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Father of Canadian Healthcare

For the week of Monday October 20, 2008

On October 20, 1904, Thomas “Tommy” Clement Douglas was born in Falkirk, Scotland. Douglas would grow up to be a leading socialist political figure in Canada.

Douglas addressing an NDP convention
© Cameron Duncan / Library and Archives Canada / C-036222 / 1961
In 1910, the Douglas family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. As a child, Tommy became sick with a bone infection in his leg. His parents were unable to afford treatment and he would have lost his leg had a visiting surgeon not offered to perform the surgery for free. This experience shaped Douglas’ future career in politics.

As a young boy Douglas met J.S. Woodsworth, his pastor at the All People’s Mission. Woodsworth organized relief programs through the church to help those in need in the community. Following his arrest during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, Woodsworth would enter politics as the first leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Douglas later looked to Woodsworth as inspiration for his own entry into socialist politics.

Douglas enrolled at Brandon College in 1924 to become a Baptist minister. While there he learned of the social gospel, a Christian movement for social justice and greater equality for everyone. These ideas stayed with Douglas as he worked as a minister in Weyburn, Saskatchewan during the Depression. During this time he tried to organize local assistance programs to help the farmers. However, after burying two men who died because they could not afford health care, Douglas realized that effective relief could only come with political changes.

In 1932, Woodsworth urged Douglas to enter politics. In 1935, Douglas would be one of the first CCF members elected to Ottawa. In 1944, he became Premier of Saskatchewan, the first socialist government elected in North America. 

Douglas presenting the first health card in Saskatchewan
© Tommy Douglas Research Institute

Douglas’s greatest achievement as Premier was his introduction of universal healthcare in Saskatchewan in 1959. The plan proposed pre-paid, publicly administered, quality healthcare for all. The program was a success in Saskatchewan, leading Canada to adopt it nationwide shortly there after.

In 1961, Douglas helped create the New Democratic Party (NDP) and served as the leader of the federal party until 1971. Douglas died of cancer in 1986, but his socialist beliefs have had a lasting impact on Canada and government policies. In 2004, viewers selected Tommy Douglas as the Greatest Canadian of all time in a CBC poll.

In 1972, James Shaver Wordsworth was designated a National Historic Person and, in 1974, the Winnipeg General Strike was designated a National Historic Event.

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