"The Greatest Canadian"

Along with JS Woodsworth, first CCF Leader, Tommy Douglas stands as one of the most important heroes of our movement. Douglas was the first social democratic leader of a government on this continent. He was the first leader of the federal NDP. He was the father of medicare in Canada. It is hard to imagine a figure more important to the development of the NDP and to social democracy in Canada. History has been kind to Tommy Douglas, though he never became Prime Minister, and he is as highly regarded by the general public now as ever before.

Tommy Douglas was a little man with a big heart. In his 44 years as an elected representative, his loving work on behalf of the individual men and women of Canada changed forever the nature of our society. Tommy Douglas fought for Canadians. His achievements are indeed legendary.

Short in stature, Douglas lacked neither brains nor courage. Throughout his long political career, he built a reputation for a devastating wit and oratory, and universal respect for always standing by what he believed, no matter how unpopular.

Douglas was born on October 20, 1904, in Falkirk, Scotland. His family emigrated to Canada in 1910, settling in Winnipeg. They returned to Glasgow during the first world war, and once again moved to Winnipeg when Douglas was 14.

He started work then as an apprentice printer, working for the Winnipeg Free Press and the Grain Trade News. Earlier, at 13 and still in Glasgow, he had worked in a whiskey factory.

By the age of 19, he not only had earned his journeyman's card as a printer, but also was already gaining a reputation as a Baptist preacher at his first church in Austin, Manitoba. It was here that he became friends with J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist preacher and the future CCF leader.

He earned a bachelor's degree at Brandon College, where he was a classmate of Stanley Knowles, and did post-graduate work at McMaster University, earning an MA.

In 1934, Douglas, a Baptist Church Minister in Weyburn, made his first venture into electoral politics by running unsuccessfully as a provincial candidate for the Farmer-Labour Party in Saskatchewan.

While he was deliberating over the next move, the superintendent of the Baptist Church in Western Canada told him he had to choose between politics or the church – he couldn't have both.

That ultimatum did not prevent Douglas from running again in the 1935 federal election, as the CCF candidate in the federal constituency of Weyburn, when he became one of the first CCF members to sit in the House of Commons. He would serve as a MP for nine years.

In 1941, he was elected President of the Saskatchewan CCF provincial party, and became provincial leader when George Williams went overseas during the Second World War. With an election seeming imminent by 1942, Douglas activated a shadow cabinet of party committees and organized sitting MLAs under C.M. Fines.

Douglas resigned his federal seat to lead the Saskatchewan CCF and, in the memorable election of June 15, 1944 he led the party to a massive victory, winning 47 of 53 seats. At the age of 39, he became head of the first social democratic government in North America.

As Premier of Saskatchewan he presided over the birth of public hospitalization and medicare. Through his five terms as Premier, Douglas pioneered reforms which made Saskatchewan society both progressive and prosperous.

More than 100 bills, 72 of them aimed at social or economic reform, were passed during the CCF's first year in power. By the end of two years, they had removed the sales tax from food and meals and managed to reduce the provincial debt by $20 million.

New departments were established which reflected the government's priorities. These included the new Deparment of Co-operatives, the Department of Labour and the Department of Social Welfare. To pay for the new departments, all the CCF cabinet ministers took a 28 per cent pay cut.

In 1944, pensioners were granted free medical, hospital and dental services, and the treatment of diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis, mental illness and venereal disease was made free for all.

In 1947, Douglas introduced universal hospitalization at a fee of $5 per year per person. "It is paid out of the treasury. Instead of the burden of those hospital bills falling on sick people, it is spread over all the people," Douglas said. In 1959, twelve years later, when the province's finances seemed to him to be strong enough, Douglas announced the coming of the medicare plan. It would be universal, pre-paid, publicly administered, provide high quality care, including preventive care, and be accepted by both providers and receivers of the medical service.

A Crown Corporation Act opened the way to such achievements as provincial air and bus lines. The Timber Board took control of lumbering, so the industry could prosper without destroying the forests. Later, fish and fur marketing boards were established.

However, no Crown corporation had as big an impact during the Douglas years than the Saskatchewan Power Corporation. Prior to the Douglas Administration, only 300 rural households had electrical power. By 1964, 65,000 farm households had been hooked up to the electrical grid built by SaskPower.

SaskTel provided affordable, quality and near universal phone access across the province.

The CCF introduced the Trade Union Act, which made collective bargaining mandatory and extended the rights of civil servants. The Act was described by Walter Reuther as "the most progressive piece of labour legislation on the continent." Other labour legislation set standards for workers' compensation, minimum wages, mandatory holidays and a labour relations board. Union membership rose 118 per cent in just four years.

Building on the 1944 campaign slogan of Humanity First, the first CCF budget devoted 70 per cent of its expenditures to health, welfare and education. School districts were enlarged to a more efficient size; teachers' salaries were raised; the University of Saskatchewan was expanded to include a medical college.

Industrial development and economic diversification were major goals of the Douglas government. The Administration helped private investors to develop potash mining, a steel mill and pipeline company, as well as encouraging development in oil and gas. When Douglas took power, 80 per cent of the province's GDP was generated by agriculture. By 1957, agriculture accounted for only 35 per cent of economic activity, even though a million more acres of farm land were under production.

"If ever a politician had neglected his own constituency, it was I," wrote Douglas in an article prepared shortly before his death. "I had told my people before they nominated me that if I was going to be any use to the party, I'd have to spend 95 percent of my time on the road."

Tommy Douglas political achievements included his most memorable, North America's first government-run medical care insurance plan; also public automobile insurance, rural electrification, and a host of other innovative social programs.

In his writings, Douglas says he was labeled as "a rather dangerous radical in the community of Weyburn, stirring up the unemployed to ask for more money and sticking my nose into places where it was none of my business." But Tommy Douglas felt it was his business.

When he died on February 24, 1986, at the age of 81, Douglas was heralded as "a man who did good deeds in a naughty world."

In 2004, nearly twenty years after his death, Tommy Douglas was voted “The Greatest Canadian” in a national CBC Television contest. Among the nominees who Douglas edged out for the title were Lester Pearson, Pierre Trudeau and Terry Fox.

Tommy Douglas

  • Member of Parliament 1935-1940
  • Premier of Saskatchewan 1944-1961
  • Member of Parliament 1962-1979

Under Tommy Douglas, the government of Saskatchewan brought about the following groundbreaking measures:

  • Provided full medical, dental and drug coverage to those needing state assistance.
  • Established equality of education for all
  • Introduced free air ambulance service which was essential to the north.
  • First to provide universal coverage for hospitalization.
  • First to introduce a budget bureau to provide long-term planning.
  • First to introduce government insurance.
  • First government to allow collective bargaining for all workers including civil servants.
  • First Arts Board in Canada
  • First to introduce a Farm Security Act in North America.
  • First to grant the right to vote at age 18.
  • First to introduce the 8-hour work day, the 5-day work week, and paid holidays for workers.
  • First Small Claims Court in North America.
  • First Bill of Rights in Canada
  • First universal Medicare plan in North America.

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