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Tommy Douglas steps down as NDP leader

Tommy Douglas was the most influential politician never to be elected Prime Minister. He pursued his radical ideas relentlessly until they became so mainstream rival politicians claimed them as their own. Called a communist and threatened by in-party fighting, Douglas battled hard to bring the New Democratic Party to legitimacy in its first ten years. He was often criticized for his singular idealism but through it all Douglas was undeterred, convinced that he was helping to create a better, more humane society. In 2004, Douglas was voted number one in CBC's The Greatest Canadian contest.

David Lewis waits in the wings, ready to be crowned the leader of the NDP in 1971 and steer the party through a new decade. But Tommy Douglas isn't quite finished just yet. He's still focused on the work ahead and his unfulfilled dream to end poverty and unemployment. As Douglas takes to the stage, the crowd cheers and sings Solidarity Forever. In this television broadcast Douglas, ever the warrior, encourages the party to battle onwards.
• At the same 1971 party celebrating the leadership of Tommy Douglas, historian and broadcaster Pierre Berton spoke about the NDP's legacy. "Where would we be without the NDP? It and its predecessor have been the conscience of Canada, often at the risk of our own popularity — as recently as last October," he said referring to Douglas' unwavering stance against the implementation of the War Measures Act in response to the October Crisis.

• Douglas was opposed to the War Measures Act which stirred deep divisions within his party. "The government, I submit, is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut," he said over the roar of Liberals and Tories reprimanding him with cries of "Shame!" In the House of Commons, 16 members of the NDP caucus rose to oppose the use of the act.
• Canadian documentary filmmaker Donald Brittain called Douglas' stance against the War Measures Act "perhaps his finest hour, certainly his loneliest."

• "Tommy was a magnificent, magnificent leader. It was his finest hour. He didn't care that we dropped to seven per cent in the polls. The NDP position was so unpopular it was unbelievable." — NDP politician Stephen Lewis on Douglas' stance against the War Measures Act, Life & Times, 2000.

• "He didn't need hindsight as the rest of us did, or a lot of us did. He made up his mind beforehand and that is terribly difficult to do in politics. He knew the price, the cost of it and it was a very, very brave thing." — Douglas Fisher, parliamentary columnist, on Douglas' stance on the War Measures Act, Life & Times, 2000.

• Douglas also spoke out against the Vietnam war and called it the most powerful issue of his time. He said it was deplorable to decimate the underdeveloped country and urged that "this cannot go on for all people who have a sense of conscience."

• In the early 1970s the NDP faced a crisis of division. A subgroup within the party, the Waffle Group, threatened to split the party's momentum. The Waffle Group argued for the protection of national unions as opposed to international unions. They also sought support for less American corporate ownership in Canada. In June 1972 the Waffle group was asked to disband.

• Tommy Douglas embraced divisions in the party and said that disagreements could be used to refocus the party. When he accepted the leadership of the NDP in 1961, he noted that "where everyone thinks alike, nobody thinks very much."

• When asked why he never became prime minister, Douglas was humble. "It's a bigger ballgame and it's a tougher ballgame," he explained on Front Page Challenge in 1969. Douglas also said that he knew from the beginning it would be a long haul but he was committed to his role in laying the groundwork for the party.
• After Douglas stepped down as leader of the party in 1971, he remained in Parliament until 1979 as the NDP's energy critic.

• In 1971 the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation was created. M.J. Coldwell, a former CCF leader, was a lifelong friend of Tommy Douglas. Douglas described the foundation's directive as "to keep the movements on the left — whether the co-operative movement, the trade union movement or the political movement — from getting in a rut."
• Over the course of his career, Douglas fought for social welfare programs, universal hospitalization, a diversified economy of private and public ownership, old age pensions, mothers' allowances and more.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: April 24, 1971
Guest(s): Tommy Douglas
Host: Lloyd Robertson
Duration: 14:12

Last updated: March 27, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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