Thomas Clement (“Tommy”) Douglas, premier of Saskatchewan, first leader of the New Democratic Party, Baptist minister, politician (born 20 October 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland; died 24 February 1986 in Ottawa, ON). Douglas led the first socialist government elected in Canada and is recognized as the father of socialized medicine. He also helped establish democratic socialism in the mainstream of Canadian politics.
Education and Ministry
His proudly working-class and religious family provided a strong background for both his politics and his faith. His family immigrated to Canada and settled in 1919 in Winnipeg; Douglas witnessed the Winnipeg General Strike of that year. Leaving school at the age of 14, Douglas began a printer's apprenticeship. He became involved in church work and in 1924 decided to enter the ministry. He was at Brandon College for six years, and it was here that he was exposed to and embraced the Social Gospel, a belief that Christianity was above all a social religion, concerned as much with improving this world as with the life hereafter.
When Douglas moved to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, following his ordination in 1930, he found much suffering, for that province had been especially hard hit by economic depression and drought. Douglas soon became involved in ministering to people's physical and spiritual needs, while he pursued further academic studies in Christian ethics. These studies, along with his experience of the Great Depression, led him to conclude that political action was necessary to alleviate the suffering he saw around him. In 1931, he established a local association of the Independent Labour Party, and two years later he attended the first national convention of the new, avowedly socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).
Early Political Career
Douglas ran unsuccessfully in the 1934 Saskatchewan election. He was then convinced by friends that he should be a CCF candidate in the federal election of 1935. This time he was successful, partly because he had learned to exploit a special talent — the ability to make people laugh. The Second World War further convinced Douglas that the socialist case was valid. Although he heard it repeatedly argued in Parliament that money could not be found to put people to work, money was forthcoming to finance a war. During his first two terms in Parliament, Douglas earned a reputation as a skilful and witty debater. He claimed as his constituency the underprivileged and exploited, and he took unpopular stands in defence of civil liberties.
Premier of Saskatchewan
In 1944, Douglas resigned his federal seat to contest the Saskatchewan general election. As premier of the province for the next 17 years, he became a symbol of what the socialist alternative promised. His government was innovative and efficient, and pioneered many programs that would later be implemented by others, notably in the field of social services.
The most significant innovation during his time as premier was the implementation of government-funded health insurance. In 1947, Saskatchewan’s Hospital Services Plan came into effect, the first hospital insurance plan in Canada; this prompted the federal government to create a national plan that helped to fund diagnostic services and hospital-operating costs in conjunction with the provinces. However, it was again Saskatchewan that first implemented a system of full health insurance. Douglas played a lead role in this initiative, although the legislation that established a comprehensive health insurance plan in Saskatchewan was passed in 1961, after he had resigned as premier. In 1966, the federal government followed suit with the Medical Care Act (see Health Policy).
Leader of the New Democratic Party
Douglas resigned as premier in 1961 to lead the federal New Democratic Party (NDP), created as a formal alliance between the CCF and organized labour. Douglas was the new party's obvious choice, primarily because of his success in Saskatchewan but also because he was universally regarded as the left's most eloquent spokesman. He was able to inspire and motivate party workers and he could also explain democratic socialism in moral, ethical and religious terms.
Despite these qualifications, Douglas was defeated in the federal election of 1962, largely because of the backlash against the Saskatchewan government's introduction of Medicare, which had culminated in a long and bitter strike by the province's doctors (see Saskatchewan Doctors' Strike). Winning a seat in a by-election, Douglas went on to serve as leader of the NDP until 1971, when he became his party's energy critic until his retirement in 1979. He was made Companion of the Order of Canada in 1980.
Though Douglas did not realize his dream of a socialist Canada, he and his colleagues had considerable influence on government. Programs such as Medicare, a Canada-wide pension plan, and bargaining rights for civil servants were first advocated by Douglas and his party, and are now widely accepted in Canada.