The Year We Became Us by Gary Engler depicts Canada's rocky road to medicare
During the summer of 1962, a series of editorial headlines in the Moose Jaw Times Herald suggested that Saskatchewan had fallen under Stalinist tyranny. “Ugly image of dictators” screamed one. “The rankest kind of persecution” said another. One of the most scathing read: “The day that freedom died in Saskatchewan”.
“The people of Saskatchewan are now awakening,” that particular editorial began, “and finding that their province has been slowly and in recent months much more rapidly transformed from a free democracy into a totalitarian state ruled by men drunk with power.”
So what caused the editors of the Thomson Corporation–owned Times Herald to go into conniptions? The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government had just introduced medicare, which provoked a bitter doctors strike. The newspaper was in an uproar over a public-insurance plan ensuring that the provincial government—and not individual residents—would pay physicians’ bills.
East Vancouver journalist Gary Engler dug up these editorials while researching his new novel, The Year We Became Us (RED/Fernwood), published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Saskatchewan physicians strike. During an interview in a Kitsilano coffee shop, Engler tells the Georgia Straight that this labour dispute was one of the most important events in Canadian history yet hardly anyone knows about it.
“What do people say when they’re polled about what makes Canada better or different than the United States?” he asks. “The number one thing they say is ‘medicare’. It’s an overwhelming response. And yet if the doctors strike in Saskatchewan had gone the other way, we might not have medicare in Canada. Strangely, we don’t want to talk about it. And there’s some good reasons why we don’t want to talk about it. There are people who don’t want to be reminded that they were on the wrong side of history.”
The Year We Became Us is mostly set in Engler’s hometown of Moose Jaw in 1962. It looks at the labour dispute through the eyes of a left-wing 12-year-old son of a union activist and a reactionary 13-year-old daughter of a surgeon. After they disrupt their Grade 8 class with a political argument, they are each assigned to write to U.S. president John F. Kennedy. In a series of letters, they spill out their thoughts on the strike, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their political views.
The boy, Roy Schmidt, is the best baseball pitcher in the province. He grows up to become a Langara College instructor after giving up on a promising screenwriting career. The girl, Katherine Anderson, becomes a high-profile, right-wing radio talk-show host in the United States. As kids, they shared a first kiss. And 38 years later, they rekindle an awkward romance after meeting in the JFK Library in Boston in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Engler says that it was fun creating the character of Katherine, an unabashed right-winger with a deep admiration for novelist Ayn Rand. He recalls meeting objectivists (followers of Rand’s philosophy) at Carleton University in the early 1970s and never dreamed that they would one day end up controlling the world’s most powerful government.
Engler, father of left-wing nonfiction author Yves Engler, maintains that 1962 was the year “we became us” in Canada, thanks to the creation of medicare. He also says that this was when U.S. conservative senator Barry Goldwater began organizing heavily, offering a hint of what was to transpire in American politics. According to Engler, 1962 was also when people concluded that nuclear war wasn’t an option, even though at one point, Katherine confesses in a letter to Kennedy that her father “doesn’t believe saving millions of lives by avoiding war is doing right”.
When asked if Katherine was modelled on American right-wing author Ann Coulter, Engler laughs and says she was actually inspired by “a few people I’ve run into in newsrooms over the years as senior managers”. He refuses to divulge any names.
“I’m not saying they were in the Vancouver Sun newsroom,” he adds with a mischievous smile.
He says that Roy is a combination of himself and his older brother Jerome, who was an outstanding baseball pitcher. It’s not the only part of the book borrowed from his childhood. Roy’s father and Engler’s father both worked for Robin Hood, and both were exasperated by the U.S. government’s not allowing the company’s flour to be sold in China.
The book demonstrates how the doctors strike polarized the province and attracted outside meddling from the American Medical Association, which opposed socialized medicine. Engler says that people have forgotten that Kennedy made references in the 1960 presidential campaign to creating medicare in the United States, which generated intense hostility from the U.S. medical industry.
“They very much viewed Saskatchewan as a test case,” he states.
Engler believes that if the doctors had forced the government to back down, and there had been no medicare in Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, it probably never would have spread to the rest of Canada.
“It was a difficult task to achieve medicare,” he says. “It wasn’t simply a question of passing legislation. It required, essentially, the efforts of tens of thousands of people in a province of a million people…to resist the will of some very powerful forces in society.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.