The greatest Canadian

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 March, 2006, 12:00am

This week, television viewers addicted to the popular American drama series 24 can enjoy the grim antics of its terrorist-hunting star, Kiefer Sutherland, and then step into another era in a new series about Sutherland's grandfather, Tommy Douglas.

Douglas didn't have the movie-star looks his grandson was blessed with, and he died 20 years ago aged 84. Still, in Canadian history he's about as close to sainthood as anybody can get. Two years ago, he was named by popular acclaim the greatest Canadian of all time: and he was up against former prime ministers, hockey stars, popular musicians, legendary philanthropists and Pamela Anderson.

A skinny, short, bespectacled Baptist preacher, Douglas was once described by a wag as the best prime minister Canada never had. He became a political activist in the Depression years of the 1930s and won a seat in the House of Commons in 1935. He volunteered for service overseas at the outbreak of the second world war and was assigned to the Winnipeg Grenadiers regiment, but a medical exam revealed a serious leg problem. Otherwise, he would have been with the Grenadiers when they were killed or captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong in 1941.

Several years later, Douglas won a seat in the Saskatchewan legislature and went on to serve five terms, from 1944 to 1961, as premier of the wheat-growing prairie province - which was and remains Canada's breadbasket.

He was a social democrat, considered himself a friend of the poor and the working class, and he turned Canadian politics on its head. He legislated the 40-hour working week with paid holidays, wiped out the province's debt and maintained balanced budgets. But his greatest achievement was the creation of a universal medical-care system for Saskatchewan: it was later adopted by the federal Liberals and turned into a national programme. To this day, Douglas is known as the father of medicare.

After his last term as premier in 1961, he became the leader of the federal New Democratic Party and served in the Commons for a decade.

In life, Douglas always gave the impression - whether he was battling doctors who opposed medicare or conservatives who considered him a dangerous communist - of a man who was having the time of his life. He had a quick mind and was a great wit.

On one occasion, he was delivering a speech amid a din of harassment by hecklers, one of whom was particularly obnoxious and venomous. 'Doesn't that bother you, Mr Douglas,' someone asked. 'Not at all,' he replied. 'When you throw a stone into a pack of dogs and you hear a yelp, you can take satisfaction in knowing that you hit one of them.'