Tommy Douglas

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The Hon. Tommy Douglas
Missing image

Term of Office:1944 - 1961
Predecessor:William John Patterson
Successor:Woodrow S. Lloyd
Date of Birth:October 20, 1904
Place of Birth:Falkirk, Scotland
Spouse:Irma Dempsey
Profession:Baptist minister
Political Party:CCF/NDP

The Honourable Thomas Clement Douglas PC, CC, SOM, MA (October 20, 1904February 24, 1986) was a Scottish-born Canadian Baptist minister and democratic socialist politician.

As leader of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) from 1942 and the eighth Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961, he led the first socialist government in North America and introduced universal public medicare to Canada. When the CCF united with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party, he was elected as its first federal leader and served from 1961 to 1971. He is warmly remembered for his folksy wit and oratory with which he expressed his steadfast idealism, exemplified by his fable of Mouseland.

In 2004, he was voted The Greatest Canadian of all time in a nationally televised contest organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

He is the father of actress Shirley Douglas, and the grandfather of actor Kiefer Sutherland.


Early life and activism

Douglas was born in 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland. In 1910, his family immigrated to Canada, where they settled in Winnipeg. As a child, Douglas injured his leg and developed osteomyelitis. The leg would have been amputated were it not for a doctor who saw the condition as a good subject to teach his students. This rooted Douglas's belief that health care should be free to all. During World War I, the family returned to Glasgow. They came back to Winnipeg in 1919, in time for Douglas to witness the Winnipeg General Strike.

In 1924, Douglas attended Brandon College to study for the ministry. While there, Douglas was influenced by the social gospel movement, which combined Christian principles with social reform. He graduated from Brandon College in 1930, and completed his MA in Sociology from McMaster University in 1933. Following this, he became a minister at the Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. With the onset of the Depression, Douglas became a social activist in Weyburn, joined the new CCF party, and became a freemason. He was elected to the Canadian House of Commons in the 1935 federal election.

Premier of Saskatchewan

Douglas was an active Member of Parliament, but he also maintained an interest in provincial politics and became the leader of the Saskatchewan CCF in 1942. He led the CCF to power in the June 15, 1944 provincial election, taking 47 of 53 seats in the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan.

As World War II continued through Douglas's first term as premier, the Government of Canada continued its policy of discrimination against Japanese Canadians. In addition to the Japanese Canadian internment, the government deported almost 4,000 Japanese immigrants and Canadians of Japanese descent back to war-torn Japan. In 1945, in response to a personal letter written to him, Douglas revealed that he did not object to the deportation of those Japanese Canadians who spoke their native tongue. Douglas was a lifelong defender of civil liberties and would later deplore the way that the Japanese Canadians had been treated. The 1945 letter revealing his feelings towards Japanese Canadians remains an inexplicable aberration.

Douglas and the Saskatchewan CCF then won five straight majority victories. Most of his government's pioneering innovations came about during its first term, including:

  • the creation of the publicly-owned utilities: Sask Tel and Sask Power;
  • the creation of Canada's first publicly owned automobile insurance service, the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office;
  • legislation that allowed the unionization of the public service;
  • a program to offer free hospital care to all citizens—the first in Canada.

Through careful financial management, the Douglas government slowly paid off the huge debt left by the previous Liberal government, and created a budget surplus for the Saskatchewan government. This paved the way for Douglas's most notable achievement, the introduction of universal medicare legislation in 1961.


Douglas's number one concern was the creation of Medicare. Saskatchewan became the centre of a hard-fought struggle between the government, the North American medical establishment, and the province's physicians, who brought things to a head with the doctors' strike. The doctors believed their best interests were not being met, and they feared a significant loss of income. Despite these setbacks, Douglas managed to resolve the strike, clearing the way for Medicare in Saskatchewan. Many had doubted the feasibilty of Medicare, but Douglas showed Canada how it could work—that the doctors could be brought onside, and that through careful financial planning, enough money could be set aside to set up a universal system. Proving it was possible on the provincial scale cleared the way for a national Medicare program.

While Douglas is often described as the "father of medicare" in Canada, the Saskatchewan program was finally launched by his successor, Woodrow Lloyd, in 1962. After seeing the success of the Saskatchewan experiment, Prime Minister Lester Pearson and the other provinces agreed to the creation of a national medicare program in 1967.

Federal NDP leader

When the CCF allied with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961, Douglas defeated Hazen Argue at the first NDP leadership convention and became the new party's first leader. Douglas resigned from provincial politics and sought election to the House of Commons in the riding of Regina, Saskatchewan in 1962, but was defeated. He was later elected in a by-election in the riding of Burnaby–Coquitlam, British Columbia.

Re-elected to that riding in the 1963 and 1965 elections, Douglas lost it in the 1968 federal election. He won a seat again in a 1968 by-election in the riding of Nanaimo–Cowichan–The Islands, British Columbia.

While the NDP did better in elections than its predecessor, the party did not experience the breakthrough it had hoped for. Despite this, Douglas was greatly respected by party members and Canadians at large as the party wielded considerable influence during the minority governments of Lester Pearson. In 1970, Douglas and the NDP took a controversial but principled stand against the implementation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis.

Late career and retirement

Douglas resigned as NDP leader in 1971 but kept his seat in the House of Commons. He served as the NDP's energy critic under the new leader, David Lewis. He was re-elected in the riding of Nanaimo–Cowichan–The Islands in the 1972 and 1974 elections.

He retired from politics in 1979. In 1981, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1985, he was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. In the mid 1980s, Brandon University created a students' union building in honour of Douglas and his old friend, Stanley Knowles.

He became a member of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada in 1984. In 1998, he was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

Douglas died of cancer in 1986 at the age of 81.

Preceded by:
William John Patterson
Premier of Saskatchewan
Succeeded by:
Woodrow S. Lloyd
Preceded by:
Hazen Argue CCF
Federal NDP leader
Succeeded by:
David Lewis
Preceded by:
Edward James Young
Member of Parliament for Weyburn
Succeeded by:
Eric Bowness McKay
Preceded by:
Erhart Regier
Member of Parliament for Burnaby—Coquitlam
Succeeded by:
The electoral district was abolished in 1966.
Preceded by:
Colin Cameron
Member of Parliament for Nanaimo—Cowichan—The Islands
Succeeded by:
The electoral district was abolished in 1976.

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