A photo of Bill Blaikie.
Bill Blaikie.

The career of Bill Blaikie proves you don’t have to formally hold power to exert powerful influence on the life of a country.

Blaikie died of kidney cancer at the still-young age of 71, on Saturday, September 24, in Winnipeg. 

Except for two years as a cabinet minister in Gary Doer’s Manitoba NDP government, Blaikie spent his entire 32-year career as an elected politician on the opposition benches.

For three decades Blaikie was a federal New Democratic member of parliament for a working-class Winnipeg riding. The New Democrats have never formed government at the federal level in Canada. 

And so, Bill Blaikie never got to taste the rewards and perks of federal power. But he successfully used his voice in Parliament to advocate for policies he knew were in the interests of all Canadians.

A case in point is the Canada Health Act of 1984. 

Saving public health care when it was on the ropes

This country’s system of publicly-funded and fully accessible basic health care goes back to the 1960s. 

The NDP government of Saskatchewan led the way, although not without a fight. 

Without federal help or support, Saskatchewan enacted its own form of what was then known as socialized medicine, in 1962. The doctors in that province pushed back, and hard.

Supported by the private insurance industry and the U.S.-based American Medical Association, Saskatchewan’s doctors mounted a strike that lasted three weeks.

At the same time, loud voices in the Canadian business and media establishment condemned Saskatchewan’s experiment in socialism.

Against all odds, and with the help of doctors imported from the United Kingdom, the Saskatchewan government prevailed. Lester Pearson’s federal Liberal government took note. 

Prodded by Saskatchewan’s example, and by the recommendations of a commission the previous Progressive Conservative government had set up, Pearson decided universal health insurance was a good idea whose time had come.

By the end of the decade, the federal government had negotiated agreements with all provinces to institute their own public health insurance systems. 

Health insurance in each province would cover surgeries, hospitalizations, doctors’ visits, vaccinations and other routine procedures. 

The federal government’s carrot was money. It would share the cost with the provinces, based on a per capita formula. 

As for the federal stick – well, at the time, the Pearson government did not see the need for one. 

By the early 1980s, however, many provincial governments were allowing the system to erode. 

Doctors in some provinces had initiated the practice of extra billing. They would charge the public system for a procedure, then turn around and present a bill to the patient. 

And some provinces had also taken to charging patients user fees for services that were supposedly covered by public insurance.

For hundreds of thousands of Canadians these practices imposed a considerable financial burden. They also constituted the thin edge of a wedge, threatening the very foundations of the universal system.

From 1980 to 1984, Bill Blaikie was the New Democrats’ health critic in the federal Parliament. Early on, he clearly understood the threat of extra billing and user fees. 

Almost daily in the House, Blaikie would rail against these menaces to Canadians’ unfettered access to basic health care. He demanded that the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government of the day act and act decisively.

Blaikie proposed the federal government put conditions on its financial contributions for health care, and punish provinces that did not respect those conditions, by withholding a portion of the federal contribution.

The Liberal health minister of that period, Monique Bégin, listened attentively, but was cautious. 

Publicly, Bégin told Parliament she expected the provinces would do the right thing on their own, without the need for the heavy hand of federal conditions and sanctions. 

Privately, however, Bégin was not so convinced. But she had to deal with her small-c conservative colleagues, who were less committed than she to the universal health care system and did not relish a fight with powerful premiers. 

In his memoir “The Blaikie Report” Blaikie explains he knew that Monique Bégin, in fact, very much welcomed the intense pressure he was putting on the government. 

“One day,” Blaikie recounted, “after a particularly vigorous polemical exchange between the two of us, I was handed a note from the minister’s parliamentary page. It expressed thanks, and encouraged me not to let up, as she needed all the help she could get in persuading her cabinet colleagues to move on the issue.”

In the end, with the NDP’s enthusiastic support, the Pierre Trudeau government pushed the Canada Health Act through Parliament in 1984, months before a federal election that saw Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives take power. 

The Act stipulates that Canada’s health insurance system must be comprehensive, fully portable, universal, and publicly administered. It specifically bans the practices of extra billing and user charges for insured services. 

The federal government’s stick in this case was money. It would financially penalize provinces that did not respect each and every stipulation of the Act. 

The Act is still in force today. Canadians treasure it, which is why two Conservative governments have not dared to amend or repeal it. 

The Act bears Monique Bégin’s name. But Bégin herself would likely tell you that were it not for Bill Blaikie we might very well not have the Canada Health Act, and our health care system might look very different than it does today.

A critic of globalization

Blaikie had other victories from the opposition side of the House. 

In 1998 he led a national campaign to oppose the mergers of Canada’s largest chartered banks, a project dear to then-finance minister Paul Martin’s heart.

In line with the gospel of globalization, Martin wanted fewer and bigger banks so that they could be more effective players on the world stage. 

Blaikie believed the already highly concentrated financial sector in Canada would become something close to a monopoly. And that would be bad for customers.

Blaikie won the day because enough Liberal backbenchers were convinced by his arguments.

The long serving Winnipeg NDP MP was not entirely successful in heading off the trade agreements both Liberal and Conservative governments pursued. He saw many of those as bills of rights for corporations, which served to weaken environmental protections and labour rights. 

Blaikie, and his many allies in civil society, and the government of France, did succeed in killing the dangerous Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a pet project of both Canadian Liberals and Conservatives.

And in 2003, as his party’s defence critic, Blaikie strongly opposed Canada’s joining in U.S. president George W. Bush’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq. 

Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien heeded Blaikie’s counsel, as well as his own inner voice and the voices of the many others who opposed Bush’s folly. 

Chrétien refused to become part of the U.S.’s “coalition of the willing”, to use Bush’s defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase. 

The “god squad”

Bill Blaikie was a leading figure in a distinctively Canadian brand of progressive politics, one which is inspired by a humanistic version of Christianity. 

Like the NDP’s first leader Tommy Douglas, and other leading NDP MPs of an earlier era, such as Fathers Bob Ogle and Andy Hogan, Dan Heap, Jim Manly and Stanley Knowles, Blaikie was part of what he called “the god squad”.  

The members of the squad had been all persons of the cloth – some Protestant, some Roman Catholic – before getting into politics. 

Blaikie was a United Church minister. He, like the others, was inspired by a doctrine called the social gospel, which Blaikie defined this way:

“Social gospellers shared a profound belief that the ideology of competition is a lie about the nature of a truly human society. They rejected the profit motive as a sanctification of vice and a recipe for exploitation. They rejected the concentration of incredible economic powers in the hands of a commercial corporate minority, and the challenge to our democratic self-image and to individual freedom that it posed. They shared a belief in the value of economic co-operation as the true expression of our life together … They were realists about the need for … restraints on human selfishness.” -Bill Blaikie

Today we are more used to seeing demagogues of the right – who would deprive a woman of the right to choose, deny a poor person the right to a dignified standard of living, and ban books that tell the true story of slavery – don the cloak of Christian orthodoxy.

Blaikie represented the progressive branch of the Christian tradition – although in progressive political circles these days, in 2022, one does not hear much about the social gospel. It almost seems like a quaint vestige of an earlier era.

But there was nothing quaint or anachronistic about Bill Blaikie, as his long and successful career attests.

Lots of people who knew Blaikie are now expressing deep sorrow at his loss – and that includes a good number who did not necessarily share his political convictions. 

Freelance writer Tim Harper worked for two decades as a reporter on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. He spoke for many when he took to Twitter to write:

Bill Blaikie leaves more than the legacy of his good works. 

His four children, Tessa, Jessica, Rebecca and Daniel, are carrying on his work – as social justice activists, organizers, political candidates, and, directly in dad’s footsteps, as NDP MP for the Winnipeg riding of Elmwood-Transcona.

For them and his wife Brenda, and for all who knew and loved Bill, may his memory be for a blessing. 

For the past three years rabble has been proud to carry Bill Blaikie’s regular columns, in which he commented on Canadian politics and world events, informed by his unique lifelong experience.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...