Book review: Tommy Douglas by Vincent Lam
By Vincent Lam. Penguin Canada, 235 pp, hardcover
With NDP Leader Jack Layton stirring up excitement across the country, there’s no better time to review the roots of his party.
Vincent Lam’s new biography of Tommy Douglas admirably captures the essence of the man many consider to be Canada’s greatest New Democrat. Douglas, the long-serving premier of Saskatchewan and the first national NDP leader, was idealistic and pragmatic, high-minded and pugnacious, and willing to do what was necessary to win elections. Sort of sounds like Layton, doesn’t it?
Lam, a Giller Prize winner for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, has put in a Herculean research effort, which enables him to bring Douglas to life with scores of compelling anecdotes.
We learn of how Douglas, as a boy, endured repeated hospitalizations for osteomyelitis, which infected one of his legs. Lam, a Toronto emergency-room physician, describes how the future politician suffered through several operations before doctors recommended amputation because his Scottish immigrant family couldn’t afford to hire an orthopedic surgeon.
The loss of his leg was only averted after the doctor asked if he could use the boy as a teaching case—to Douglas’s eternal gratitude. This incident, perhaps more than any other, led Douglas to create Canada’s first publicly funded hospital-insurance scheme and later push for the first publicly funded insurance to cover doctors’ bills in Saskatchewan.
From there, these policies spread across the country, which is why Douglas is rightly called the father of medicare.
Tommy Douglas is easy reading, which is a testament to Lam’s effortless style. Douglas was one of Canada’s most compelling orators, and Lam shows readers why. His first provincial campaign floundered in 1934 because, in Douglas’s words, “I conducted it like a university professor giving a course in sociology. I had charts and so on, and I’m sure half the people didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Lam illustrates how he came roaring back in the next year’s federal election, barnstorming the Saskatchewan riding of Weyburn in a shiny new car. His crafty campaign adviser, former conservative Daniel Grant, counselled against stodgy lectures. “If a meeting felt a little dull, Grant would stand up in the crowd and ask a provocative question,” Lam writes.
Douglas, a former Baptist minister, drifted into politics to implement the social gospel. Lam shows how his experience as a preacher—combined with a photographic memory and his focus on concrete measures to improve people’s lives—helped make him such an effective politician. Lam also documents how Douglas was an impressive overseer of the Saskatchewan government from 1944 to 1961, insisting on hiring the smartest senior civil servants and relentlessly pushing his cabinet ministers to work as hard as he did.
At times, Tommy Douglas drifts into hagiography. That’s to be expected in a book that’s part Penguin's “Extraordinary Canadians” series, which is edited by John Ralston Saul.
For example, Lam offers a distinctly sympathetic interpretation of Douglas’s master’s thesis, “The Problems of the Subnormal Family”, which advocated sterilization for those who were mentally defective. The author rightly notes that Douglas rejected eugenics nearly 20 years later as premier of Saskatchewan.
But it’s hard not to write a flattering biography of Douglas, whose ideas were often so far ahead of his time. Lam shows that as a young preacher in the 1920s, Douglas challenged prejudices against Jews. As a premier in the late 1940s and 1950s, he insisted on his government hiring capable Japanese Canadians, who had been interned during the Second World War. As a federal New Democratic Party leader in 1970, he opposed the introduction of the War Measures Act, even though he knew it had the potential to ruin his party.
In his first campaign as federal NDP leader in 1962, Douglas advocated for a national Bill of Rights, a bilingual civil service, publicly funded pensions, recognition of Communist China, a new federal-provincial tax arrangement, and universal health care. Lam describes this as "a platform that in retrospect looked like the next chapter in Canadian history".
Douglas lost when running in Regina, but later won a by-election in Burnaby-Coquitlam, where he was reelected in 1963 and 1965. He represented Nanaimo-Cowichan-The Islands from 1969 until he retired from federal politics in 1979. Seven year later, he succumbed to cancer at home in Ottawa at the age of 81.
Lam’s authoritative biography includes all this and so much more. Anyone who reads this book will likely conclude that Douglas’s legacy will be impossible for Layton to match, regardless of how much success the federal NDP enjoys in the May 2 election.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.
East Van Arts
Apr 24, 2011 at 2:27pm
Tommy Douglas was as great a patriot as Canada has ever known.
He believed in the idea of Canada. He believed in the idea of brotherhood. He understood that cooperation is a higher principle than greed, or selfishness, or control. Amazingly, he also enjoyed one of the most successful careers in our politics.
We owe Tommy Douglas our proud claim as a people: universal health care. In Canada, thanks to Tommy Douglas and the CCF/NDP, health care is a right of citizenship. It is not a privilege of wealth.
Without Tommy? Our 'system' today would look dreadfully like that of the States.
With Tommy? Canada took important steps toward fulfilling its promise. And anyone who doubts his oratory need only listen to his famous parable of 'Mouseland' to understand his gifts. Jack Layton is successor to one of our greats.
Jack Layton for Prime Minister
Apr 25, 2011 at 7:12am
Charlie - Tommy Douglas was voted and dubbed the Greatest Canadian - not greatest New Democrat (although the later certainly fits). Just wanted to see full not partial credit for his place in Canadian history.