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.