Tommy Douglas, pioneering advocate of universal health care, vocal opponent of aggressive war, and life-long socialist, has been voted the “Greatest Canadian” of all time.

The voting system, one must note — which allowed multiple votes by phone, email or text message — could be described as making Afghanistan’s or Florida’s vote-counting look “free and fair.” Nevertheless, Tommy Douglas’s supporters proved to be the most numerous and/or the most zealous. And, I must confess, though I’m very aware of the many lucid critiques of the contest, that I not only watched the full two-hour final debate episode, but I dutifully voted five times for Tommy on both of the phone numbers that were at my disposal last Sunday night.

Yes, CBC’s two-hour special was an exercise in fromage, as they say. But with Fox News on the way and compared to the poisonous and degrading “reality” of cash-strapped contestants on Fear Factor and the self-esteem deprived victims of the The Swan‘s narcissism, CBC’s Greatest Canadian finale made for a relatively quality viewing experience. The episode also made for a revealing exposition of some of the best and worst of our country’s cultural and political expression.

For full disclosure, I should say, up front, that I’m not a typical “patriot.” Although I do play ice hockey, I don’t, however, believe that Canada’s role in world affairs can fairly be described as that of “peace-keeper” (see Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan, among other examples), nor do I support the routine glossing over of the vicious discrimination that this land’s First Nations and Quebecois peoples have been subjected to over our history. I also share the disappointment, as has been noted by a number of articulate feminist activists, that our country’s “top ten” included no women, and that their contributions are largely absent from the Canadian narrative.

But, getting back to the final debate of the Greatest Canadian series, it actually struck me as providing a more lively and open discussion than, say, the buzz word dominated and over-scripted election debates. The prominent advocates for the ten finalists — primarily media personalities, with a wrestler, politician, rock star and author thrown in for good measure — showcased their not insubstantial egos, but also expressed a surprisingly broad range of political ideas.

For instance, in response to Charlotte Gray’s shrill trumpeting of John A. Macdonald, Evan Soloman and Mary Walsh retorted with references to his corruption and excessive drinking. Later, Sook-Yin Lee reminded the audience of the terrible exploitation and racism experienced by the Chinese labourers who were instrumental in building “Macdonaldâe(TM)s” railroad. She further noted that it was this same “father of the nation” who had implemented the head tax on Chinese immigrants, and then quoted our first Prime Minister describing the Chinese as “a semi-barbaric, inferior race.”

George Stroumboulopoulos was effective in conveying some of the legacy of Tommy Douglas. He concentrated, of course, on Douglas’s championing of free medical care, but also noted his efforts to fight discrimination and improve women’s rights. Douglas’s government, for instance, removed archaic restrictions on the right of women to drink alcohol in public.

In an early one-on-one debate with Rex Murphy, Pierre Trudeau’s advocate, Stroumboulopoulos let the loquacious Newfoundlander turn off the audience with his excessive, repetitive ranting. (Note to Rex: If you’re trying to show off your superlative vocabulary, don’t use the word superlative more than once.) Overall, the hip, young MuchMusic personality focused his case for Douglas on health care, waving his Care Card around to loud applause at several points.

As new generations learn about the life and legacy of the CCF and NDP leader, I hope Tommy Douglas is not reduced to a harmless icon of Canadiana, a prop out of context to be bandied about by NDP and even Liberal politicians as they strive to get elected. Our “greatest Canadian” was a democratic socialist, and by today’s standards his ideology — for all its limitations — points an accusing finger at not only the Liberal federal government, but also at many of the social democratic provincial regimes that have moved to the centre and accommodated themselves to neo-liberalism.

Speaking of advocating neo-liberalism and other right wing political projects, we should also note that Bret Hart and Deborah Grey were certainly the most embarrassing of the celebrity advocates, in making their tortured (but quite possibly totally sincere) cases for Don Cherry and Wayne Gretzky, respectively. At one point, Grey, in response to a Douglas supporter, questioned universal health care, deriding it as “a good idea on paper.” She was roundly booed.

And that reaction gives you some idea of why Tommy Douglas won.

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe

Derrick O'Keefe is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. He served as's editor from 2012 to 2013 and from 2008 to 2009.