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OPINION: “Greatest Canadian of all time” drew a sparse crowd in Sarnia

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Phil Egan

How quickly we forget our history.

Fourteen years after being voted “the greatest Canadian of all time,” the name of Tommy Douglas rings very few bells among youth in this city.

It puzzles me how a student can graduate high school without knowing his name.

The social safety net Canadians enjoy —national pension plan, workmen’s compensation, unemployment benefits and most importantly, government-subsidized, pan-Canadian medical care — didn’t just happen.

It took visionaries like Tommy Douglas to make it viable.

Born in Scotland in 1904, Douglas arrived on the Canadian prairies in time to witness the labour upheaval of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

Schooled in Manitoba, the 135-pound amateur boxer and eventual Baptist minister saw Canadian prosperity undermined by the Great Depression and a damaging drought.

Those events awakened Douglas’ social conscience. In 1930, he joined the new socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation political party and was subsequently elected to the House of Commons as a CCF member.

Elected head of Saskatchewan’s CCF party in 1942, he became premier two years later and formed the first democratic socialist government in North America.

Backed by farmers and trade unions, the CCF’s Regina Manifesto declared its determination to rescue Canadians from the ravages of the Depression with unemployment and health insurance, affordable public housing, agricultural price supports and other benefits.

The CCF grew in popularity across the country. By 1943, the party had become the official opposition in Ontario. In 1944, the dynamic Tommy Douglas was elected CCF premier of Saskatchewan – a job he would hold for over 17 years.

Massive reforms followed in health insurance as Douglas took the first steps in the creation of medicare and what would eventually become the creation of the nation’s “cradle to grave” welfare state. The most popular policies of the CCF were ultimately adopted and implemented by mainline Canadian political parties.

During the “Red Scare” days of the 1950s, the CCF’s socialism and pacifism were increasingly viewed as sympathetic to communism. In 1961, the CCF transformed into the New Democratic Party.

At age 15, interested in politics and curious about the new party, I walked down to the new Sarnia library one Saturday morning to hear Tommy Douglas, the first NDP national leader, talk about the coming 1962 federal election.

Less than two dozen people showed up to hear him – a man responsible for massive reforms in education, social welfare, and particularly universal health care –a cornerstone of our modern Canadian identity.

It was a poor Sarnia welcome for a man now recognized as “the greatest Canadian.”

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