A Baptist minister and father of Canada’s socialized medicine was named “the Greatest Canadian” in a contest run by Canadian public television.
Tommy Douglas, who died in 1986, served five terms as premier of Saskatchewan, forming North America’s first socialist government and introducing programs that marked the beginning of Canada’s program of universal medical care.
Douglas topped better-known Canadians including Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone; hockey great Wayne Gretzky and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the contest featured in a six-week television series in October and November on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
“Tommy Douglas is the father of universal health care, the thing that Canadians consistently declare as our greatest national treasure,” said George Stroumboulopoulos, an entertainer who accepted the award and served as Douglas’ advocate.
“That alone makes him the Greatest Canadian, but it’s that and so much more,” Stroumboulopoulos continued. “In fact, it’s Tommy’s values that became Canada’s values. And when we choose to brag about our country, it’s because of the things that Tommy gave us.
“My friends, Canada has great Canadians, and they built their rooms on the foundations of the Greatest Canadian: Tommy Douglas.”
More than 1.2 million viewers voted in the contest, which began in April with 140,000 nominations including 10,000 different names. A list of the 100 greatest Canadians came out in October, followed by a list of 10 finalists profiled in the series. The series ended with a two-part telecast on Nov. 28 and Nov. 29 announcing the winner in a live broadcast.
During 42 years in public service, Douglas changed the face of Canadian politics. He is largely responsible for the country’s central banking, old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and universal Medicare.
Before entering politics, Douglas was pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Educated at a college founded by Baptists in Manitoba, he was influenced in the 1920s by the “social gospel” movement of religion in action, a vision he carried throughout his life.
“You’re never going to step out of the front door into the kingdom of God,” Douglas once said. “What you’re going to do is slowly and painfully change society until it has more of the values that emanate from the teachings of Jesus or from the other great religious leaders.”
Douglas never wavered from his socialist policies, which hurt him when he made the jump from provincial to national politics. Surviving attacks by opponents who sought to capitalize on the Cold War and fear of communism, he served two terms in Ottawa before returning to Saskatchewan to lead his Cooperative Commonwealth Federation to power and hold office as the province’s premier from 1944 to 1961.
After that he led the New Democratic Party, formed by a merger of the CCF with several large labor unions, for 10 years.
Asked why he never jumped ship to a more powerful party to improve his political chances, Douglas said: “I have watched politicians for the last 40 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.”
He suffered his first major defeat in 1961, the same year he introduced universal Medicare legislation, his greatest achievement. He retired from politics in 1979 and spent his final years reforesting land around his home before dying of cancer at age 81.
Born in Scotland, Douglas emigrated to Canada as a child with his mother, joining his father who moved to Winnipeg a year earlier. He soon developed a bone infection in his leg. Not being able to afford an operation, his family was about to have the limb amputated before a traveling doctor agreed to perform the surgery for free.
The experience is credited with inspiring Douglas in his quest for universal health care. By 18 he had set his sights on the ministry. He enrolled at Brandon College in Manitoba, a school founded by missionary Baptists of Ontario, in 1924 at age 20.
In 1929 he became minister of Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, where first-hand experience with the effects of unemployment and poverty during the Depression completed his transformation from a clergyman to a social activist.
Douglas was the father of Canadian actress Shirley Douglas and grandfather of actor Kiefer Sutherland.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.