry Zakreski/Facebook)

"I never met a man like him that could face the challenges that he did and withstand it and still ... be the jovial person that he was," Zakreski said. "It is an inspiration about Percy, not just standing up for oneself, but to meet our burdens and challenges with enthusiasm." 

Zakreski saw the movie at the Calgary Film Festival with Schmeiser's son, John, and said it was a strange and surreal experience. 

Though he said the film got more things right than wrong, there were some aspects where the director took artistic licence. 

"The trial was a lot more intense and a lot more dramatic than it was portrayed," he said. "It took place in Saskatoon on a larger scale and it drew an incredible amount of interest. There were media scrums going into and out of court. It was a very high pressure situation."

Zakreski said Schmeiser's death wasn't a complete surprise because of his age and health concerns but still hurt to hear. 

WATCH | Percy Schmeiser's story hits the big screen: 

Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser’s battle with Monsanto, which went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, has been turned into a Hollywood movie called Percy. Although the movie is endorsed by Schmeiser’s family, there are concerns about its accuracy. 2:04

"He was just an extraordinary person. I haven't met someone like him … an example for us all."

John said memories about his father that stand out are his passion for fishing and sharing his skills. 

"He would go to great lengths to take his grandchildren, when they were four, five, six years old, he would take them fishing. And he just loved doing that," John said. "For all of us, that was a very, very special thing and it was so important to him."

Schmeiser would be filled with pride when he saw his grandchildren catch their first fish, John said. 

"I don't know who had a bigger smile, [Schmeiser] or one of his grandchildren," John said. "For him, that was just an incredible sense of accomplishment, to see them catch fish."

John said he hopes his father is remembered as that dedicated grandfather, passionate fisher and someone who would do anything to see his community succeed. Schmeiser would be there for his customers at the farm equipment dealership at any time, and even in retirement watched the weather to make sure they had a good harvest, John said. 

Schmeiser is survived by his wife Louise. The two had just had their 68th wedding anniversary on Oct. 2. John said they met at a dance in Bruno, Sask., and lived there their entire lives. Now, Bruno is home for him and his siblings forever, he said. 

In a video recorded in September 2020, the Schmeisers thanked people for their support through the legal battle and for the opportunity to have their story told in a recently released movie called Percy. (Mongrel Media/Vimeo)

About the Author

Heidi Atter

AP/Journalist

Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Regina. She started with CBC Saskatchewan after a successful internship and has a passion for character-driven stories. Heidi has worked as a reporter, web writer, associate producer and show director so far, and has worked in Edmonton, at the Wainwright military base, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email heidi.atter@cbc.ca.

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