The (No) Politics of Canadian Health Care History

By Beacon Staff

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called the individual American states the “Laboratories of Democracy.” Changes in government policy do not come about because a light bulb went off in some Federal bureaucrat’s head; they begin much further down the food chain and occur because there is both a need and a group of citizens who have the gumption to get things done. What is now known as Social Security in America had its origins in various organizations such as “Townsend Clubs,” but its legislative success was due to the efforts of the Fraternal Order of Eagles who shopped their old-age pension plan around to the various state legislatures in the 1920s. It was introduced in many legislatures, but the first successful Old Age Pension Act was signed into law in Montana in 1923 by Republican governor Joseph Dixon. In 1935, the federal Social Security Act established a national program and Montana’s Old Age Pension Act was no longer needed.

Just as in the case of our social security, there were a couple of false starts to the Canadian health insurance plans. In 1935, the government of the United Farmers of Alberta (a political party and farmers’ organization that also founded the Alberta Farmers Cooperative Grain Elevators) passed a bill that created a provincial insurance program that was never fully implemented because of a change in government. A bill for a similar program was passed in 1936 in British Columbia but never implemented.

A word of explanation about my use of the word “governments” is in order. In a parliamentary system like Canada’s, a government is formed by the party, which wins the most seats in the Legislature; called the Legislative Assembly at the provincial level and Parliament at the national level. That means that, unlike America, the party that controls the Legislature always controls the executive branch. The elected party leader, who must be a member of the Legislature, becomes the provincial Premier, or at the national level, the Prime Minister. “Governments” change when a political party loses control. They are generally referred to by the name of the party leader or the name of the party itself. A “minority government” is a coalition of two or more parties, none of which has won enough legislative seats (50 percent) to form their own government.

Canada’s first public health care system had its origins in 1946 in Health District One of the town of Swift Current, Saskatchewan. A group of farmers and town leaders got together and developed a plan to provide health insurance coverage to all of the town residents. In 1947, the Saskatchewan provincial government, under the leadership of a Baptist minister named Tommy Douglas, began a province-wide program of universal hospital insurance. Two years later a coalition government of the Liberal and the Conservative parties in British Columbia and the conservative Social Credit Party government of Alberta followed suit.

In 1957 the Liberal Government of Louis St. Laurent introduced a national hospital insurance program that reimbursed provincial governments 50 percent of their health care costs. It passed Parliament with an unanimous vote, despite the opposition of doctors, insurers and hospitals alike who called it a “Trojan Horse” that will “lead to socialism,” according to a paper put out by the Canadian Health Coalition.

In 1962, Saskatchewan introduced our continent’s first complete medical insurance coverage system, prompting a strike by doctors and medical personnel. The government flew in doctors from England to provide services, and the strike crumbled in three weeks. By 1966 the Liberal government of Lester Pearson created the national Medicare program that again reimbursed 50 percent of the provinces’ costs, and was again fought against tooth and nail by the vested interests.

There have been many changes to the Canadian Medicare system over the years, and it, like you or I, is not perfect. But I’m not writing to argue about the good, bad, or indifferent aspects of the system (although I might point out that my Canadian relatives on my mother’s side of the family were never once tempted to travel to America for medical care). I am writing to point out that the Canadian health care system was not an evil government plot to take away any real or imagined “right,” but stemmed from a grassroots movement by citizens to do right for themselves and their neighbors. I also wanted to point out that these universal insurance programs were created by governments whose politics ranged from the socialist government of Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan (CCF) to the almost evangelically conservative Social Credit government of Alberta, and everything in between.

Helping others knows no politics.

Jim Elliott is chairman of the Montana Democratic Party

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.