BORN: Falkirk, Scotland • 20 October 1904
DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 24 February 1986
A VERY GOOD BOXER IN HIS YOUTH, TOMMY DOUGLAS believed in fighting his battles all out but shaking hands after the match. In 1944, when he led the Co¬ operative Commonwealth Federation to victory in Saskatchewan and made himself health minister as well as premier, he met the outgoing Liberal minister.
“Have you any suggestions for a man taking over the Department of Public Health?” he asked courteously. “You made the promises, you know all the answers,” came the reply, “go ahead and see what you can do.” Never one to be intimidated, Douglas shot back, “That is precisely what we intend to do…we plan to do more in the next four years than you’ve done in the last twenty-five.” And he did.
Douglas came to Winnipeg in 1910 with his family, but his iron-moulder father returned home to join a Scots regiment on the outbreak of war. The family followed, and it was not until 1919 that they were all reunited in Manitoba. There was little money, much Baptist religion, and for the cocky Douglas an apprenticeship as a printer.
But the church called and, just out of his teens, he went to Brandon College for six years, leaving in 1930 as an ordained Baptist preacher and nascent socialist.Douglas arrived at his parish in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, just after the Depression had devas¬ tated global markets, a plague multiplied in force in Saskatchewan by the combination of drought, wind, and grasshoppers.
Quickly he came to the realization that the kingdom ofGod could not be achieved on earth without political action, and he joined the newly created CCF. He ran in 1934 in a provincial election, lost, and ran once more in the 1935 federal election.
This time he won, and for nine years he sat in Ottawa as the CCF’s “agricultural specialist,” an honour indeed for a man who had never farmed a day in his life. Earning a reputation as one of the best debaters in the House for his humorous, pointed, frequently self-deprecating and sarcastic style, Douglas and the tiny CCF caucus pressed for social legislation without much success.
In 1944 the young MP returned to Saskatchewan, became CCF provincial leader, and, in the next general election, overcame a Liberal campaign that slandered the CCF as national socialists and won a huge majority. The first social-democratic government in North America was in power.
Hard-working, a taskmaster, and not one to suffer calmly the incompetence of ministers, aides, the Opposition, or the press, Douglas understood that the party leader’s task was that of the orchestra conductor: to keep everybody playing the same score while he beat time. His tempo was fast as he set out to implement his campaign slogan of “Humanity First.
” His first budget allocated 70 per cent of expenditure to social services, granting old age pensioners free medical, hospital, and dental care, and taking over all costs for the treatment of cancer, tuberculosis, mental illness, and venereal disease. In 1947 health minister Douglas introduced universal hospital insurance, fulfilling his promise to the electorate.
As a child, Douglas had suffered from osteomyelitis, a bone disease, and his leg had been saved only through a combina¬ tion of charity and good fortune. He wanted others to have a right to care, and not to be forced to rely on good fortune.At mid-century in Canada, these were still almost revolu¬ tionary ideas.
In 1960 he decided on Medicare. Running in a vicious election campaign against Ross Thatcher’s Liberals, the folksy orator pulled out all the stops. Laughing at himself, jabbing at his opponents with corny jokes and biblical allu¬ sions, his natural but studied speaking style was at its best as he promised to put a universal medical care plan into effect and, moreover, one that would satisfy doctors and patients.
He easily won his government’s fourth successive election and moved to negotiate with the doctors, who were fearful of their rights, prerogatives, and incomes. The bill to put universal medical care in place was introduced in the legisla¬ ture a few weeks before Douglas resigned as premier to lead the newly created federal New Democratic Party.
It fell to his successor, Woodrow Lloyd, to implement Medicare in the face of a long, bitter doctors’ strike and to lose power to Thatcher in 1964. Significantly, the Liberals dared not repeal Medicare, and the federal Liberal government, before the decade was out, made it a national program. This was Tommy Douglas’ enduring gift to Canada.
For Douglas, the NDP national leadership was no bed of roses. He lost a 1962 by-election in his home province, a residue of the bitterness over Medicare, and the anticipation felt by social democrats over the NDP’s marriage of farmers and labour turned to ashes.
His high point in Ottawa came when he led his party in opposition to the Trudeau govern¬ ment’s imposition of the War Measures Act in the October 1970 FLQ crisis. That principled stand won him few friends then, but kudos years later.Wounded but not slain by his failure to translate his Saskatchewan success onto the national scene, Douglas remained leader until 1971, and he stayed an MP until 1979.
Injured when he was hit by a bus in Ottawa in 1984 and suffering from cancer, Douglas succumbed in his eighty-first year. Praised in Parliament, hailed as the great social visionary he was, Douglas would have laughed to hear his virtues intoned by those who had fought him. “There is nothing the upper classes are so fond of,” he once noted shrewdly, “as a dead radical.”