Today, Canada has free universal health care. The man who made it happen: former Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas. Here's his story.
LIFE AND DEATH
In 1910, when Tommy Douglas was six years old, he injured his leg and it never healed properly. Four years later he developed a life-threatening bone infection, and because his family couldn't afford a specialist to treat it, the doctors wanted to amputate the leg to stop the infection from spreading. Tommy's leg was saved only by chance -a teaching surgeon took an interest in the case and offered to operate on Tommy for free, provided that his students could watch the procedure and learn from it.
Tommy never forgot the experience. A medical crisis could affect anyone -what would happen to the people who weren't as lucky as he had been? His situation wasn't all that unusual in the early 20th century. In most industrialized nations, there were few options if you were poor and happened to get sick. Hospitals would occasionally admit "charity cases," but only rarely. For the most part, if you needed life-saving surgery and couldn't pay for it, you died.
After spending his teens at a variety of jobs (printer, whiskey distiller, actor, boxer), Douglas became a Baptist minister and in 1930 took a job as a preacher at Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. The rural, blue-collar town was devastated by both a drought and the Great Depression. Even if families had money for food, there was none left over for medicine. It reminded Douglas of his own near-tragedy from childhood. "I buried two young men in their 30s with young families who died because there was no doctor readily available and they hadn't the money to get proper care," he wrote. Douglas came to believe that medical care was a basic human right and should be available to everyone.
In 1934 Douglas realized that he could do more for the poor in politics than he could at a small-town church, and joined the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Like Douglas, they advocated health care access. (The party also agitated for social reforms to end the Depression, including workers' compensation and unemployment insurance.) Douglas ran on the CCF ticket for the Saskatchewan legislature in 1934 ...and lost. But in 1935, he won a seat in the national legislature, the House of Commons.
WINS AND LOSSES
Douglas served in the House for nine years but never got the support he needed to institute health care on the national level. The CCF wasn't well regarded in mainstream Canadian politics; their idea of tax-supported, government-run medicine was too reminiscent of the complete state control of the Soviet Union. But Douglas was no communist, and had no interest in totalitarian government. He just wanted universal health care.
Frustrated with the lack of progress at the national level, Douglas resigned from the House in 1944, returned to Saskatchewan, and tried to get his health care plan going on the provincial level. The voters were with him: In the 1944 election, the CCF won 47 of the 52 seats in the Saskatchewan legislature. And since Douglas was head of the Saskatchewan CCF, the election landslide made him premier (governor) at age 39. Now he'd have a chance to prove to the rest of Canada that his social welfare programs, especially universal health care, could succeed.
PRESCRIPTION FOR SUCCESS
Douglas's entire plan for governing was built around the idea of universal health care, or "medicare." Seventy percent of the 1944 budget was allocated to health, welfare, and education. That year, Douglas's government passed 72 social and economic reform laws, most of them directly or indirectly related to health care:
* Douglas ordered the University of Saskatchewan to expand to include a medical school to create and train more doctors.
* Utilities, lumber, fisheries, and other corporations became state-run, generating substantial revenue to pay for health care.
* Douglas and his cabinet took a 28% pay cut.
* Retirees were immediately given free medical, hospital, and dental coverage. Treatment of cancer, tuberculosis, mental illness, and venereal disease were made free to everyone in Saskatchewan.
By 1947, Saskatchewan had one of the strongest economies in Canada. After just three years as premier, Douglas made the province financially stable enough to introduce universal hospitalization for all residents of Saskatchewan for an annual fee of $5.
Free hospitalization and surgery were in place, but drugs and doctors visits were not. There just wasn't enough money. Still, the rest of Canada was beginning to see how well Douglas's program was working and warmed to the idea. When new prime minister John Diefenbaker -a conservative- was elected in 1958, he offered matching federal funds to any province that started a free hospitalization program. The following year, Saskatchewan had a budget surplus, and in 1959, after 15 years of work, Douglas was finally able to introduce complete universal health care to the province.
JUST THE BEGINNING
Seeing how well Saskatchewan did with health care, legislation began in 1961 to expand it to all of Canada, and by 1966 it was in place, paid for by the provincial and federal governments, each contributing 50%. His goal reached, Douglas returned to national politics in the early 1960s. He led the New Democratic Party, a new version of the CCF, and held seats in the House of Commons off and on before retiring from politics in 1979. In 1988 he was elected to the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. He's one of the few non-doctors honored, but without Douglas's efforts, the Canadian medical -and social- landscape would be far different today.
Some other Tommy Douglas facts:
* In a 2004 poll conducted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canadians were asked to name "the greatest Canadian." Tommy Douglas was voted #1.
* Douglas's daughter, Shirley Douglas, was arrested in 1969 for ties to the Black Panthers -they had helped Douglas organize a free breakfast program for African-American children living in poor sections of Los Angeles. Following her arrest, Tommy Douglas said, "I'm proud that my daughter believes that hungry children should be fed, whether they are Black Panthers or white Republicans."
* Actor Kiefer Sutherland is the grandson of Tommy Douglas. (His mother is Shirley Douglas.) As a boy, Sutherland asked his grandfather what defined a Canadian. Douglas's response: the harsh winters and Medicare.
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