“My dream is for people around the world to look up and to see Canada like a little jewel sitting at the top of the continent.”

Tommy Douglas, 1951

In his introduction to Vincent Lam’s excellent book Tommy Douglas (from which the above quotation was taken), John Ralston Saul asks, “How do civilizations imagine themselves?” Here Saul notes the importance of great individuals in shaping the cultural self-conception of a country. In a 2004 CBC poll, Tommy Douglas, leader of North America’s first socialist government (Saskatchewan 1944-1961), was voted “the greatest Canadian of all time.” There is no other Canadian, save perhaps Pierre Trudeau (Prime Minister 1968-1979, 1980-1984), who more powerfully shaped the life and identity of Canadians over the past generation. Douglas’ implementation of universal health care in Saskatchewan and his later work in promoting free single-tier health care across Canada enabled millions of citizens not only to enjoy a relatively high quality of life but also to shape a national identity built around a discourse of equality.

Douglas’ interest in accessible health care began with his experience as a six-year-old suffering from osteomyelitis, a bone infection, in one of his legs. He was in a hospital for 18 months. None of the treatments solved the problem, and since his family could not afford a high-quality surgeon, the doctors recommended that his leg be amputated. Fortunately, during this time Dr. R.J. Smith, a specialist, was visiting the public wards with a group of medical students. When he heard of the young boy’s plight he offered to operate on the condition that his students could watch. Dr. Smith saved Douglas’ leg and inadvertently taught him something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Lam’s book quotes Douglas as saying later,

“I always felt a great debt of gratitude to him but it left me with this feeling that if I hadn’t been so fortunate as to have this doctor offer me his services gratis, I would probably have lost my leg … I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside. And I think it was out of this experience … I came to believe that health services ought not to have a price-tag on them, and that people should be able to get whatever health services they required irrespective of their individual capacity to pay.”

Douglas’ experience inspired him to commit his life to transforming his country: roughly six decades after his operation, all Canadians, thanks to him, gained free access to high-quality health care.

The initial establishment of universal health care in the province of Saskatchewan in 1962 was an impressive, unlikely achievement. Douglas’ opponents, including big business, Saskatchewan’s Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and every major newspaper in the province, were as relentless, histrionic and mendacious as the opponents to President Obama’s recent, far less ambitious, health-care program. Lam points out that some of the government’s opponents complained that a universal health-care program would provoke doctors to leave Saskatchewan, that patients would become anonymous numbers in a bureaucratic system, and that women with menopausal symptoms would be placed in insane asylums. Despite the propaganda, the progressives prevailed: universal health-care was introduced in Saskatchewan in 1962 and then the Canadian Liberal party — successfully pressured by the federal New Democratic Party led by Douglas — implemented a similar program across Canada in 1968.

When asked, “What defines Canada?” citizens regularly refer to the country’s health-care system because it embodies the belief that everyone, regardless of circumstances of birth, income or employment status, should have equal access to high-quality medical care. The vast majority of Canadians take comfort and pride in their health-care system: comfort in the security it offers, and pride in the ethos of rights and compassion that it embodies. For this reason Douglas is rightly regarded as the country’s greatest citizen. He and his socialist government, with their rare combination of ambition, pragmatism and universalism, decisively took Canada, at least in the 20th century, on a different direction from the country’s southern neighbour.

An institute in honour of Douglas has recently come into being. A group of faculty associated with the inspiring Community Worker program at George Brown College (GBC) in Toronto, in collaboration with the School of Social and Community Services and the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and in consultation with the GBC Foundation and Douglas’ daughter, the eminent Canadian actress and activist Shirley Douglas, have established the Tommy Douglas Institute. The origins of this institute lie in a dynamic conference focused on rethinking pedagogy led by the Community Worker program in the summer of 2013. In the months following the conference, the Planning Committee (Professors Reshma Budhu, Pramila Aggarwal, Lynne Brennan, Chandra Budhu, Johanne Clare, Bill Fallis, Rusa Jeremic, Bob Luker, Sharon Simpson and myself) sat down and discussed the values that we wanted our new organization to embody. Our group, following our consensus-based decision-making model, debated and discarded a variety of titles for the institute, but when I suggested naming it after Tommy Douglas there was spontaneous, unanimous agreement. We recognized at once that no other name or title better embodied our institute’s principles, and no other Canadian was more deserving of the honour.

This summer, the Tommy Douglas Institute will host a conference focusing on pedagogy, citizenship and students. Judy Rebick, the former President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, will deliver the event’s keynote address. In a time when the Conservative government is diminishing its economic allocation to Canada’s health-care system — and by extension attempting to transform the national identity — students, activists and citizens need to be re-introduced to Tommy Douglas. This May’s event will hopefully ignite in its participants the same commitment to social justice that animated Douglas’ glittering, pivotal, vocation.

To register for the event “Critical Pedagogy and the Citizen-Student,” to be held on May 22, 2014, email tdouglasinstitute[at] or phone 416-415-5000 ext. 2555. For more information, see here.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Lieut. G. Barry Gilroy/Library and Archives Canada/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Head Shot by Monianne (1)

Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...