In 2003, Tommy Douglas was voted the “Greatest Canadian” in a CBC Television competition. He beat out not just the man I championed in the contest, Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, but also such luminaries as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the hockey great Wayne Gretsky. Douglas achieved this status because he led the campaign for state-funded health insurance in his province, Saskatchewan.
His success provided the model and momentum to the federal Liberal Party to do the same for the whole country. Today, in the words of the political columnist Jeffrey Simpson, medicare is “the third rail of Canadian politics. Touch it and you will die. Every politician knows this truth.” Canadians regularly tell pollsters that our health care system is our most important defining national characteristic. It is linked to another Canadian value: not being American. “Tommy” as he is universally known, is an icon within the national imagination and a symbol; of deeply held Canadian values.
Douglas bridges two eras in the history of modern Canada. He began life here shortly after the First World War, during the pioneer years on the prairies, when most Canadians only had their meagre resources to draw on and anticipated little help from governments, federal or provincial. By the time he died, after another world war and the explosive growth of the Canadian economy, Canadians were wealthy and expected the government to provide for the public good. He had established a model for political leaders in the second half of the twentieth century: he gave voters a taste of high-flying “visions.” Plodding grey-flannel government was not enough.
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