The preacher turned politician fights to bring a socialist government to Canada
In 1944, a Baptist preacher turned politician ran for premier of Saskatchewan and Canadas political landscape began to change forever.
Tommy Douglas had a new vision for the role of government; he believed that it had the responsibility to improve the lives of ordinary people.
In Saskatchewan people faced tough times. Farmers were working hard but prices for agricultural products were kept low to help the war effort. And the Depression of the 1930s had left its mark. Most farms still had no electricity and a bad crop could mean losing the farm. A trip to the hospital could mean destitution.
As a preacher, Tommy Douglas had seen the suffering first hand:
"Again and again we would leave some sitting in the hospital waiting room while we went out and borrowed or begged a few dollars here and there till wed make up enough to pay the bill. In some cases I knew people who simply died. I remember burying a girl fourteen years of age who had died with a ruptured appendix ... I buried a good many people that I knew, some of whom I loved. "
As a politician, he would do what he could to change the system.
"In was in those days I made up my mind that if ever I had the power I would, if it were humanly possible, see that the financial barrier between those who needed health services and those who gave health services was forever removed."
Douglas waded into politics during the height of the Great Depression and was elected to the House of Commons in 1935 as a member of the socialist CCF (which eventually evolved into the present day New Democratic Party). Douglas knew how to make people laugh and the special talent earned him points with constituents and colleagues.
By the middle of the Second World War, Douglas had become the leader of the Saskatchewan CCF. In the spring of 1944, the provinces ruling Liberals called an election.
The economic turnaround during the war had left many Canadians disillusioned with traditional government. They wondered why the federal government had so much trouble solving the countrys ills during the Depression but found the money when war erupted.
Douglas appealed to the disillusioned masses. Joe Busch remembered the impact Douglas had on his father, a struggling farmer:
"We were in debt pretty bad from the 30s. Things were at a standstill. Nothing was moving forward. My dad was a strong Liberal. He went to a meeting in 1943. When he came home at midnight, he was CCF - because of what Douglas was preaching at the time, the vision he had."
While many Canadians found hope in Douglas' vision, others reacted against the new ideas. Douglas and the CCF were subject to unprecedented attacks during a vicious election campaign in spring 1944. The countrys leading capitalists, including the heads of Imperial Oil, Noranda Mines, International Nickel and Massey-Harris formed a committee to battle the CCF. The large department store chain, Simpsons, offered its catalogue mailing system for the distribution of anti-CCF propaganda.
One political opponent claimed "The only thing that separates the CCF from Hitlers National Socialists is its lack of the swastika and the goosestep, "
Mortgage companies openly campaigned against the CCF when Douglas promised to immediately enact a law protecting farmers from foreclosures.
"Land agents for mortgage and trust companies were contacting debt-ridden farmers and telling them that if a CCF government were elected, before we could pass any legislation, they would foreclose on several farmers mortgages," remembered Douglas.
The media also turned against Douglas. When a Gallup Poll predicted a CCF victory, Saskatchewan papers refused to print the report.
On eve of the election, The Regina Leader Post editorial warned about the implications of a CCF victory,
"The election result would affect vitally the way of living of every individual, will affect the right to own and use property and would decide whether a stultifying dictatorial system would be imposed."
Despite the vicious campaign against the CCF, on June 15, 1944 Tommy Douglas and the people of Saskatchewan made history. The first socialist government in North America was elected.
One of Douglass first acts as Premier was to bring in free medical and hospital care for pensioners, those on government support and for cancer patients. By 1962, still under Douglas' leadership, Saskatchewan enacted the first medicare plan (universal publicly funded medical insurance) in North America.
The 1944 election victory signaled changes for the rest of Canada. In Ottawa, Prime Minister Mackenzie King had already felt the political tide turning left.
"In my heart I am not sorry to see the mass of the people coming a little more into their own, but I do regret that it is not a Liberal party that is winning that position. What I fear is that we will begin to have defection from our own ranks in the House to the CCF."
Ottawa civil servants had already produced a blueprint for the post-war era - comprehensive social security for Canadians from infancy to old age, including a national health insurance, universal old age pensions and maternity allowances. As a first step, mothers received a family allowance of five to eight dollars for each child under the age of 16.
Canadians would have to wait years for more generous old age pensions and health care, but modern social security had been born.
Tommy Douglas moved to federal politics in the early 1960s and served as leader of the New Democratic Party until 1971. But he would forever be known as the father of socialized medicine in Canada. Douglas died in Ottawa in 1986.