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Snapshots in History: February 24: Remembering T.C. “Tommy” Douglas

February 24, 2015 | John P. | Comments (0)





On February 24 and beyond, take a moment to remember Thomas Clement (T, C.)  “Tommy” Douglas (Born: October 20, 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland; Died: February 24, 1986 in Ottawa, Ontario), former Premier of Saskatchewan (1944-1961), the first leader of the New Democratic Party (N.D.P.) of Canada (1961-1971), and recognized by many Canadians as the father of socialized medicine in Canada given his advocacy of a universal, prepaid, medical care program that first took root in the province of Saskatchewan under the tutelage of his successor, Premier Woodrow Lloyd, in 1962, following the conclusion of the Saskatchewan Doctors’ Strike.

Douglas first came with his family to Canada in 1910, settling in Winnipeg. Douglas came with a bone condition called osteomyelitis in his right knee, following an injury. Coming from a poor family, Douglas faced amputation of his right leg to deal with the osteomyelitis. However, an orthopedic surgeon came to the rescue, offering to operate for free, provided that his medical students could observe the procedure. Tommy Douglas’ right leg was saved after several operations. This experience instilled in him the belief that health care should be free to all, regardless of the ability to pay.

The Douglas family returned to Scotland during the First World War so that his father, Tom Douglas, could enlist in the British Army. The family returned to Winnipeg in late 1918, meaning that Tommy Douglas witnessed the unfolding of the Winnipeg General Strike from a teenage lens, becoming a strong proponent of fundamental liberties and rights. Douglas also became the Manitoba lightweight boxing champion in 1922, successfully defending his title in 1923.

Douglas had dropped out of high school to support his family and served a 5-year apprenticeship to become a linotype printer. Desiring to continue his schooling to become an ordained minister, he enrolled in Brandon College to complete his high school equivalency and to study theology. He became immersed in the Social Gospel that combined belief in Christianity with the need for social reform. Douglas completed his undergraduate education in 1930 and finished his Master of Arts degree in 1933 from McMaster University with a thesis on eugenics (to which Douglas seldom referred and never implemented while in public office – the embracing of eugenics by the racist Nazis in Germany made eugenics a less palatable option for progressive people). Serving as a Baptist minister in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, he sought election to the House of Commons in the October 1935 federal election under the banner of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Douglas won the election and went to Ottawa as the Member of Parliament (M.P.) for Weyburn constituency in the midst of the Great Depression. Saskatchewan was adversely affected by the economic collapse, falling commodity prices, and extreme weather conditions. Tommy Douglas brought these issues to the fore. However, he also paid attention to the international stage, visiting Nazi Germany in 1936 and predicting the upcoming Second World War, which he supported in opposition to CCF leader James Shaver Woodworth, a pacifist. Following his re-election to the House of Commons in 1940, Douglas was courted by the Saskatchewan section of the CCF to run for leader. He won the leadership in 1942 and resigned as a MP in 1944 when the Saskatchewan provincial election was called. The Saskatchewan CCF won the 1944 election with 53% of the vote and 47 of the 53 legislative seats under the motto of “Humanity First”, forming the first democratic socialist government elected in North America.

The Douglas government pioneered many initiatives including: the creation of the publicly-owned Saskatchewan Power Corporation to expand electrification to rural farms and villages; the creation of the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office to offer affordable, publicly-owned automobile insurance; free collective bargaining to Saskatchewan’s civil service with the passage of the Trade Union Act; the introduction of hospital insurance under the Saskatchewan Hospital Services Plan to provide residents with free hospital care; implementation of vocational training for the developmentally disabled and therapy for those suffering from mental disorders; passage of the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights in 1947 to cover equality rights and fundamental freedoms, one and a half years before the United Nations authorized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and well before the enactment of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

In fiscal matters, the Douglas government proceeded with innovative programs while paying down the large public debt left by the previous Liberal administration. Douglas’ primary goal was the introduction of medicare, or a universal, prepaid medical care scheme in the province of Saskatchewan. However, Douglas reluctantly resigned from provincial politics to contest the inaugural leadership of the newly-formed New Democratic Party, winning the contest handily. Some may have seen the change in position as a comedown for Tommy Douglas, from the leadership of a provincial government to the leadership of a minor federal opposition party. However, Tommy Douglas was nothing if not a master of perseverance. He had suffered a humiliating, personal defeat in the 1962 federal election at the height of the Saskatchewan medicare crisis and doctors’ strike but was most concerned about medicare getting established in the province of Saskatchewan. Douglas and his colleagues did exert some influence on the Liberal minority government in the 1960s, seeing the establishment of the Canada Pension Plan and the Québec Pension Plan and the groundwork laid for the pan-Canadian establishment of medicare in all parts of Canada.

Ever the civil libertarian, Tommy Douglas took a principled but unpopular stand against the imposition of the War Measures Act in peace time during the October Crisis in 1970, following the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and the kidnapping and murder of Québec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ). While critical of the FLQ, Douglas was concerned about the limitations placed upon Canadians’ civil liberties and freedoms. Douglas retired as federal NDP leader in 1971 and remained a Member of Parliament until 1979. Tommy Douglas succumbed to cancer on February 24, 1986.

A plurality of Canadians participating in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Greatest Canadian contest selected Tommy Douglas as the Greatest Canadian in 2004.

Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:




Tommy Douglas by Vincent Lam Tommy's team the people behind the Douglas years Tommy Douglas the road to Jerusalem Tommy Douglas building the new society The making of a socialist the recollections of T C Douglas Dream no little dreams a biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan 1944-1961


Tommy Douglas by Vincent Lam




The Greatest Canadian. Volume 1: Tommy Douglas, Wayne Gretzky / Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2004. 90 Minutes.


Tommy Douglas the fight of a lifetime [Life and Times] / Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1999. 47 Minutes.



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