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Tommy Douglas

Thomas Clement "Tommy" Douglas, PC, CC, SOM (October 20, 1904February 24, 1986) was a Scottish-born Baptist minister who became a prominent Canadian social democratic politician. As leader of the Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) from 1942 and the seventh Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961, he led the first socialist government in North America and introduced universal public healthcare to Canada. When the CCF united with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party, he was elected as its first federal leader and served in that post from 1961 to 1971. He is warmly remembered for his folksy wit and oratory with which he expressed his determined idealism, exemplified by his fable of Mouseland.

In 1930 Douglas married Irma Dempsey, a music student at Brandon College. They had one daughter, actress Shirley Douglas, and they later adopted a second daughter Joan, who became a nurse. Through Shirley, he is grandfather of actor Kiefer Sutherland.

In 2004, he was voted "The Greatest Canadian" of all time in a nationally televised contest organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The miniseries Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, was filmed between February and May of 2005 and aired on CBC Television in two parts on March 12 and 13, 2006.

Early life and activism

Tommy Douglas was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1904. In 1910, his family immigrated to Canada, where they settled in Winnipeg. As a child, Douglas injured his leg and developed osteomyelitis. The leg would have been amputated had it not been for a doctor who saw the condition as a good subject to teach his students and agreed to help for free. This rooted Douglas' belief that health care should be free to all, as he thought people shouldn't be dependent on generosity in order to get their health in good order. During World War I, the family returned to Glasgow. They came back to Winnipeg in 1919, in time for Douglas to witness the Winnipeg General Strike. From a rooftop vantage point on Main Street, he witnessed the police charging the strikers with clubs and guns, a streetcar being overturned and set on fire. He also witnessed the RCMP murder two men.

At the age of fifteen, Douglas began an amateur career in boxing. In 1917 Tommy used the One Big Union Gym to train his skill, fighting bouts that included wrestling as well. Douglas appeared with Canadian heavyweight champ Jack Taylor, and the U.S. champion, Ed "Strangler" Lewis. Weighing 135 pounds, Douglas fought in 1922 for the Lightweight Championship of Manitoba; and after a six round fight won the title. Douglas sustained a broken nose, a loss of some teeth, and a strained hand and thumb. Douglas successfully held the title the following year.

In 1924, Douglas attended Brandon College to study for the ministry. While there, Douglas was influenced by the social gospel movement, which combined Christian principles with social reform. He graduated from Brandon College in 1930, and completed his Master's degree (MA) in Sociology from McMaster University in 1933. His thesis entitled The Problems of the Subnormal Family was on eugenics, a way to "solve the problems of the Subnormal Family" by sterilizing mentally and physically disabled Canadians, and sending them to camps. He briefly continued his graduate work at the University of Chicago but rejected this theory after his experiences of encountering the poor in Chicago and after a trip to Nazi Germany in 1938. He rarely mentioned his thesis later in his life, and his government never enacted eugenics policies (it may be noted that two Canadian provinces, Alberta and British Columbia, had eugenics legislation in the 1930s, and that the philosophy was not discredited in North America prior to World War II).

Following this, he became a minister at the Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. With the onset of the Depression, Douglas became a social activist in Weyburn, and joined the new CCF organization. He was elected to the Canadian House of Commons in the 1935 federal election.

After the outbreak of World War II, Douglas enlisted in the wartime Canadian Army. He had volunteered for overseas service and was on a draft of men headed for the Winnipeg Grenadiers when a medical examination turned up leg problems. Douglas stayed in Canada and the Grenadiers headed for Hong Kong. But for that ailment, he would have been with the regiment when its members were killed or captured at Hong Kong in December 1941.

Premier of Saskatchewan

Despite being a federal Member of Parliament and not yet an MLA, Douglas was elected the leader of the Saskatchewan CCF in 1942 but did not resign from the House of Commons until June 1, 1944. He led the CCF to power in the June 15, 1944 provincial election, winning 47 of 53 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, and thus forming the first democratic socialist government in not only Canada, but all of North America as well.

Douglas and the Saskatchewan CCF then went on to win five straight majority victories in all subsequent Saskatchewan provincial elections up to 1960. Most of his government's pioneering innovations came about during its first term, including:

  • the creation of the publicly owned Saskatchewan Power Corp., successor to the Saskatchewan Electrical Power Commission, which began a long program of extending electrical service to isolated farms and villages;
  • the creation of Canada's first publicly owned automobile insurance service, the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office;
  • the creation of a large number of Crown Corporations, many of which competed with existing private sector interests;
  • legislation that allowed the unionization of the public service;
  • a program to offer free hospital care to all citizens—the first in Canada.
  • passage of the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights, legislation that broke new ground as it protected both fundamental freedoms and equality rights against abuse not only by government actors but also on the part of powerful private institutions and persons. (The Saskatchewan Bill of Rights preceded the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations by 18 months).

Premier Douglas was the first head of any government in Canada to call for a constitutional bill of rights. This he did at a federal-provincial conference in Quebec City in January, 1950. No one in attendance at the conference supported him in this. Ten years later, Premier Lesage of Quebec joined with Premier Douglas at a First Ministers' Conference in July, 1960, in advocating for a constitutional bill of rights. Thus, respectable momentum was given to the idea that finally came to fruition, on April 17, 1982, with the proclamation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Thanks to a booming postwar economy and the prudent financial management of provincial treasurer Clarence Fines, the Douglas government slowly paid off the huge public debt left by the previous Liberal government, and created a budget surplus for the Saskatchewan government. Coupled with a federal government promise in 1959 to give even more money for medical care, this paved the way for Douglas's most notable achievement, the introduction of universal medicare legislation in 1961.

Medicare

Douglas's number one concern was the creation of Medicare. In the summer of 1962, Saskatchewan became the centre of a hard-fought struggle between the provincial government, the North American medical establishment, and the province's physicians, who brought things to a halt with the 1962 Saskatchewan Doctors' Strike. The doctors believed their best interests were not being met and feared a significant loss of income as well as government interference in medical care decisions even though Douglas agreed that his government would pay the going rate for service that doctors charged. The medical establishment claimed that Douglas would import foreign doctors to make his plan work and used racist images to try to scare the public. Their defenders have also argued that private or government medical insurance plans covered 60 to 63 per cent of the Saskatchewan population before Medicare legislation was introduced.

An often forgotten political fact is that though Douglas is widely hailed as the father of Medicare, he had retired from his position as Saskatchewan's premier, turned over this job in 1961 to Woodrow Lloyd and took the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party.

The Saskatchewan program was finally launched by his successor, Woodrow Lloyd, in 1962. The success of the province's public health care program was not lost on the federal government. Another Saskatchewan politician, newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, decreed in 1958 that any province seeking to introduce a hospital plan would receive 50 cents on the dollar from the federal government. In 1962, Diefenbaker appointed Justice Emmett Hall—also of Saskatchewan, a noted jurist and Supreme Court Justice—to Chair a Royal Commission on the national health system - the Royal Commission on Health Services. In 1964, Justice Hall recommended the nationwide adoption of Saskatchewan's model of public health insurance. In 1966, the Liberal minority government of Lester B. Pearson created such a program, with the federal government paying 50% of the costs and the provinces the other half.

Federal NDP leader

When the CCF allied with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, Douglas defeated Hazen Argue at the first NDP leadership convention and became the new party's first leader. Douglas resigned from provincial politics and sought election to the House of Commons in the riding of Regina City in 1962, but was defeated. He was later elected in a by-election in the riding of Burnaby—Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Re-elected as MP for that riding in the 1963 and 1965 elections, Douglas lost the redistricted seat of Burnaby—Seymour in the 1968 federal election. He won a seat again in a 1968 by-election in the riding of Nanaimo—Cowichan—The Islands, following the death of Colin Cameron, and represented it until his retirement from electoral politics in 1979.

While the NDP did better in elections than its CCF predecessor, the party did not experience the breakthrough it had hoped for. Despite this, Douglas was greatly respected by party members and Canadians at large as the party wielded considerable influence during the minority governments of Lester Pearson. In 1970, Douglas and the NDP took a controversial but principled stand against the implementation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis.

Late career and retirement

In 1962, Douglas received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Saskatchewan. He resigned as NDP leader in 1971, but retained his seat in the House of Commons. He served as the NDP's energy critic under the new leader, David Lewis. He was re-elected in the riding of Nanaimo–Cowichan–The Islands in the 1972 and 1974 elections.

He retired from politics in 1978 and served on the board of directors of Husky Oil, an oil and gas exploration company.

In 1980 he was awarded a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa by Carleton University in Ottawa.

The Douglas-Coldwell Foundation was established in 1971. In 1981, Douglas was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1985, he was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. In the mid-1980s, Brandon University created a students' union building in honour of Douglas and his old friend, Stanley Knowles.

In June 1984 Douglas was injured when he was struck by a bus but he quickly recovered and on his 80th birthday he claimed to The Globe and Mail that he usually walked up to five miles a day. By this point in his life his memory was beginning to slow down and he stopped accepting speaking engagements but remained active in the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation.

He became a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada on November 30 1980. In 1998, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Douglas died of cancer on February 24, 1986 at the age of 81 in Ottawa.

Artistic depiction

In the two CBC Television mini-series about Pierre Trudeau, Trudeau and Trudeau II: Maverick in the Making, Tommy Douglas is portrayed by Eric Peterson. In the biography mini-series, Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, which aired on March 12 and 13, 2006, also on CBC, Douglas was played by Michael Therriault. The movie was widely derided by critics as being historically inaccurate. Particularly, the movie's portrayal of James Gardiner, premier of Saskatchewan from the late 1920s to mid-1930s, was objected to by political historians and the Gardiner family itself. In response, the CBC consulted a "third party historian" to review the film and pulled it from future broadcasts, including halting all home and educational sales. Prairie Giant was shown in Asia on the Hallmark Channel on June 11 and June 12 2007.

Notes and references

External links

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