Tommy Douglas

One of the great strengths of this social experiment we call ‘blogging’ is how one writer’s words can inspire others to look at problems in a new light. Even casual throw away comments can cause a light bulb to flash somewhere and start a chain reaction leading to…well, to anywhere one might imagine.

There has been a lot of brainstorming about what to ‘do next’ around here, and it’s all very inspirational stuff. The other day, Meteor Blades stopped by in Buhdy’s manifesto diary with a link to a 40-year old article discussing many of the issues we are struggling with today.

Light bulb. People have been through this before. Duh – how obvious. Still, sometimes the obvious escapes us. Other groups, other communities, other countries have struggled with very similar issues we face today. How do you break through and effect real change? Where do we find our inspiration? How will we be nurtured on this journey? Perhaps history can help us a little.

This is a story about a man of very humble origins who found himself leading a movement very similar to one many here long to see. Along the way, he found inspiration, power, influence, loss, humility and peace. The man’s name was Tommy Douglas. His story ends with a twist he likely would have found quite surprising and delightful.

T.C. (Tommy) Douglas was born in Scotland in 1904. In 1910 his working class family emigrated from Scotland to Canada and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Two events in his youth had a great impact on his political outlook in later life. The first was nearly losing his leg to osteomyelitis. This was only averted when a local doctor decided he would treat Tommy for free on the condition he be a study patient for his class. The second was witnessing first hand the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. Young Tommy watched from the rooftops on June 21 as police ran roughshod over the strikers, injuring dozens, killing one and burning buildings along the way.

Tommy became an amateur boxer of some renown in his youth. In 1924, he went to college to study for the ministry and he eventually obtained his Master’s degree in Sociology in 1933. During his college years, Tommy was influenced by the social gospel movement, a blend of church doctrine and progressive politics. Also during college, he met and married Irma Dempsey. As an aside, their eldest daughter Shirley Douglas was an actress and is the mother of Kiefer Sutherland.

The Great Depression was the next big influence in Tommy’s life. As a Baptist minister in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Douglas saw the devastating effects of the depression on his local congregation. He decided to join the young CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). Make no mistake, the CCF was a Socialist political party, and they received a great deal of resistance from the powers that be. But the CCF was also first and foremost a populist party, and they enjoyed some early successes in the economically devastated prairie Province of Saskatchewan.

Tommy was elected to federal office in 1935, and through his quick wit and sharp debating skills on the issues of the day, he rapidly achieved prominence in the party. By 1942, he wanted to try his hand at Provincial politics and he won his bid to be leader of the CCF in Saskatchewan. In 1944, he became the first duly elected Socialist leader in North America when he won the general election and became Premier.

As Premier, Tommy moved quickly to enact his legislative agenda. The agenda included creating numerous public owned corporations, encouraging government workers to unionize, providing free hospital care to all citizens, and writing the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights. The latter legislation was groundbreaking in the personal protections offered to the ordinary citizen.

Along the way, Tommy was a fiscal moderate and his government managed to pay down a huge inherited debt load and create a budget surplus. Not surprisingly, Tommy’s CCF won five Provincial elections in a row, and by 1961 Tommy was ready to introduce his crowning achievement – a bill providing universal health coverage for all residents of Saskatchewan.

At the same time, Tommy felt it was time to leverage his popularity back home and reenter the national scene. He ran for and won the first leadership race of the newly formed NDP (New Democratic Party) which incorporated the CCF and other ‘leftist’ parties. Tommy wanted to springboard from his Provincial success to become Prime Minister of Canada.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. The main two parties in Canada, the Liberals and the Conservatives, saw what Tommy was up to and scrambled to steal his ideas. In 1962, Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker created the Royal Commission on National Health Care, and in 1966, the Liberal minority government led by Lester B. Pearson implemented a program largely based off the Saskatchewan model.

With his number one issue stolen from him, Tommy never did achieve his dream of becoming Prime Minister. Instead, he struggled to stay elected over the next decade, winning most often but losing twice and moving about the country to maintain his influence. In 1971, he resigned as the leader of the NDP. He left federal politics in 1979.

But he maintained his sense of humor and integrity through it all. Tommy once said:

I don’t mind being a symbol but I don’t want to become a monument. There are monuments all over the Parliament Buildings and I’ve seen what the pigeons do to them.

In his later years, Tommy was a well respected elder statesman of the Canadian political scene. He received numerous honors and awards including the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, membership into the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, and election into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Tommy Douglas died of cancer on February 24, 1986 at the age of 81.

But Tommy’s legend did not die with him. In 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sponsored a national contest to elect ‘The Greatest Canadian’ of all time. They received 140,000 nominations and well over a million votes. From start to finish, the leader of the competition was Tommy Douglas. He beat out every politician, every historical figure, and even every hockey legend (Wayne Gretzky was voted #10).

Tommy Douglas, the combative small town minister and acknowledged father of the Canadian health care system, was elected by the citizens of his adopted country as the Greatest Canadian Ever. It is difficult to see how they could have chosen better.

Sources for much of the above: Here and here and then bouncing around from both.


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  1. Humbly offered suggestion of lessons to learn from the Tommy Douglas story:

    – A movement of the people, by the people can succeed.
    – Leadership will still be required and is vital for the movement to succeed.
    – Populism works.
    – However, popular ideas will likely be stolen by the traditional parties in order to not lose power.
    – On the last point – who cares? The key is to get things done.
    – Third parties are a double edged sword. They can empower your worst enemy, but they also can lead real change.
    – The best way to succeed is through a combination of determination, smarts, belief in your cause, and maintaining a sense of balance and humor through it all.
    – Success will NOT come from infighting, cynicism, mockery and endless bitching over candidates, hairstyles or ‘authoritarian’ blog owners. Tommy Douglas did not spend his time thinking about clever ways to distort fellow CCF member’s blogger handles in an effort to show his superior wit.
    – Issues matter.
    – Inspiration for all of us is out there for the discovering.

    Thanks for reading.

    Any other inspirational stories out there?

  2. we can use every bit we can get right about now.

    • pico on October 3, 2007 at 23:45

    about the way a single person can create a wave of support for change, but more importantly (for me), about a nation getting its priorities straight.  Tommy Douglas wasn’t elected Greatest Canadian because of his fight for healthcare – he was elected Greatest Canadian because the people of Canada recognized the importance of health care in their lives and honored the person who fought on their behalf.

    Who are the great Americans, according to polls?  Mostly safe, conventional choices.  Big-name politicians, dead icons, names from history books. 

  3. and had to stop to comment

    loved the “duh” moment… and it made me have one too

    we are silly

    now back to the essay

  4. Thanks Stranger. That was sweet. I like your tip jar too!

    Yes populism works to get the ideas into the mainstream….and that IS all that is really important.

    Just ask The Kingfish, lol.

  5. feature of Canadian politics on display; the tendency of the two mainstream parties to steal ideas from the NDP and then take credit for the idea. It also illustrates why parliamentary politics has certain advantages, a third party like the NDP can have enormous sway in a way that is not possible in the American system.

  6. that any nationalized health care plan, where the insurance companies (because, really, what value do they provide beyond acting as the middleman/major slice of the profits point position) are cut out of the health care swivel, will have to be initiated from the state level.

    If we can get just one state – hmmm, California? – to do it right, or two states or…well, success can be built on. Presidential candidates’ health care platforms will adapt to individual state based success.

    Currently, not one candidate’s platform

    Single-Payer and Universal Health Care Efforts

    But we have to get it right somewhere.

    thanks, SISL. great diary.

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