This is the 40th anniversary of the establishment of national public health care in Canada, with the passage of the Canada Health Act in 1967. But Medicare was actually born five years earlier, in 1962, when the first public health care program was introduced in Saskatchewan, the legacy of that province’s first and most illustrious premier, Tommy Douglas. In this column I pay tribute to Tommy and the other pioneers of Medicare, whose outstanding achievement should never be forgotten.
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As a witness to the birth of Medicare in Canada, and as someone who played a very small part in bringing it to life during the turbulent summer of 1962 in Saskatchewan, I am sickened now by the spectacle of its slow, cunningly devised destruction.
Public health care did not have an easy birth. It was bitterly opposed by the medical, business and media élites, who saw it as a threat to their profits and privileged status. They lost the propaganda battle 45 years ago, but in recent years, having steadily underfunded and weakened "socialized medicine," they are circling it like vultures, eager to peck greedily at its entrails.
Medicare in Canada had its inception in the mind of Tommy Douglas. When he was a boy, he fell and hurt his knee, and a bone disease (osteomyelitis) set in. His parents couldn't afford the services of a bone specialist, so he was put in a Winnipeg hospital as a charity patient. The doctors decided they had no choice but to amputate his leg. But he was lucky. An orthopedic surgeon was looking for patients he could use in his teaching classes, and, after examining Tommy's swollen knee, he told his parents he could save the leg if they would let him use the boy to help teach his students. Of course they gladly agreed, and Tommy escaped the planned amputation.
"Had I been a rich man's son instead of the son of an iron moulder," he later recalled, "I would have had the services of the finest surgeon, and would not have had to depend on chance for a cure. All my adult life I dreamed of the day when an experience like mine would be impossible and we would have in Canada a program of complete medical care without a price tag."
He took that dream with him into the Saskatchewan legislature when he first became premier in 1944. But, although some important steps toward that goal were taken fairly soon, including a province-wide public hospital insurance plan in 1947, it was not until Nov. 17, 1961, that the CCF government felt confident enough to pass the full-fledged Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act.
By then, Tommy Douglas had left provincial politics to become national leader of the New Democratic Party in 1961. But he had fought the 1960 election in Saskatchewan on the central promise of introducing Medicare, had shepherded the bill through its early stages, and felt safe in leaving its final implementation to his successor as premier, Woodrow Lloyd.
The passage of the act ignited a firestorm of controversy and conflict that raged for months leading up to its planned starting date on July 1, 1962. And when that date arrived, it triggered a province-wide doctors' strike and a summer-long battle that raged even more furiously.
I was plunged into the thick of that dispute shortly after it erupted when the Canadian Labour Congress, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, and Tommy himself sought my help as a writer and editor. The unions and other supporters of the legislation faced an onslaught of anti-Medicare propaganda launched by the doctors, the major business groups, and nearly all the newspapers and radio stations in the province.
The doctors had succeeded in scaring and enraging many of their patients, warning them in personal letters that Medicare would deny them the right to choose their physicians and would destroy the important doctor-patient relationship. Patients who believed these lies started forming "Keep Our Doctors" Committees. Support for the K.O.D., fed by mass anxiety, came from the opposition Liberal and Tory parties, from business people, some clergymen, and from anyone with a grievance against the government. Behind the scenes, the powerful Canadian and American Medical Associations put their resources at the disposal of the Medicare foes.
It was a one-sided public relations contest, but we managed to get the facts out to many residents, using the few media outlets that would accept our press releases, and by starting our own weekly newspaper, The Public Voice. This paper was widely distributed door-to-door by the many Citizens for Medical Care Committees that sprang up to oppose the K.O.D. Committees. As the war of words continued, we did some polling that revealed the anti-Medicare forces weren't holding onto nearly as much public support as they claimed.
The doctors and their more fanatical backers turned out to be their own worst enemies. Their attacks on the bill, on Premier Lloyd, and on the few doctors who continued to provide services grew more wild and hysterical. Their posters that caricatured CCF leaders as Nazis and communists, and their burning of effigies of Tommy Douglas, disgusted many more people than they pleased.
The turning point in the struggle came in mid-July, when the doctors and their K.O.D. allies staged what they boasted would be a massive public protest in front of the Parliament buildings in Regina. They predicted a turnout of at least 20,000, but barely 4,000 showed up on a warm, sunny day.
The failure of this widely promoted rally broke the doctors' defiance. They had overestimated their public support and underestimated the grassroots sentiment in favour of a public health care plan. Their strike was called off after 23 days and a settlement was reached shortly afterwards with the help of Lord Taylor from Britain, who acted as a mediator. Medicare was soon solidly established in a Canadian province, providing a model that was extended across the nation with the adoption of the Canada Health Act in 1967.
Tommy Douglas's dream had become a reality.
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My mind keeps returning to that historic summer in Saskatchewan as I see the precious legacy of a great Canadian leader now being torn to shreds. Every night during that fateful summer, we who brought Tommy's vision to the public met to share our concerns. We all wondered if the CCF government would have the courage to keep defending its Medicare bill. It wasn't easy. The enormous corporate and media pressure brought to bear on Lloyd and his cabinet was truly awesome. It continues to astonish me that they remained resolute day after punishing day. Certainly, no government today would display such fortitude.
It's ironic that the current attacks on Medicare are not being led by the doctors, who have largely been converted to its benefits. In fact, the Canadian Medical Association in 1998 enshrined Tommy Douglas in its Hall of Fame, the only non-physician to be so honoured. His plaque proudly identifies him as "the Father of Medicare."
The attacks are now being directed instead by the huge private health corporations that stand to reap billions in profits from a two-tier system, as they do in the United States.
The politicians who now serve these corporate interests are committed to dismantling Medicare. They include most provincial premiers and health ministers, and of course the federal government under both Conservative and Liberal party administrations. (Why else would Health Canada have given its written permission to former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to allow doctors in that province to practise in both public hospitals and private clinics? Without that approval from Ottawa, Klein would not have dared introduce his Bill 11 to privatize some of the province's hospitals.)
Medicare is dying in Canada because our corporate rulers want all of its potentially profitable operations privatized. And what they want these days, they usually get.
The defenders of Medicare gathered in Regina recently to mount a stronger campaign to preserve this jewel of Canada’s social services. We should all pitch in to join this crucial resistance movement. Unless it succeeds, it may not be much longer before a boy in a poor Canadian family who falls and hurts his knee may have his leg amputated instead of healed.
There's no profit to be made from operating on kids whose parents can't afford expensive treatment.
(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)