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Canadian Public Health Association

Doing the right thing: one who made a difference

Tommas Clement Douglas

Today, most Canadians hold a belief that government has a vital role to play in enabling a healthy and productive society, which includes the provision of health care services under Medicare. Medicare is more than a 'program': it is an integral part of the value of collective responsibility shared by Canadians. And while the Canadian health care system as we know it has been shaped by political and economic forces, the principles articulated in the 1960s by Tommy Douglas, then Premier of Saskatchewan and the founder of Medicare, remain strong.

His was a passion based on experience. As a young boy he was threatened by the loss of his right leg due to a condition called osteomyelitis, and as a 'charity' patient on one of Winnipeg's hospital wards his care was rather minimal. Had it not been for a dedicated surgeon, Dr. Stanley Smith, who was willing to provide treatment beyond the basics and without a fee, Tommy Douglas' leg would not have been saved. This experience provided the roots to his conviction that "no boy or girl, man or woman should ever have to depend on charity to provide them with the health services they need." He was talking about what has since become our system of Medicare.

In 1961, Tommy Douglas announced Saskatchewan's historic Medical Care Insurance Act, which took effect in 1962 and created Canada's first comprehensive public health care program. In a public address, Douglas explained that "the only difference [in health services] is that instead of the doctor sending the bill to you, he sends it to the Medicare office. Now, that's not so complicated, is it?" What Douglas may not have envisioned is the complexity of today's health care system or the repeated attempts by government to 'fix Medicare' through the establishment of royal commissions, investigative task forces, health accords and other mechanisms that have dealt with jurisdictional responsibilities, funding, and now the three largest issues of access, quality and the sustainability of Canada's health care system.

To learn more about efforts at all levels of the health care system to keep Medicare strong, visit the Health Council of Canada.