The Chronicle Hearld
Would the Liberal government have had the courage to bring into being what Canadians now see as a cornerstone of their national identity without the battle fought in Saskatchewan against the medical profession between 1960-62? As the late Canadian journalist Walter Stewart put it in his inimitable way, "People may believe that the Liberals would have produced a universal medical system even without the example set in Saskatchewan, but then, many people believe that Elvis is still alive."
Vincent Lam, who has a dual career as an emergency room physician and bestselling author, established his literary credentials in 2006 by winning the Scotiabank Giller prize for his book of stories Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. In Tommy Douglas, he has written an absorbing account of Douglas’ life, one of the valuable series of short biographies entitled Extraordinary Canadians, published by Penguin and edited by John Ralston Saul.
Lam presents Douglas as toughened by adversity from his earliest years in Scotland and Winnipeg, where his family moved in 1911 when he was seven. The young Tommy nearly lost a leg from osteomyelitis. It was saved only because an eminent orthopaedic surgeon took an interest in his case. This was a formative event. Douglas later said, "I think it was out of this experience . . . I came to believe that health services ought not to have a price tag on them, and that people should be able to get whatever health services they required irrespective of their individual capacity to pay."
Douglas watched from a rooftop as special constables on horseback on "Bloody Saturday," (June 21, 1919), crushed the Winnipeg general strike. He concluded that "Whenever the powers that be can’t get what they want, they’re always prepared to resort to violence . . . to break the back of organized opposition."
Trained as a printer, Douglas came under the influence of the Social Gospel movement, which emphasized that Christianity demand the establishment of social and economic justice on earth. He decided to change course and enter the Christian ministry.
Douglas became a Baptist minister in Weyburn, Sask., after graduating from Brandon College. In July 1932 the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was formed and three years later he was elected as a CCF member of Parliament. He returned to provincial politics in 1942 as leader of the Saskatchewan CCF, which went on to form the first socialist government in Canada in 1944.
Despite dire predictions by the business community of economic ruin, Douglas ran a government that balanced the budget while transforming Saskatchewan through the provision of such services as electric power in rural areas.
Saskatchewan’s provincial civil service, re-organized strictly on merit, became the best in Canada, attracting talented young idealists like Allan Blakeney, a Nova Scotian who rose to become premier of his adopted province.
The CCF government’s fiscal prudence made possible the plan outlined in 1959 to introduce universal health insurance. The Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons bitterly opposed the idea, spending over $100,000 during the provincial election of 1960. After a hard-fought victory, Douglas resigned to become first leader of the federal New Democratic Party, formed in 1961 to replace the CCF with a more broadly based political movement. It was left to his successor as premier, Woodrow Lloyd, to push through the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act, and fight a bitter struggle with the doctors culminating in a 23-day physicians’ strike. A settlement, brokered by the eminent English health expert Lord Taylor, was finally reached in 1962.
Ironically enough, Saskatchewan physicians quickly realized that medicare served their interests. No one interfered with their relations with their patients and unpaid bills became a thing of the past. The collapse of the opposition established a crucial precedent for its introduction across the country.
Douglas served as leader of the federal New Democratic Party until 1971. Perhaps the high point of his return to federal politics was his impassioned opposition to the imposition of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis of 1970. The unpopularity of his stand left the old warrior unmoved: "If we are going to tell people that we value democracy and that democracy is the way of dealing with social change, we must use the democratic procedures and not revert on our part to the very kind of violence which we are condemning on the other side."
In 2004 Tommy Douglas was voted "The Greatest Canadian of All Time" in a silly CBC Television competition (Don Cherry came seventh, three spots above Wayne Gretzky). Choosing "the greatest" is a mug’s game, but everyone who wants to understand why Douglas is one of the most important figures in our history should read this book. It is also a fine portrait of an admirable man.
Henry Roper is past president of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society