February 2005: The Father of Medicare

Was Tommy Douglas our greatest Canadian? No one else is close
February 1, 2005

The CBC’s search last fall for “the greatest Canadian” didn’t grab my attention. I thought it was inane to try to compare gradations of “greatness” among so many diverse nominees. If the CBC had scheduled several such contests, to identify separately the greatest politician, the greatest athlete, the greatest scientist, the greatest writer, and so on, it would have made more sense. Still, I have to admit that I was gratified that the CBC’s production wound up acclaiming Tommy Douglas as the greatest Canadian. I thought, though the process was flawed, that it somehow resulted in by far the best choice.

My delight could be partly explained—even discounted—by the fact that Tommy was the only one of the ten finalists I personally knew and worked with. In that I was fortunate. Chance and a shared political perspective brought us together in the early 1960s when I was doubling as a public relations officer for the Canadian Labour Congress and provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of accompanying Tommy on a tour of the island after he was elected first federal leader of the NDP in 1961, sharing the podium with him in a dozen town halls and church basements.

It was my listening in awe to the spellbinding Douglas speeches that convinced me I wasn’t cut out to be a politician. The crowds were entranced as he delivered his unique blend of oratorical enlightenment and wit—all without notes or props, all with that distinctive silver-tongued eloquence. Anyone following him on the speakers’ list, as I did, bereft of style and humorous anecdotes and having to adjust the lectern and fumble with notes, was painfully aware of one’s rhetorical shortcomings. I terminated my political career shortly afterward and have since confined myself to the written form of communication.

Tommy approved. He thought my best contribution to the cause of social justice was in the role of writer and editor. He asked me to serve on his strategy committee in his first few federal election runs, and it was an honour to be part of those memorable campaigns.

What I remember most of all, however, was accepting his request to help defend the first Medicare legislation introduced in Saskatchewan in 1962. Tommy had left the provincial scene by then to serve as the NDP’s national leader, but before his departure he had overseen the drafting of the historic public health-care legislation and felt confident in leaving its enactment to his successor as premier, Woodrow Lloyd. Inevitably, the bill triggered a volcanic outburst of opposition unprecedented in provincial politics. The medical profession—in the United States as well as Canada—fulminated against the “evils” of “socialized medicine.” So did the big pharmaceutical companies. The big business organizations joined the chorus of condemnation, as did all the newspapers except a few small rural weeklies.

My assignment was to assist the province’s Federation of Labour and other supporters of the legislation to explain and extol the many benefits of a public health-care system. They’re well-known today and cherished by nearly all Canadians, but at that time the foes of Medicare had full access to the commercial media in perpetrating their lies and scare tactics. Our “mission impossible” was undertaken by publishing and distributing a pro-Medicare tabloid, getting our message into the few rural papers that would print it, and going door to door with leaflets and petitions.

How much credit, if any, we could take for the eventual passage of the bill and the creation of the first model of Medicare in Canada, is open to debate. I think we helped defuse some of the opposition, and helped as well to strengthen the government’s resolve to ride out the storm of controversy and push the bill through.

Tommy Douglas was not prominent in that decisive struggle, but everyone knew that the introduction of Medicare in Saskatchewan—and later to the whole country—was his legacy. He had been championing it for 20 years—even longer, from the time he nearly lost one of his legs when he was a boy because his family couldn’t afford the operation needed to save it. Why, he kept asking, should anyone be denied health care because of an inability to pay for it? Why should it not be a basic and universal right of citizenship?

Not many Canadians know that the Canadian Medical Association, which mounted a fierce attempt to block Medicare in 1962, elevated Tommy Douglas to its Hall of Fame in October 1998, the only non-physician to be so commemorated. In giving him this posthumous citation (Tommy had died 13 years earlier), the doctors were admitting publicly that they had been wrong. The C.M.A. plaque acclaims Tommy as “the Father of Canadian Health Care” who “envisioned, built, and tirelessly promoted our national system of health care. His leadership has provided long-term benefits to medical science in Canada, and a Canadian health-care system [that is] a source of envy to other countries.”   

This glowing tribute from his bitterest erstwhile enemies would be enough in itself to qualify Tommy Douglas as the greatest Canadian. What more precious contribution was ever made to all Canadians than providing them with public health care? As worthy as the other candidates may have been (Don Cherry excepted), their “greatness” pales in comparison with Tommy’s.

I still visit his grave in Ottawa’s Beechwood cemetery occasionally. He died knowing that his mission in life was not finished, and from his final resting-place he passed the torch to us to continue his work.

The inscription on his tombstone reads: “Courage, my friend, it is not too late to build a better world.”

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)