Medicare’s 50th anniversary, it’s biblical

Tommy Douglas, proposed medicare

We are approaching an important anniversary in Canada, which doesn’t appear to be getting the same amount of attention as are events to celebrate the War of 1812. It was on July 1, 1962 that publicly administered and financed medical care came into existence in Saskatchewan – it has since become known throughout as medicare. On the same day, Saskatchewan’s doctors went on strike, an action that caused controversy, fear, even hysteria in the province. There ensued a bitter 23-day standoff with doctors and the Canadian medical establishment, supported by the Liberal opposition and almost the entire Saskatchewan media, arraigned against the CCF government of Woodrow Lloyd and its allies in the labour and farm movements and citizens’ support groups. The strike ended on July 23 and the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act was passed during a special sitting of the legislature in August.

Justice Emmett Hall

By 1964, a federal Royal Commission led by Supreme Court Justice Emmett Hall had recommended the Saskatchewan model for all of Canada. In 1968, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson passed legislation enabling provinces to introduce publicly funded and administered health care. All provinces eventually did so.

Transcends politics

Roy Romanow, after he retired as Saskatchewan’s premier, led another Royal Commission into Health Care in 2001-02. Romanow was fond of saying that medicare transcended politics because eventually it won support from all political parties in Canada. It was conceived under a CCF government in Saskatchewan led by Tommy Douglas, and was later introduced and implemented by Woodrow Lloyd, who became premier in 1961 when Douglas left to lead the newly-created New Democratic Party. It was Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who appointed Judge Hall (who had previously been active as a Conservative) to the Royal Commission on Health Services. And it was a Liberal government led by Lester Pearson that implemented Hall’s recommendations.

Minority opinions

Romanow is right but there has always been a minority opinion that chafes under the reality that a good portion of health care in Canada is provided as a public good rather than a private commodity. Many Conservatives in the 1960s, including former Justice Minister Davie Fulton, were both surprised and unhappy with the recommendations of Justice Hall’s Royal Commission. Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp and other of Lester Pearson’s cabinet ministers in the 1960s attempted, unsuccessfully, to prevent the federal government from introducing the plan. Some premiers, including Alberta’s Ernest Manning, were unenthusiastic as well. But the federal government’s offer to share the costs of medicare on a 50-50 basis was too good a deal to refuse. The federal contribution accounts for a much lower percentage today.

There have always been politicians who would like to undercut the principles and features of medicare. They include former Premiers Mike Harris and Ralph Klein, the Reform Party in its early stages, and also a younger Stephen Harper. Has he changed his spots?  These points of view have had both research and propaganda arms in organizations such as the Fraser Institute.

It is the enduring support of medicare by ordinary Canadians that has prevented widespread experiments with privatization or the provision of parallel public services, where those who can pay can jump the queue.  I have, however, had a pollster try to convince me that it is not medicare as a concept that people support but rather the fact that they, as individuals, don’t have to pay out-of-pocket when they visit a doctor or are hospitalized. The same pollster said that Canadians vary little from Americans in their views on health care – they look at what is in it for them rather perceiving public health care as being in the interest of the common good.  I remain unconvinced of this analysis.

Serves us well

Our public health care system has served us well. I have experienced it close up during some encounters with pesky gall stones in the past month. The health care that I received was admirable other than a several hour wait in the hospital emergency room when I first went in. I am aware that there are longer waiting lists for conditions that are not acute. There are stories and statistics about long waits for procedures such as knee replacements and if you live in Ottawa, for example, it is a long wait to see a dermatologist. The system needs improvements but on balance we have good health care and it is available to everyone.

The costs

We are often told that we cannot afford public health care. Admittedly, there is a need to find new efficiencies and to spend more wisely. But let’s compare alternatives. In 2008, the United States spent an amount equivalent to 17% of its Gross Domestic Product on health care. In Canada, we spent 9.7% of GDP in the same year. In 2009, about 49 million Americans, or 16% of the population, did not have any health insurance. In Canada, everyone has coverage. 


Janet Sommerville, a former chair of the Canadian Council of Churches, has written, “The principles guiding our health care system have an unmistakable affinity with the love of neighbour urged on us by God’s word in Scripture.”

Rubbing their toes

The federal government has plans this summer to spend $28 million commemorating the War of 1812, but no plans as far as I know to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the introduction of medicare. I’ll take a pass on the parades, the air force fly overs and the military re-enactments of border skirmishes between British forces and Canadian militia against the Americans.

I’ll go down to Parliament Hill where they have statues of former prime ministers. I’ll rub the toe on the shoes of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker and if the statue of Tommy Douglas were there, I would rub the toe on his shoe as well. Thanks guys.

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