The Honourable Thomas Clement Douglas, Greatest Canadian of All Time, 1904 - 1986
Tommy Douglas was the leader of the first socialist government in North America, when he was Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944-1960. His government was the first in Canada to implement universal health care, and he later moved on to federal politics, where his efforts were instrumental in the passage of the Canada Health Act, which granted free health care to everyone in the country. Throughout his career, especially during the height of the cold war, he faced accusations of being a communist, but he kept at it. Due to these accomplishments, he was in 2004 recognized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's program The Greatest Canadian, as the greatest Canadian of all time. This was determined by online polls and the like.
Man can now fly in the air like a bird, swim under the ocean like a fish, he can burrow into the ground like a mole. Now if only he could walk the earth like a man, this would be paradise.
Tommy Douglas was born on October 20, 1904, in Falkirk, Scotland, to Thomas and Annie Clement Douglas. He and his family emigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1911, although they moved back to Scotland in 1914, while his father fought in World War I. After the war, in 1919, they returned to Manitoba, this time settling in Brandon.
His family was not wealthy by any means. His father has a job in a foundry. Occasionally, Tommy or one of his two sisters would have to drop out of school in order to work to help support the family. When Tommy was 10, while still living in Winnipeg, he was diagnosed with a bone infection, osteomyelitis, in his right leg. Not being able to afford the services of a specialist, initially in order to save his life, they were going to amputate the offending limb. Fortunately for Tommy, a surgeon who was visiting the city was willing to perform the operation for free, provided that his students be allowed to observe the procedure. This incident surely influenced his future political views.
Another incident which impacted young Tommy came on June 21, 1919, in Winnipeg. The infamous Winnipeg General Strike had been going on since the middle of May, and the mayor of Winnipeg decided to do something about it. Tommy Douglas watched on from a rooftop as the Royal North-West Mounted Police opened fire upon the strikers, killing two and injuring many more.
While in high school, he was active on the debate team, as well as a skilled boxer. He managed to become Manitoba's light heavy weight champion twice. A religious man, he took steps to becoming a Baptist minister. So, he enrolled in Brandon College, a Baptist college, from whom he received his Fine Arts degree in 1930. It was while at school that he met a Miss Irma Dempsey, whom he married the same year he graduated. Now ordained as a minister, he moved west, to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where he had spent some time the previous year preaching on a trial basis. Apparently the parishioners there liked his style, and invited him back on a full time basis.
This period, was probably more difficult than any other time to be a minister of a church. The economic depression started about October 1929 . . . I buried a young man at Griffin, and another one at Pangman, both young men in their 30s with young small families who died because there was no doctor readily available, and they hadn't the money to get proper care.
The Great Depression hit the prairie provinces of Canada harder than any other part of the country. In addition to the general chaos financially, like much of the rest of the continent, Saskatchewan was for much of the decade hit with a drought, which combined with poor agricultural practices and high winds, caused massive dust storms, eroding much of the top soil needed for farming. Naturally, this was not good for Saskatchewan, since farming was, and still is, their main industry.
Faced with the suffering caused by such conditions, Douglas quickly transformed into an activist. He began to realize that he could do more to help as a politician than he ever could do as a pastor, so Tommy Douglas kicked off his political career. In 1932, he became one of the founders, and the first president of the Weyburn branch of the Independent Labour Party. Later that year, the ILP merged with another party to become the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). He also returned to school, this time at McMaster University, earned his Sociology M.A. in 1933. He finally threw his hat into the ring in 1934, when he ran as the CCF candidate for Weyburn, in the Saskatchewan provincial election. He lost. Soon afterwards, he was given a hard choice by the superintendent of his church. To give up politics, or to give up preaching for them. Tommy chose politics.
For the 1935 federal election, Tommy ran as the CCF candidate in the Weyburn riding. This time, he was successful, and served two terms as a Member of Parliament, spending a total of 9 years in Ottawa. This was a frustrating time for Tommy, as much of Parliament treated the problems of the prairie provinces as secondary concerns. He fought hard trying to ensure that Canadians could find themselves a job, and keep themselves clothed, fed, and with shelter. During this time, he had always still kept occupied with provincial politics back home, and in 1941, while still an MP, he became the president of Saskatchewan's CCF party, and its leader 1942.
In 1944, there was a provincial election, and as leader, he headed their efforts. Resigning his seat in Ottawa, he campaigned hard back in Saskatchewan. Attempting to appeal to the farm vote, he promised that his government would do everything in their power to ensure that no farmers would be kicked off their farm. He also promised to increase the old age pensions, and to increase access to education. Well, his claims worked. The CCF was able to capture 47 of the 52 seats in the legislature, and as premier of Saskatchewan, became the head of North America's first democratic socialist government. More surprisingly was the fact that he was actually able to follow through on his promises.
Tommy Douglas spent 17 years as premier of Saskatchewan, and did much to improve the lives of its citizens. His government paved many of the rural roads, provided electricity, telephone lines, sewage systems, and collective automobile insurance. Before Douglas's government created the Saskatchewan Power Corporation, only 300 farm households had access to electric power. By the time he was done, that number was up to over 65,000. While doing all this, he managed to reduce the province's debt load by more than $20 million CND.
The biggest impact, however, was his policies on health care. In 1947, he introduced a bill which made hospitalization free. For everyone. And, in 1959, he laid out his plans for Medicare, a program of universal health care of all kinds. This was a very controversial program, which incited a strike of the doctors in the province, who felt that it would lead to substandard health care. Now, it is widely recognized as the most important program in all of Canada.
With the plans laid for Medicare in Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas felt that he should move on, and in 1961 he stepped down as premier of Saskatchewan. That year, he was one of the founders of the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP), which was the creation of a merger between the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress. And, he was also voted as the leader of the new party. Once again, Tommy Douglas was headed to Ottawa. But not yet.
Douglas, as the leader of the NDP, ran in the 1961 federal election in the Regina riding. It was during this campaign that he gave his famous Mouseland speech, which was pointed out what he thought was Canadian's habit of voting in governments that don't have their best interest in mind. However, mainly as a backlash against the passage of Medicare, he lost his own election for the Regina seat.
This of course didn't stop him. An NDP MP stepped aside, allowing him to run in a by-election in the Burnaby/Coquitlam riding, all the way out in British Columbia. He was reelected there in 1963, and 1965. And then defeated in 1968, but elected by the people of Nanaimo/Cowichan Islands in another by-election, that same year. He held that seat until he retired from politics in 1979.
Despite some troubles staying elected himself, Douglas was able to fulfil his overriding goal in Ottawa, the establishment of a national Medicare program. It was his lobbying, as well as the example of how well his program was working in Saskatchewan, that convincedLester B. Pearson's Liberal government to implement the Medicare program.
One of the last major incidents in Douglas's political career was his public stance, from a civil liberties standpoint, against the implementation of the War Measures Act, during the 1970 October Crisis. Quick background for those of you unaware, but in 1970, a British diplomat, and a Quebec Cabinet Minister were kidnapped by the Front de Libération du Québec, a terrorist group dedicated to Quebec separation. The government, under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, really wanted to catch these guys, and proposed invoking the War Measures Act, which is basically declaring martial law, and suspending certain civil liberties. Tommy Douglas was quite vocal in his opposition to this move, a stance which was quite unpopular at the time. In the end, all the arrests and such authorized by the War Measures Act did not help to find the FLQ, and the situation was resolved by normal police actions.
It seems to me that Tommy Douglas was a man of vision and resolve. From Medicare to his stance on resolving the October Crisis, he was willing to defend unpopular positions, that he felt to be right. And, for the most part, history has proven him right. While during his lifetime, he could have taken the easy way out, and abandoned his principles, he refused to do so. IMHO, it is that more than anything else that earned him the title of Greatest Canadian.
In 1971, he stepped down as leader of the NDP, becoming their energy critic. After his retirement from politics in 1979, he spent most of his time helping out at the NDP national campaign headquarters. In 1981, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour a Canadian can recieve. And, finally, on February 24, 1986, he succumbed to cancer. He is survived by his daughter, actress Shirley Douglas, and grandson Kiefer Sutherland, and granddaugher Rachel Sutherland. And probably a few others that I didn't find any mention of.
Greatest Canadian #1 >> Terry Fox - #2
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