Tommy Douglas: ‘Greatest Canadian’ Brought Universal Healthcare to His Nation

“My friends, watch out for the little fellow with an idea.” – Tommy Douglas, 1961


The man who brought single-payer Medicare to Canada was Thomas Clement Douglas, a Scottish-born socialist and Baptist minister (and grandfather of actor Kiefer Sutherland) whose devotion to social causes, excellent speaking ability and charm helped him succeed in politics.  Throughout his career, Douglas remained true to his socialist beliefs, often at great cost to his political life.  Still, his legacy earned the respect of millions of Canadians.  He introduced government healthcare to Saskatchewan and later championed its adoption throughout the rest of the country in the 1960s.

A childhood bone infection forced Douglas to undergo several unsuccessful leg surgeries.  Because his parents did not have the money to pay for a specialist, Douglas almost had his leg amputated until a surgeon offered to operate on him for free – as long as his students were allowed to observe.  The surgery saved Douglas’ leg – and possibly his life – and inspired him to find a way to provide accessible and affordable healthcare for all.

Douglas, who died of cancer in 1986, was voted “The Greatest Canadian” of all time in a nationally televised Canadian Broadcasting Company contest in 2004 – surely a sign of the impact single-payer system has had on the country.

Douglas was elected as an MP in the Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1935.  After spending nine years in the House of Commons, Douglas was elected the leader of the provincial CCF in Saskatchewan.  With its popular message of socialism, the party won a landslide election in 1944 and Douglas became the leader of North America’s first socialist government.

tommydouglas-rebelDuring his 18 years as Saskatchewan’s premier, Douglas introduced car insurance, labor reforms and his dream of universal Medicare to the province.  Although Douglas lost power in 1961, he continued to promote his socialist policy and persuaded the Liberal party under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s leadership to adopt a national Medicare and pension plan.

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