Fifth House, Markham, Ontario, 2010
255 pp., illus., $19.95 paperback
A double review with Tommy Douglas
by Vincent Lam
Penguin Canada, Toronto, 2011
253 pp., $26 hardcover
Three hundred thousand dollars, plus interest — that’s how much I would owe if Canada did not have universal health care. I’ve been grateful for it — even more so during my husband’s years of dialysis and his eventual transplant — but for all its impact on my quality of life I didn’t know much about how it came to be, except that Tommy Douglas was its champion.
So I dove right in to Vincent Lam’s Tommy Douglas. It was easy enough to do; like the rest of the Extraordinary Canadians series, Lam’s biography offers much detail about and insight into its subject. Written and packaged like a small, hardcover novel, the book makes for light commute or holiday reading. Considering the health care debates happening now in the U.S. — where one hears echoes of the arguments and, at times, hysteria described in these pages — it is also a timely read.
Lam, a medical doctor and award-winning novelist, does a wonderful job of describing the events in Douglas’s life that produced the personal and moral convictions that fuelled him. Born into a robust family household that encouraged debate and freethinking, the quick-witted and energetic young Douglas was encouraged to mingle with people of all cultures and origins. His parents imbued in him a respect for the working class and the desire to help those who were less fortunate. His father immigrated to Canada with the hope of better wages and living conditions, but he found much more in the way of bold ideas and radical philosophies that suited his intellectual pursuits.
Overall, the Douglas family was happy and busy. But, as Lam describes, there was a shadow hanging over them in the guise of illness — young Tommy Douglas had recurring bone infections. In spite of several “country” surgeries, as a teen he was frequently frustrated by periods of being bed-ridden in hospital. If not for a chance encounter with a benevolent surgical specialist, his life could have seen a more tragic outcome. Says Douglas: “I think it was out of this experience [that] I came to believe that health services ought not to have a price tag on them.”
In my mind, Tommy Douglas and Saskatchewan were so intertwined that I had been oblivious to his early Winnipeg days and to the fact that he witnessed the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike first-hand. Now I can’t walk down Winnipeg’s Main Street without imagining him sitting on a rooftop, legs dangling over the edge, and surveying the melee below.
Each chapter in Lam’s book presents a distinct period in Douglas’s life and in his growth as a preacher, politician, and advocate. With this spring’s federal election still fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but appreciate Douglas’s political life even more. Tommy Douglas wasn’t the only person or politician to recognize the value of having universal health care, but knowledge without action is impotence. Always outnumbered, his only recourse was to speak truthfully and passionately, yet pragmatically enough to sway decision-makers. Douglas never gave up. His oratory reputation was such that even opposing MPs would make every effort to attend sessions when Douglas was scheduled to speak.
Health care wasn’t Douglas’s only concern. He fought for living wages for working families, and for them to be supported in difficult times with employment insurance and crop insurance. Under Douglas’s premiership, Saskatchewan revamped its civil service, brought electricity to rural areas, and created both the Saskatchewan Arts Board and a bill of rights.
Lam alludes to the lack of sensitivity Douglas sometimes displayed with his colleagues and family members — he notes (as have others) that Douglas always expected the best of himself, too. Lam is also upfront about Douglas’s youthful embrace of eugenics, but is quick to demonstrate how the theory held no lasting appeal.
An interesting companion to Lam’s biography is Stuart Houston and Bill Waiser’s Tommy’s Team. Thirty-five individuals and one organization are described as the people who believed in Douglas’s vision and helped to make it happen. With a lengthy list of people from which to choose, the authors limit their scope to non-politicians. Each subject is listed alphabetically by name, something that at first felt odd to me — perhaps more so for having just read a chronological narrative.
In their introduction, the authors explain that their intent was to produce a publication conducive to repeated forays into the different biographies. As I started to work my way through their book, I realized that they had achieved this. After reading Lam’s Tommy Douglas, I wanted to know more about the women behind the man — namely, his wife and secretary — and the two relevant chapters satisfied my curiosity.
The one caveat I would offer is that a reader of Tommy’s Team should be acquainted with the life of Tommy Douglas. Otherwise, the contributions of his friends and colleagues may seem underwhelming.
— Tanja Hütter (Read bio)
Tanja Hütter is Web Editor for Canada's History Society and a pragmatic idealist.