Canadians may not know much about their history, but the selection of Tommy Douglas as the Greatest Canadian by a million CBC viewers shows how memory improves with age. John Ralston Saul thinks the kind of "civic memory" tapped by the Greatest Canadian contest "is the key to controlling unaccountable power."
It's not just that this popular verdict in favour of a chief founder of medicare and leading opponent of Canada-U.S. military integration was delivered just as Prime Minister Paul Martin was bent over to administer the hindlick manoeuvre to visiting U.S. President George Bush. It's also that memory, as Saul writes in On Equilibrium, is vital to democracy. It frees us "from the traps of habit" of everyday debate in which the dominant media get to frame the issues.
So there's no reason for the history pros to sweat the small stuff and worry about what people actually knew about Douglas or his competitors when they voted. My hunch is that he won the contest because of his role in launching medicare, but he's become part of living memory because of his far-seeing views on the public good.
Of course, as a person of his time, Douglas had little understanding of the causes of some chronic diseases . He believed medicare would contribute to preventive medicine simply because people on low incomes would see their doctors early on in their illness - unlike all of our parents and grandparents from that era who still wait until they're at death's door before they'll take up a doctor's time.
Now that medicare is so popular, it's easily forgotten how fiercely it was resisted, how major Saskatchewan newspaper headlines blared "The day freedom died" when the medicare law went into force on July 1, 1962, and how doctors, with media and business backing from across North America, went on strike for 23 days to try to force the government to back down.
The terms of settling that doctors' strike meant that medicare became simply an insurance scheme to cover medical bills, not a more dynamic alternative to conventional medicine. All Saskatchewan's experiments to promote community health clinics were marginalized in the terms of the agreement between doctors and the government. It's taken 40 years to get back to imagining such clinics as the norm.
Douglas never tired of reminding supporters that politicians who could never find money to pay for the needs of working people could always find money for war. In 1944, with memories of the Depression fresh and the second world war still being fought, Douglas was elected premier of Saskatchewan. He pioneered public auto insurance, public hydro, public phones and a score of other breakthroughs, including the country's first human rights code, best labour code and best workplace health and safety laws.
It seems strange now that North America's first socialist government was elected in a rural province. But the farm programs Douglas encouraged are definitely worth dusting off. Meyer Brownstone, later a founder of Oxfam International and a Toronto academic, began his career as head of research for Douglas's mid-1950s commission on the future of farming. The province was keen on helping farmers diversify what they grew beyond wheat. Saskatchewan hoped to make the countryside a vibrant place to live, encouraging young people to take up farming and helping old farmers to retire with some savings.
So the province bought land from retiring farmers, giving them a nest egg to retire on. It put the farms in a land bank that rented to young people starting farms, so they didn't need a bundle of cash to get into the work. The government got its land bank money back in rent, while the countryside continued attracting young people who could sustain rural communities.
To boost crop diversity and reduce the loneliness of farm life, Douglas's team also promoted co-op farming as an alternative to isolated family farms that specialized in one crop because that's all one family could handle.
Such policies are "highly relevant for resolving issues around urban sprawl today," says Brownstone. He worries that older farmers are being left in the lurch while younger would-be farmers are denied opportunities. Governments can't simply legislate an end to sprawl without positive measures to match.
My good bud George Ehring and I were among the thousand or so in Regina in 1983 who whooped it up on top of banquet tables for half an hour to applaud what was known to be the last speech of Douglas's life. Ehring still has his notes of that speech, in which Douglas predicted the big three issues of the next 20 years: the right to a job and full employment, saving medicare from "subtle strangulation" and keeping Canada free of nuclear missiles. Thanks for the memory.