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TOMMY DOUGLAS

Thomas Clement Douglas was born on Oct. 20, 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland to Tom Douglas and Anne Clement. He is the first of three children, which included sisters Annie and Isobel.

Tommy Douglas
Tommy Douglas

Douglas would frequently cite the goodwill of Smith as the inspiration for his model of universal medical care. "Through the years I came to believe that health services ought not to have a price-tag on them," he said. "And that people should be able to get whatever health services they required irrespective of their individual capacity to pay."

Douglas put his gregarious nature to good use as a child, performing monologues and recitations of poetry at family functions, and even taking small roles in a Winnipeg vaudeville theatre. A local theatre owner was so impressed that he offered to pay the young Douglas's way through formal drama school. Douglas declined, telling an interviewer years later that he "never really liked being an echo of someone else's lines. I wanted to make up my own lines in life."

Douglas was delivering newspapers with a friend on June 21, 1919 when the events of "Bloody Saturday" broke out around him. Climbing to safe spot on top of a building, the 14-year-old Douglas watched as RCMP officer tried to quell striking workers by firing into the crowd. Two men died as a result and J.S. Woodsworth, the founding leader of the CCF, was arrested.

At the time J.S. Woodsworth was the Douglas family's pastor. Douglas would later serve under him in 1935 as a member of the CCF caucus in Ottawa.

Self-conscious about his small stature, Douglas started training to box at the age of 15. Only 135 pounds at the time, he became the sparring partner for more established boxers at a union-owned gym in Winnipeg.

In 1924 Douglas enrolled in Brandon College, a combination liberal-arts-and- Bible-school run by the Baptist Church. Over the space of six years - he had to complete three extra years to make up for his spotty high school record - he developed his progressive notion of the "social gospel" which believed in actively carrying out Christian beliefs in practical ways.

Douglas completed his MA in Sociology at Hamilton's McMaster University and did post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago where he studied the living conditions of the homeless.

In 1931, Douglas is ordained as a minister in the Baptist church and takes up his first ministry in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It was here that he sees the combined effects of drought and the Depression on the local farmers. A riot of disgruntled miners later that same year ends with three men dead after the RCMP fire on the crowd.

In 1934, after he lost in a provincial election, Baptist church officials warn him to stay out of politics or risk losing his ministry. He ignores them and runs as a CCF candidate in the 1935 federal election, hiring an unemployed fortune-teller as his campaign manager. He wins his first elected office in the federal riding of Weyburn.

One of seven CCF candidates to win election, the 31-year-old Douglas headed to Ottawa where he rented a room in the YMCA. Though a rookie politician, Douglas delivered 16 speeches in his first session. His rousing oratory was enough to prompt Prime Minister Mackenzie King to offer him a job within the Liberal Party. He declines.

Later in his political career he would be asked, on CBC Television's "This Hour Has Seven Days", about his failure to take up the offer to switch sides to a more established party. "I'm not interested in getting power unless you can do something with this power," he replied. "I have watched politicians for the last 40 years drop their principles in order to get power, only to find that those who controlled the party that they joined prevented them from doing all the things that they really believed in."

On his doctor's recommendation Douglas took up various hobbies as a way of reducing his stress level. A small mink farm failed to hold his interest for long, and a later venture with a drive-in theatre caused his opposition to criticize him for setting up a den of iniquity for teenagers. His critics dubbed his new hobby "the premier's passion pit."

The move to universal Medicare was fought tooth-and-nail by members of the medical community who feared that the plan would undermine their profession. Both the Canadian and the American Medical Association contributed to the opposition Liberals in an effort to de-rail the program. In 1961, after Douglas had moved on to the new federal NDP, Saskatchewan's medical community waged a prominent public campaign against Medicare, claiming it would force doctors and specialists out of the province. Despite this, and an eventual strike, the Medicare bill was passed in a special session of Parliament on July 1.

Douglas would later point out that despite the medical community's protestations, the vast majority of medical professionals stayed put in the province. In fact, in the first year of widespread Medicare the average annual income for doctors increased by an average of $3,000.

During the 1970 October Crisis of 1970 Douglas refused to support Trudeau's use of the War Measures Act in Quebec. The decision to vote against the motion (which passed with a majority vote) was not viewed favourably; the NDP's approval rating dropped to seven per cent in public opinion polls. Still, Douglas maintained that the Trudeau was going too far: "The government, I submit, is using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut." 465 people were arrested and held without being charged during the time the Act was in effect.

Douglas retired from the leadership of the party in 1971, prompting Pierre Berton to say: "Where would we be without the NDP? It and its predecessor have been the conscience of Canada, often at the risk of our own popularity." Douglas is succeeded by David Lewis, but stays on as the NDP's energy critic.

In 1981 Douglas is diagnosed with having inoperable cancer. He continues to attend conventions despite his ill health. He dies on Feb. 24, 1986 in Ottawa.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland is Tommy Douglas's grandson, by his daughter, actress Shirley Douglas and actor Donald Sutherland. In April 2000, Sutherland and his mother took part in a rally in Calgary to protest the privatization of healthcare.

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George Stroumboulopoulos

Pop culture guru George Stroumboulopoulos, producer and host on MuchMusic – and passionate advocate for his Greatest Canadian.
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