Posted on October 25, 2004

Tommy Douglas A Remarkable Canadian


Tommy Douglas A Remarkable Canadian
Kevin Wong
Winner of the Norm Quan Bursary

When considering the giants of Canadian politics, T.C. Douglas surely stands at the forefront. Tommy Douglas was a remarkable Canadian whose contributions have helped to shape our great nation. Although he is most famous as the founding father of Medicare, the most advanced health-care system in the world, Douglasí contributions to Saskatchewan and Canada were tremendous. Douglas established democratic socialism as a mainstream in Canadian politics and his CCF government became the first socialist government in North America. A visionary who achieved his dreams, Douglas changed the face of Canadian politics. More importantly, Tommy Douglas was a politician who put the good of the people he represented first and foremost.

Tommy Clement Douglas was born on October 20, 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland. In 1911, Tommy, his mother and his sister moved to Winnipeg to join his father who had moved there the previous year. Shortly after settling in Winnipeg, Tommy was diagnosed with osteomyelitis in his right leg. Tommyís family was not healthy and subsequently his family could not pay for the best or most immediate treatment. The delay nearly cost Tommy his leg. This experience marked the beginning of Tommyís quest for universal, public health care. By the time he was 18, Tommy set his sights on a career as a preacher.

In 1924, when Tommy reached 20 years of age, he enrolled at Brandon College in Manitoba. Brandon College, which was founded by the missionary Baptists of Ontario, provided young ministers with the opportunity to receive an educational background. In college, Tommy was active in elocution classes, drama, and debating. His peers accepted Douglas as a natural leader and scholar. During weekends and summer months, Tommy would speak at rural churches. At one such trip Tommy met Irma Dempsey, his future wife. By the time he had left Brandon College, Tommy had earned his Bachelorís degree in the Faculty of Arts.

In the fall of 1929, Tommy became a minister at Calvary Baptist church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. The town immediately opened its arms to the young preacher who possessed boundless energy and eloquence. His time in Weyburn allowed Douglas a first hand perspective of the harshness of the Depression in the prairies. Douglas knew that something had to be done for the common man. His experience with the vast unemployment and poverty transformed T.C. Douglas, the clergyman, into a social activist.

By 1932, Douglas helped organize an Independent Labour Party in Weyburn of which he became president. Saskatchewanís Independent Labour movement was not large in numbers but they began raising awareness for socialist politics. The movement soon evolved into the Farmer Labour Party. The Farmer Labour Party offered hospital care for everyone on an equal basis, including unemployment insurance and universal pension. By July of 1932, the labour parties of the four western provinces formed an alliance under the name Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF became Canadaís first national socialist party. The Farmer Labour Party now had something it desperately lacked, the backing of a national movement. In 1934, Douglas made his first foray in the Saskatchewan provincial election. Although he lost, this sparked an internal flame which could not be extinguished.

In 1935, Douglas was elected into parliament under the CCF. This was a time of great turmoil for Canadian politics. Nearly all the provincial governments had been tossed out of office as Canadians turned to anyone who promised to lead them out of the troubled times. Along with Douglas, there were only four other members of the CCF caucus. At the tender age of 31, the young Douglas impressed the House of Commons with his fiery, yet relevant, speeches. The CCF, with only five seats, did not have much political clout, but that did not stop Douglas from fighting for legislation to support the western provinces. By the end of the 193 Os, the Depression and World War II had created an opening for popular support towards the CCF and its socialist ideas.

By the end of World War II, Douglas found a new way to support his socialist solution to Canadaís economic problems. Canada had successfully financed a war against a foreign aggression but could not do the same against poverty. “Surely,” said Douglas in a radio broadcast, “if we can produce in such abundance in order to destroy our enemies, we can produce in equal abundance in order to provide food, clothing, and shelter for our children.”

In his two terms in cabinet, Douglas often argued that Ottawa had no effective western farm policy. The CCF, a socialist party, had begun to build momentum at this time. By the early 1940s Douglas began to move away from Federal politics after being frustrated with the slow legislation and lack of progress. By 1942 Tommy Douglas became the leader of the Saskatchewan provincial CCF party although he remained a MP for the Weyburn constituency.

In 1944, the CCF, under Douglas, won the provincial election to become the first socialist government in North America. The CCF election slogan was “Humanity First” and his governmentís budget was to have 70% of expenditure to social services. Douglasís emphasized that his brand of socialism depended on political and economic democracy. Saskatchewan listened. In 1944, the old age pension plan included medical, hospital and dental services. Douglasí government radically changed the education system and established larger school units and provided the University of Saskatchewan with a medical school. In his first four years in government, Douglas paid off the provincial debt, created a province wide hospitalization plan, paved the roads, and provided electricity and sewage pipes to the common man.

In 1948, when time for a re-election had come, opponents took advantage of the cold war and the widespread fear of communism. This was dirty politics at itís worst and it swayed the public. Douglas fought back with radio telecasts, a medium which he could reach the public with his oratory skill. In one such telecast Douglas said “Donít let them deceive you again. If you let them fool you once, shame on them. If you let them fool you twice, shame on you.”Although he defended his governmentís outstanding record, it was Douglasí sincerety and his committment to the people of Saskatchewan which prevailed. Douglasí first re-election proved to be the most difficult. He would be re-elected for three more terms to serve Saskatchewan as Premier for 17 years. In his latter terms as Premier, Douglas saw the province through prosperous times. Douglas would not see great changes in legislation like his first term until the inception of Medicare.

In 1961, the CCF joined with big labour unions to create the New Democratic Party in which Douglas was elected leader. The NDP platform remained consistent with that of the CCF with minor changes. The forming of a new party provided the CCF with a self-renewal. The NDP attracted new supporters and triggered a new movement of democratic socialism. Douglasí New Democratic Party was gaining momentum on a national level but there were troubles at home.

The North American Medical Establishment tried to defy Medicare, Douglasís top priority project, and Saskatchewan became an intense battleground. This turbulent time was marked by the Doctorís Strike as the physicians of the province protested socialized healthcare. However, the striking doctors were no match for Douglas. When the dust settled with the resolution of the strike, Medicare in Saskatchewan was born. Douglas showed Canada two things: that it was possible to develope and finance a universal Medicare system and that the medical profession could be confronted. Had Douglas not have made these first ground breaking steps, national Medicare would never have happened.

In 1962, Douglas was struck with a devastating blow. Running in the Regina contituency, Douglas, the leader of the NDP party, was defeated. Fortunately, a New Democrat MP in British Columbia resigned his seat in favour of Douglas. Immediately Douglas began his by-election campaign on the west coast. By mid October, he was back in the House of Commons representing the Burnaby- Coquitlam riding. As leader of the NDP, Douglas fought hard for socialist legislature on federal level but never achieved the success he found as Premier of Saskatchewan under the CCF. By 1971, Douglas resigned as Leader of the NDP, although he remained the partyís energy critic which he took on in 1969.

In 1976, Douglas announced that he would not seek re-election and bowed out of Canadian politics. Douglas spent much of his retirement in the national NDP headquarters as an independent missionary for the cause of socialism. Weeks before his death, weakened by cancer, Douglas made one final trip to Parliment Hill. Tommy Douglas passed away on February 24, 1986. At his memorial service, the Liberal leader, John Turner, and the Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, led a standing ovation for this courageous man.

During his 42 years in politics, Tommy Douglas proved himself as an outstanding Canadian leader. He is largely responsible for our central banking, old age pensions, unemployment insurance, and our universal Medicare. When asked why he stayed with NDP when he could have done better with a more powefful party, Douglas simply replied, ” I have watched politicians for the last forty years drop their principles in order to get power only to find that those who paid and controlled the party which they joined prevented them from all the things they really believed in.” To the end of his days Tommy Douglas was true to himself, to what he stood for, and to the people he represented.


1. McLeod, Thomas. & McLeod, Ian. (1987) Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem Hurtig Publishers. Pg. 42

2. Elsie Swerhone (1980) Tommy Douglas: Keeper Of The Flame National Film Board of Canada

3. Elsie Swerhone (1980) Tommy Douglas: Keeper Of The Flame National Film Board of Canada


1. McLeod, Thomas. & McLeod, Ian. (1987) Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem Hurtig Publishers.

2. Whelan, Ed. & Whelan, Pemrose. (1990) Touched by Tommy Whelan Publications.

3. Lovick, L.D. (1975) Tommy Douglas Speaks Oolichan Books.

4. Thomas, Lewis H. (1982) The Making of a Socialist: The Recollections of T.C. Douglas The University of Alberta Press.

5. Elsie Swerhone (1980) Tommy Douglas: Keeper Of The Flame National Film Board of Canada