Tommy Douglas, Canada’s Great Prairie Socialist, Wasn’t Always So Beloved

The late Tommy Douglas, Canada’s venerable socialist leader and the father of its single-payer health care system, is now revered as the “greatest Canadian.” But in his time, he was a radical and an enemy of the establishment.

Tommy Douglas delivers a speech on November 18, 1959 in the United Kingdom. Express Newspapers / Getty

Tommy Douglas is generally remembered as the father of Canada’s Medicare, the first universal health care system in North America. Since his death in 1986, the former premier of Saskatchewan and first leader of the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) has ascended to the status of national icon — even being voted “the greatest Canadian” in a widely watched 2004 poll conducted by Canada’s public broadcast network.

But Douglas’s consecrated status has come at a cost, with his avowedly socialist politics either stripped away or cast aside altogether. It is a testament to his legacy that one reason for this is the continued popularity of Canada’s health care system: now such an integral part of the country’s political consensus that even most conservatives have abandoned dreams of its outright abolition. Nevertheless, few these days remember Douglas for who he really was: a populist radical who spent his life as an outspoken critic and adversary of capitalism. So depoliticized has Douglas become that a cabinet minister in Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s hard-right government recently evoked him in a farcical effort to justify austerity.

His legacy deserves better, not only for its own sake but because of what it teaches us about the nature of political and social progress.

Born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1904, Douglas moved with his family to Winnipeg in 1910. (In 1919, he would be there to witness the famous general strike firsthand.) While studying theology in the early 1920s he met Stanley Knowles, a convert to Canada’s Christian social gospel movement, and became increasingly immersed in its radically egalitarian values.

After becoming a minister, he was elected to the House of Commons in 1935 as part of a tiny contingent of MPs from the newly formed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which only two years earlier had adopted the transformational Regina Manifesto — a program for social justice and economic planning that concluded with the radical sentiment: “No C.C.F. Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full program of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Cooperative Commonwealth.”

Douglas led the CCF to victory, winning a landslide (forty-seven of fifty-three seats) in Saskatchewan’s 1944 provincial election — securing democratic socialism’s first major electoral beachhead in North America. Serving as premier until his departure in 1961 to lead the newly created NDP, Douglas oversaw a sweeping legislative program that included (among other things) the nationalization of key utilities and services, including electricity; the creation of Canada’s first public auto insurance system; and the passage of a significant Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of assembly and prohibiting various forms of discrimination.

Douglas’s health care reforms, though often remembered ahistorically, were met with fierce opposition from business interests and many in the medical profession. As Lorne Brown and Doug Taylor noted in Canadian Dimension in 2012:

The North American medical establishment and the entire insurance industry were determined to stop Medicare in its tracks. They feared it would become popular and spread, and they were right. Within 10 years all of Canada was covered by a medical insurance system based on the Saskatchewan plan, and no serious politician would openly oppose it.

Thus, even as Douglas stepped up to lead the NDP, powerful interests conspired to prevent Medicare from becoming a reality in his home province. With support from both the Canadian and American Medical Associations, Saskatchewan’s doctors struck for twenty-three days in an effort to block its passage, resorting to a campaign of red-baiting and fear-mongering. Douglas was burnt in effigy while the CCF was depicted as Nazi, Stalinist, or both.

As leader of the NDP, Douglas’s electoral results were mixed. Nevertheless, the party became a more significant force in national politics than the CCF and was critical in forcing progressive policies through during periods of Liberal minority rule.

One of Douglas’s proudest moments would come in 1970, when he spoke forcefully against Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act — legislation that vastly expanded police powers and limited civil liberties. Though the NDP would suffer a precipitous drop in opinion polls in the months that followed as a consequence, time would vindicate Douglas and the other fifteen NDP MPs who had voted in opposition to the government; by 1975, even prominent MPs from other parties expressed regret for their “yea” votes.

Known for his humor, Douglas had a tremendous gift for making socialist ideas instantly legible in the form of simple stories and anecdotes. Perhaps the most famous example is “Mouseland,” a populist fable about a nation of mice who keep electing alternating governments made up of black and white cats. Less well-known is “The Cream Separator,” which uses the example of a typical prairie farmhouse to depict the caste system imposed by the capitalist economy and make the case for worker control of the means of production:

So here you have it: primary producer puts in the milk; people who work with hand and brain turn the handle. And then I thought, but there’s another fellow here somewhere. There’s a fellow who owns this cream separator. And he’s sitting on a stool with the cream spout in his mouth. And the primary producer and the worker take turns on the skim milk spout. And they don’t like skim milk. Nobody likes skim milk. And they blame it on each other . . . But you know they’re both wrong. The fault is not with the worker. It is not with the primary producer. The fault is with this machine. This machine was built to give skim milk to the worker and the primary producer, and to give cream to the corporate elite. What the democratic socialist party has been saying to Canadians for a long time is that the time has come . . . for the worker and the primary producer to get their hands on the regulator of the machine so that it begins to produce homogenized milk in which everybody will get a little cream.

Throughout his political career, Douglas fought a perpetual and often uphill battle against the prevailing orthodoxies of Canadian capitalism and the powerful interests that maintained them. Grandfathered into respectability after his death, he was reviled by the establishment in life and was even subject to a spy campaign by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — who maintained a file on him some 1,100 pages thick.

While his dream of an egalitarian country has yet to be realized, Douglas’s fiercely populist style and tireless campaigning for socialist ideas were crucial in making Medicare a reality and embedding progressive policies in the Canadian political landscape.

Far from an anodyne national hero who transcended politics, it is this radical side that should be remembered today.