The Fight for Medicare
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The Fight for Medicare
Saskatchewan faces a bitter doctors' strike over Canada's first universal health care plan
"We feel we cannot practice under state-controlled medicine. it seems to me the government has given us no choice but to leave. " - Saskatchewan doctor
Socialist politician Tommy Douglas was the force behind Canada's first universal health insurance plan, enacted in Saskatchewan in 1962. Pictured here, Douglas NDP convention in July 1961. (National Archives of Canada, C-036222)
Socialist politician Tommy Douglas was the force behind Canada's first universal health insurance plan, enacted in Saskatchewan in 1962. Pictured here, Douglas NDP convention in July 1961. (National Archives of Canada, C-036222)

In the early 1960s, Saskatchewan doctors reacted with anger and frustration, culminating in a bitter strike when the province tried to bring in Canada's first universal health insurance plan.

In Saskatchewan, Premier Tommy Douglas and his socialist party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), had been in power since 1944 and had been the first government in the country to provide hospital insurance for its citizens.

Now in 1960, with a provincial election looming, Douglas was ready to take the next step and introduce universal, publicly funded medical care - known as medicare - not just in hospitals, but also in clinics and doctors offices.

"Surely the time has come in Saskatchewan ... for us to take this next great forward step and set up in the province of Saskatchewan a pre-paid medical care program."

The attempt to bring medicare to Saskatchewan was the latest in a series of measures adopted across Canada and throughout the western world in the years after the Second World War. The measures were based on the premise that governments owed their citizens a reasonable standard of living and access to basic services.

But Saskatchewan doctors complained that they would be turned into civil servants, unable to follow their own judgment about what was best for their patients. They argued that medicare was another step down a slippery socialistic slope

"This is like asking the doctors if they would like to try a hanging and if they didn't like it, it could be undone!," said a Saskatchewan doctor.

The Saskatchewan Liberals, led by Ross Thatcher, backed the doctors and attacked Douglas.

"The socialists say, elect us, even with a 35 per cent majority, and we will ram a scheme down your throat."

Douglas was bitterly opposed by the provinces physicians and private health-care insurers. Despite the $115,000 spent during the election on an anti--medicare campaign, Douglas and the CCF won a commanding majority and a clear mandate to proceed. Douglas would soon leave for Ottawa in 1961 to lead the newly formed New Democratic Party, but his provincial successor Woodrow Lloyd would continue the medicare fight.

After a long debate, the law was adopted in November 1961, to take effect the following July 1. The day medicare was born, about 90 per cent of the provinces doctors went on strike.

Initially the doctors had some public support. These KOD (Keep Our Doctors) Committees, with support from the media, launched a well-organized campaign against the government and the medicare plan. Rallies, petitions, panels and advertisements raised the emotional climate to a white heat.

The people of Saskatchewan began to worry. Some wondered what good was a medical care program without doctors.

"Im very glad that the plan has gone in," said one resident. "but Im deeply concerned over the fact that my doctor left me and two children without any proper medical care."

Families with health problems were even more alarmed by the strike.

"I have a family of 5 little girls, one girl is suffering from cerebral palsy," said one father. "Where will I take my daughter? To Montreal? Will the government pay me transportation? Where will I go, tell me!"

The government brought doctors from Britain and encouraged others to come from the US and other parts of Canada to meet the emergency. Local citizens groups organized medical clinics and hired doctors to attend them.

By mid-July much of the KOD support had dissipated. Some doctors were returning to work; the force of the strike was spent. At the beginning of August, the government made some amendments to the Act; one amendment allowed doctors to practice outside the plan.

After 23 days on strike, the Saskatchewan doctors returned to work. But hostilities remained long afterwards; patients resented their doctors' desertion and doctors continued to object to government involvement in medical care. Nevertheless, a 1965 survey found that most doctors favoured continuing the plan.

The Saskatchewan government had opened the door to universal health care. Within ten years of the Saskatchewan strike, the entire country was covered by medicare.


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