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Thomas Clement Douglas

Thomas Clement Douglas

Thomas Clement Douglas (1904-1986) was a Canadian clergyman and politician; premier of Saskatchewan (1944-1961); first federal leader, New Democratic Party (1961-1971); and member of parliament (1935-1944, 1962-1968, and 1968-1979).

Douglas was born in Falkirk, Scotland, October 20, 1904, the son of Thomas Douglas, an iron moulder, former soldier, and socialist, and Annie Clement Douglas, of Highland origins, who was deeply religious with a poetic gift. The Douglases emigrated to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1910. Tommy Douglas began a life-long struggle with osteomyelitis. In later fights for universal hospital and medical care insurance, he recalled his experience as a charity patient.

During World War I Douglas' father rejoined his regiment, and the family spent the war years in Glasgow. They returned to Winnipeg after the war. The young Tommy Douglas apprenticed as a printer and won the lightweight boxing championship in Manitoba in 1922 and 1923. He was persuaded to resume his education at Brandon College, graduating in 1930 as "senior stick" or head of the student body. That June he was ordained in the Baptist church at Weyburn, Saskatchewan. He also married a fellow graduate, Irma Dempsey, a farmer's daughter from Carberry.

The Depression years sharpened the thinking of a young minister already preoccupied by social and political questions. Repelled by his contact with the Communists during the bloody Estevan miners' strike of 1931, he was attracted to Saskatchewan's new Farmer-Labour Party. In 1932 it joined other western Canadian radical parties to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation headed by a Winnipeg mentor of the younger Douglas, James Shaver Woodsworth. In 1934 Douglas fought and lost his first election as a CCF provincial candidate in Weyburn. A year later, despite warnings from church elders, he ran again. After a bitter campaign, he defeated a Liberal incumbent and entered Parliament as one of eight CCFers.

In Parliament Douglas emerged as a young, dynamic orator with a brilliant gift for humor. He differed from the deeply pacifist Woodsworth by supporting collective security. When war came in 1939 he helped lead the wing of the CCF that insisted on full participation. Re-elected in 1940, he joined the South Saskatchewan Regiment and narrowly missed being drafted to Hong Kong in 1941. Instead, he was chosen leader of the Saskatchewan CCF in July 1942. Two years later when a worn-out, discredited Liberal government went to the polls, the CCF won in a landslide, 47 seats to five.

Hardest hit by the Depression of any Canadian province, Saskatchewan was literally bankrupt in 1944. Wartime prosperity and improved crops only meant imminent foreclosure for debt-ridden farmers. No one could claim that "socialism" had ruined the province. Instead, Douglas and his brilliant provincial treasurer, Clarence Fines, engineered a careful economic recovery. As North America's only democratic socialist regime, Saskatchewan became a laboratory for new ideas, from a fur marketing board to the world's first government car insurance system. A large and effective grassroots organization, described by S. M. Lipset, retained a high degree of involvement and accountability. Douglas himself took special pride in Saskatchewan's pioneering role in improving rural living standards and in the creation, over intense resistance from the medical community, of hospital and health insurance programs.

As an "island of socialism in a sea of capitalism," Douglas insisted the CCF could survive in Saskatchewan only if the party grew nationally. He supported efforts to broaden the CCF and to build organic links with the Canadian Labour Congress. In 1961, when a decade of change took shape in the New Democratic Party (NDP), Douglas seemed to be the only personality strong enough to sell the idea of a labor-backed party to the prairie farmers and small business people who had backed the CCF. In August 1961 the NDP's founding convention chose him as leader by 1,391 votes to 380.

It was the beginning of ten hard years. Douglas waged four general elections in a struggle that raised the new party's share of the vote from 12 to 18 percent. Personal defeat in Regina in 1962 and in Burnaby-Coquitlam in 1968 were part of the pain; so was recurrence of his childhood struggle with osteomyelitis. For a party facing chronic poverty and with little support east of the Ottawa River, Douglas became a major asset. As a platform orator, his wit, passion, and eloquence had almost no equals. He also had a shrewd tactical skill which gave his party added influence in the minority governments of the 1960s. When Saskatchewan's pioneering medicare scheme became a nation-wide reality in 1967, Douglas deserved a full share of the credit. Many other elements of the NDP's 1961 program, from portable pensions to recognition of Peking as the legitimate government of China, were implemented though his party never held more than ten percent of the seats in the House of Commons. In 1971, when the government imposed the War Measures Act, suspending civil liberties to crush a handful of terrorists, Douglas led his party in lonely opposition.

After a decade of national leadership, Douglas resigned his position in 1971 but continued until 1979 as the member of Parliament for the seat he had won in 1969, Nanaimo-Cowichan-the Islands. He served as the NDP's expert on energy, campaigning for greater Canadian ownership of an oil and gas industry which had fallen almost wholly into foreign hands. When he retired in 1979 he remained active in the educational work of the Cold-well-Douglas Foundation established by admirers in 1979. He and his wife lived in Ottawa. Their two daughters, Shirley and Joan, established their own careers and families. In 1984 Douglas was hit by an Ottawa bus but recovered. He died of cancer February 24, 1986.

Further Reading

Doris French Shackleton's Tommy Douglas (Toronto, 1975) is a sympathetic biography of someone who is clearly a hero to the author. Douglas' years as leader of North America's only democratic socialist government were described by a Regina newspaperman, Chris Higinbotham, in Off the Record: The CCF in Saskatchewan (Toronto, 1968). His role as leader of the New Democratic Party is described by Desmond Morton, NDP: Social Democracy in Canada (Toronto, 1978). Speeches always lose their impact when they are put on paper, but something of Douglas' platform skill may be found in L. D. Lovick (editor), Tommy Douglas Speaks (Lantzville, B.C., 1979).

Additional Sources

The making of a Socialist: the recollections of T.C. Douglas, Edmonton, Alta.: University of Alberta Press, 1982.

French, Doris Cavell Martin, Tommy Douglas, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975. □

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