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Tommy Douglas
In 2004, in a vote conducted by the CBC, Canadians elected him the Greatest Canadian of all time


Although he was born in Falkirk, Scotland on Oct. 20, 1904, in some ways the Tommy Douglas Canadians know was born 10 years later in Winnipeg.

By then, his parents Tom and Anne had emigrated to Canada, and to a community that was becoming a focal point of the social gospel – a movement that fused Christianity with the struggle for social justice and greater equality.

Money was tight, and when a bone infection sent Tommy to hospital, the Douglas family couldn’t afford the treatment he needed. He would have lost his leg if not for a visiting surgeon who offered to treat him if the surgeon’s students could observe. The treatment saved Tommy’s leg – and planted the seed for his vision: universally accessible health care.

Tommy grew up knowing first-hand how hard parents often struggle to make ends meet. He and his two younger sisters dropped in and out of school, taking part time jobs to make whatever contribution they could.

One of those jobs was as a paperboy. And it was while he was delivering newspapers that Tommy Douglas watched RCMP officers firing into a crowd of striking workers, on June 1919 day that came to be known as Bloody Saturday – the violent end of the Winnipeg General Strike. The Mounties shot two men dead and arrested the Douglas family’s pastor, J.S. Woodsworth.

While Tommy faced more than his share of hardship, he also found plenty of opportunities for fun. He was an outgoing teenager, fond of taking small roles in vaudeville and performing monologues at family events. A short, slight boy, Tommy took up boxing – perhaps preparing for the verbal sparring that would often mark his political career.

Then, in 1924, he enrolled in Brandon College, a liberal arts college run by the Baptist Church. He quickly took to the ideas of the social gospel, and found a lifelong friend in Stanley Knowles.

The Baptist church in Weyburn, a small community in Saskatchewan, brought both men out on a trial basis, and they preached on alternate Sundays. When Tommy was ordained in 1930, the church offered him a permanent ministry.

Weyburn was just starting to feel the ravages of drought and economic depression. Douglas preached on Sundays, and spent the rest of the week running relief programs to help ease the growing hardship of local farmers and their families

The Making of a Politician

As the Great Depression tightened its grip on the country, communities like Weyburn suffered tremendously. Tommy Douglas knew that his relief efforts – while important – couldn’t provide a lasting answer to the difficulties families were facing. He buried two young men who died because they couldn’t afford medical care, which only strengthened his belief that he could do more as a politician than from the pulpit.

In 1932, Tommy’s mentor and family pastor, J.S. Woodsworth, urged him to join the Saskatchewan Farmer Labour Party – soon to become the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Woodsworth also brought Douglas together with fellow minister M.J. Coldwell, who would become a key ally and lifelong friend.
As the Great Depression tightened its grip on the country, communities like Weyburn suffered tremendously. Tommy Douglas knew that his relief efforts – while important – couldn’t provide a lasting answer to the difficulties families were facing. He buried two young men who died because they couldn’t afford medical care, which only strengthened his belief that he could do more as a politician than from the pulpit.

In 1932, Tommy’s mentor and family pastor, J.S. Woodsworth, urged him to join the Saskatchewan Farmer Labour Party – soon to become the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Woodsworth also brought Douglas together with fellow minister M.J. Coldwell, who would become a key ally and lifelong friend.

Tommy ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the provincial legislature in 1934, but the next year voters sent him to Ottawa as one of the first CCF Members of Parliament. That election launched a nine-year career as Weyburn’s M.P., throughout the rest of the Great Depression and much of the Second World War.

But it also led to one of the most painful moments of his political life. Woodsworth, a committed pacifist, could not support Canada’s entry into the Second World War. That put him at odds with the rest of the CCF caucus – including Douglas. Nearly blind and partly paralyzed from a recent stroke, Woodsworth still delivered an eloquent, impassioned speech to Parliament opposing Canada’s declaration of war… and Tommy held Woodsworth’s speaking notes up for his old mentor to read.

M.J Coldwell would go on to lead the national CCF. And in 1942, Tommy Douglas resigned his seat in Parliament and took on Coldwell’s old job: leader of the Saskatchewan CCF.

Remaking Saskatchewan

In 1941, the Saskatchewan CCF lost its leader when George Williams resigned that post and his seat in the Legislature to enlist in the army. The party turned to Tommy Douglas to lead it – and it turned out to be one of the best decisions a political party has ever made.

On June 15, 1944, the CCF – which had never held power in the province – swept to victory under Tommy’s leadership, winning 47 of 53 seats. Saskatchewan had just elected the first social democratic government in North America – and Tommy Douglas began the first of five terms as the province’s Premier.

He faced powerful, wealthy opposition, yet Tommy’s government passed more than 100 bills during that first term. Just two years into their mandate, the CCF had eliminated the sales tax on food and meals and reduced the provincial debt by $20 million. While his opponents tried to tar him as a Communist and radical, the CCF under Tommy Douglas paved roads and brought electrical power (and the modern age) to the family farms of Saskatchewan. They improved health care, increased education spending and expanded the University of Saskatchewan to include a medical college.

Pensioners gained free medical, hospital and dental services; everyone gained free treatment for diseases like cancer, tuberculosis and mental illness. In 1947, Saskatchewan introduced universal access to hospitals for an annual fee of five dollars per person.

The CCF created new government departments such as Labour, Social Welfare and Co-operatives. The cabinet took a 28-per-cent pay cut to help pay the costs. A Crown Corporation Act allowed the creation of provincial air and bus lines; marketing boards for natural resources helped those industries grow and benefit rural communities. And SaskTel offered affordable phone service across Saskatchewan.

But it was Saskatchewan Power that had the biggest impact. In 20 years, the Crown corporation increased the number of rural homes hooked up to electrical power from only 300 to 65,000.

Meanwhile, the CCF improved working conditions, raised the minimum wage, established mandatory holidays, set workers’ compensation standards and set the stage for collective bargaining with the Trade Union Act and the creation of a labour relations board. Over four years, union membership more than doubled.

In just over a decade, the CCF administration – by encouraging economic diversification such as potash mining, steel production and petroleum exploration – oversaw the transformation of the province’s economy. Only one out of every five dollars of wealth created in Saskatchewan in 1944 came from somewhere other than agriculture; that proportion more than tripled by 1957.

But Tommy Douglas and his CCF team were also cautious financial managers. While Tommy wanted passionately to make medical care available to all, it wasn’t until 1959 that he decided Saskatchewan’s finances were healthy enough to sustain it.

He announced a plan that would cover every person in Saskatchewan, offering pre-paid, publicly-administered, high-quality health care. At the time, many doctors and their allies decried his medicare plan as dictatorial and vowed never to accept it; by the mid-1960s, it was such a success that Canada adopted it nationwide.

But by the time medicare was enacted in Saskatchewan in 1962, Tommy Douglas had stepped down as Premier. He wanted to take the success he’d had leading the province to a whole new level.

National Leadership

By the late 1950s, the national Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was in disarray. While the party’s success in Saskatchewan was undeniable, the party’s national prospects seemed to be going from bad to worse. Many of the CCF’s leading lights became convinced that only dramatic action would save the national party from oblivion.

Tommy Douglas was one of the architects of what was to be called the New Party: a formal partnership between the old CCF and the Canadian labour movement. In 1961, he became its leader. (And the New Party gained a new name: the New Democratic Party.)

By the late 1950s, the national Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was in disarray. While the party’s success in Saskatchewan was undeniable, the party’s national prospects seemed to be going from bad to worse. Many of the CCF’s leading lights became convinced that only dramatic action would save the national party from oblivion.

But his first federal election as a national leader was a difficult one. The NDP won only 19 seats… and Tommy’s wasn’t one of them. It was only by running in a by-election in the British Columbia riding of Burnaby-Coquitlam that Tommy returned to the House of Commons.

He won that seat two more times before being defeated in the Trudeaumania election of 1968; a few months later, he won a by-election in Nanaimo-Cowichan-The Islands. The breakthrough that Tommy and the NDP had hoped for never materialized, but the party was able to steer Lester B. Pearson’s minority government in a more progressive direction.

Then, in 1970, the Trudeau government invoked the War Measures Act. Tommy led the NDP caucus in opposing the act – a principled stand that carried a heavy political cost. A year later, he stepped down as national leader, but stayed on in the House of Commons for eight more years.

Tommy Douglas spent his retirement years tending his land in the Gatineau Hills just north of Ottawa, but he remained a vocal, passionate presence in the NDP and in Canadian political life, especially on the subject of medicare. He became a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1981. And he was one of a handful of Canadians named to the Privy Council in 1984, when the Canadian constitution was patriated.

In 1986, Thomas Clement Douglas died of cancer in Ottawa. He was named to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame in 1998. And in 2004, in a voted conducted by the CBC, Canadians elected him the Greatest Canadian of all time.

The above article came from The Tommy Douglas Research Institute


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