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Facts About Tommy Douglas: the Greatest Canadian and the Father of Medicare

by Your Daily Hunt
Tommy Douglas

Born in Scotland in the year 1904, Thomas Clement ‘Tommy’ Douglas moved to Canada with his family in the year 1910. They settled in Winnipeg city and were poor. Tommy Douglas developed a rare disease that could have cost him his leg. Fortunately, his father met a generous surgeon who agreed to free treatment but his father had to permit doctor’s students to observe the operation. This was the first-ever experience faced by Tommy Douglas that made him realise the need for healthcare access for all.

Since childhood Tommy Douglas experiences and socialist view made him bring massive changes in Saskatchewan province. Under his guidance, various reforms were made in Canada which made Tommy Douglas considered as the ‘Father of Medicare”. The first leader of the Democratic Party, Tommy Douglas introduced a universal hospitalization system in Saskatchewan and became voted as ‘The Greatest Canadian’ in 2004. Read below to find more interesting facts about Tommy Douglas and his journey from the pulpit to Greatest Canadian and the ‘Father of universal Medicare in Canada’.

Who was Tommy Douglas?

Tommy Douglas is a prominent personality in Canadian history who served as the Premier of Saskatchewan. He was the first party leader of the New Democratic Party and a trained Baptist Minister. Tommy Douglas was elected as a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in the year 1935 for the Canadian House of Commons. He served as the seventh Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944-1961 and during his leadership, he made many positive changes that introduced various social reforms in the rest of Canada as well.

When Tommy Douglas was the leader of the first democratic socialist government of North America, the continent’s first single-payer was introduced by him for the universal health care program. Later, many universal hospitalization programs were started by Tommy and he announced a Medicare plan for the people of Saskatchewan. Later he gave away the Premier to become New Democratic Party leader thereby becoming the first Federal leader. In 1976, Tommy Douglas retired from active politics. In 2004, he was titled ‘The Greatest Canadian’ by CBS Television Program.

Tommy Douglas Childhood, Early Life and Education

Tommy Douglas was born on 20th October 1904 to Thomas and Annie Douglas in Camelon, Falkirk in Scotland. Tommy’s father was an iron moulder and had fought for Boer War. During his early life, Tommy Douglas suffered from a deadly disease named osteomyelitis that worsened with time. After his family shifted from Scotland to Canada’s Winnipeg in 1910, Tommy was treated by an orthopaedic surgeon for free since his family was very poor. This was the first experience of Tommy Douglas that influenced him to work for free healthcare access for all.

Tommy Douglas moved to Scotland during World War I temporarily and returned to Canada again in 1918. He witnessed General Strike and was again inspired to safeguard people’s fundamental rights.

The preliminary education of Tommy Douglas was fulfilled by an elementary school. He dropped his high school to attend menial jobs like cork buyer, soap boy and linotype operator. He had worked as an apprenticeship to acquire journeyman paper though discontinued to become an ordained minister.

Tommy Douglas enrolled in Brandon College in 1924 to complete his high school studies and later studied theology. He also took a course in sociology and studied Greek philosophy. To support his education, Tommy worked as a student minister, advocated social reforms and preached sermons.

After graduating, Tommy Douglas enrolled himself in McMaster University to complete an MA Degree in Sociology in the year 1933. During this time, he researched Depression-era or hobo camps to finish his PhD. Nonetheless, Tommy Douglas faced many disturbing events during his fieldwork which made his PhD degree unattainable.

Interesting Story of Tommy Douglas: From pulpit to Being Greatest Canadian

When Tommy Douglas returned Canada from Scotland in 1919, he was a teenager and stood on the rooftop of his Winnipeg’s house. He looked at a large crowd of workers protesting against low wages. All of a sudden, some policemen pulled out their guns and shot more than 20 workers. Many were hurt while two of them died instantly. The sight affected Tommy immensely and he believed that every people on this earth deserved a good life, irrespective of their financial condition.

When Tommy Douglas turned 26, he became a minister to help people and started his first job as a minister in Saskatchewan. When some of the city miners went for a strike, he gave them blankets and food. Once again police came in and shot three people. Tommy had envisaged a similar kind of moment before and decided to enter politics to uplift poor people powers.

Tommy Douglas joined a socialist party CCF. Local people were scared saying that he was a communist and so, Tommy narrated a story about a place ‘Mouseland’. The place named Mouseland had several mice who kept voting for black cats who made laws that benefitted cats only. To change the system, mice voted for white cat and again, nothing changed. Finally, a mouse gave an idea to other mice to vote for a mouse than a cat. The story ends after he calls every one of them communist!

The influential story narrated by Tommy Douglas made people understand socialism. They understood that cats were rich people controlling the government at that time. Mice, on the other side, were poor working-class people whom Tommy wanted to elect for the government. With his bold statements and ideas kept in front of the crowd, Tommy influenced voters. He became Premier of Saskatchewan and continued with this job from 1944 to 1961.

During his period as a Premier, Tommy Douglas kept his promises and made many laws such employers had to provide workers with at least two weeks paid leave annually. He also introduced bills of rights suggesting that people belonging to every gender and race are equal in front of the law. Tommy was voted for the federal government in 1961 after which many of his ideas were applied in the rest of Canada’s provinces. The ideas included minimum wage, money for senior workers and access to healthcare. In 2004, the entire nation voted Tommy Douglas as the greatest Canadian of all times.

Why is Tommy Douglas remembered as the Father of Universal Medicare in Canada?

As discussed earlier, Tommy Douglas first preference was to create universal Medicare and he introduced many medical reforms during his first term. Subsequently, he moved his province towards universal Medicare till his last term. Saskatchewan became the centre of a hard-fought struggle between the North American medical system, provincial government and physicians who halted everything with the 1962 Saskatchewan Doctor’s Strike.

The doctors during that time felt that their needs were not fulfilled and feared their income losses along with governmental interference in medical decisions. These were their claims despite Tommy Douglas agreed that the government will pay them for their fees and necessities. The medical establishments stated that Tommy would bring in foreign doctors to treat patients and used a racist image for him that scared the public.

His early reforms changed the healthcare system in the province and every people got equal access to Medicare. This made Tommy Douglas remembered as the Father of Medicare although the Saskatchewan universal program was launched by his successor named Woodrow Llyod. After Douglas stepped from his post in 1962, he became a member of the legislature and led then newly formed the New Democratic Party of Canada.

Although he stepped down from his provincial post in Saskatchewan, the healthcare program introduced by him was not lost. The newly elected Prime Minister named John Diefenbaker commanded that any province planning to introduce the hospital plan would get a 50 cent in a dollar from the government. Diefenbaker appointed Justice Emmett Hall in 1962 to look after the Royal Commission of National Health system and health services. Justice Hall suggested the adoption of the Saskatchewan model nationwide as a public health insurance plan in 1966.

 A liberal minority program was developed by Lester B Pearson in which the federal government paid 50% of the healthcare costs and the other half was paid by the provinces. Such adoption in healthcare facilities across Canada started with three diverse political ideals in which the initiator of the program, Tommy Douglas started to be called as the father of universal Medicare in Canada.

Tommy Douglas Awards & Achievements

  • Tommy Douglas was presented with the influential honorary degree in 1980 from several universities such as McMaster University, University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina, Queen’s University, University of British Columbia, Trent University and Carleton University.
  • Tommy Douglas service as a political leader and a public policy innovator made him appointed to the Order of Canada in 1981 as a Companion.
  • In 1985, Tommy was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit.
  • To honour his work as a political leader, Tommy Douglas was honoured by Brandon University by building a student’s union building under his name.

Tommy Douglas Personal Life

  • Tommy Douglas was the one who established North America’s and Canada’s first Democratic Socialist government.
  • Tommy Douglas was married to Irma Dempsey who was a music student at Brandon College. Together, the couple had a beautiful daughter named Shirley Douglas. The second daughter was adopted later and was named Joan Douglas.
  • Tommy Douglas got injured severely in 1984 due to an accident but recovered soon. Nonetheless, after the incident, his health started deteriorating and his memory became weaker with each passing day.
  • Tommy Douglas died because of cancer in 1986 and was buried at the Beechwood Cemetery.
  • After his sad demise, a park was built in his name near Qu’Appelle River Dam and Saskatchewan Lake Diefenbaker. His statue can be found in his hometown in Weyburn. Many schools, housing societies and universities have been named after Tommy Douglas name to honour his legacy.
  • In 1986, a documentary was made depicting Tommy’s life and was named, Keeper of the Flame. The documentary received a Gemini Award under Best writing in the Documentary Program Series.

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