Thursday, September 8, 2011

Life Before Medicare

Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizen's Organizations
Cross-posted from Straight Goods
August 27, 2011

Purchase "Life Before Medicare" HERE.

Canadians should not forget that Medicare was born out of the misery of the Great Depression. Concern about the future of health care was the inspiration for this book about the days before it existed. An excerpt...


It was a soft June evening in 1993 when the coffee party was held at Owl House Lane, Toronto, the home of Jean Woodsworth. As president of One Voice, the Canadian Seniors Network, Jean was introducing some of its board members to the leaders of various Ontario seniors' organizations. To the coloratura of the birds, we discussed the burning question that Jean quietly posed: "What is the most important issue seniors face today, in the nineties?"

The consensus was, the erosion of Medicare.

The Canada Health Act was born out of the socialist government in Saskatchewan, and out of the misery of the Great Depression that stretched across Canada and lasted up to the Second World War. This great piece of legislation provides for an equitable system of health care for everyone, the rich and the poor. Its erosion could end the universality and public administration of health care for which seniors have fought so hard. Jean said that we needed to begin a re-education about Medicare's reason for being.

"If only all Canadians knew about the bad old days," Jean thought aloud.

Sister Gisele Richard, with calm clarity, offered a short, startling memory: "My mother had tuberculosis, and died after a lengthy illness when I was only eight. My dad was still paying for her hospitalization five years later, when I started taking the payments to the hospital every month."

As the discussion went slowly around the circle, my eyes returned again and again to Sister Gisele's face, to me reflecting character and wisdom. Without a mother , this child had turned into a responsible daughter. She also helped to raise the family, and that childhood moulded the determined leader she is today, without a doubt. Depression years are indelible times. I was a Depression baby, but don't remember those times. I needed to learn.

Jean remarked that a book of stories about people's lives before Medicare could re-educate us, our families, policy-makers, and all people born since the fight for Medicare began. Although she spoke quietly, this was nonetheless clearly a directive. I thought Jean might possibly have meant me to take it on, although she didn't look at anybody in particular. I certainly felt linked to Sister Gisele, because of her story.

The thought of compiling a book was both daunting and energizing. I felt challenged to start, at least. Being a seniors' activist had been hard work - meetings with government, and committee and consensus work - when I was co-chair of the Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens' Organizations (OCSCO). All this meant travel from our home on the outskirts of Orillia. Maybe the book project could be done from home, with fewer meetings in Toronto, and provide a way to become more involved in the Orillia community. And so it happened. Once we committed to Life Before Medicare, it began to grow on its own.


The homesteaders' medicine chest contained dry mustard, Epsom salts and aspirin. The Epsom salts were used to clean wounds of man and animals too, the dry mustard was used for mustard plasters on the chest and of course, the aspirin was used to cure everything else.

- Birgit Ethier - Medstead, Saskatchewan

I once knew a family who told me their little boy had whooping cough when he was an infant. This happened during winter in a house in the country where their only source of heat was a wood stove. The family took turns holding the baby day and night for five weeks. When one tired, another took over the task until he recovered.

- Emily MacPhee - Perth, Ontaro


It was around 1921 or 1922. My father's dad was in an auto collision between Teviotdale and Harriston, Ontario - side-swiped, overturned in the ditch, and suffered some severe skull/brain trauma. He was removed from the accident site and taken to their home in Listowel. Doctor was summoned and the dining room was eventually turned into an operating theatre. Excess fluid pressure in the skull had to be relieved. My dad's mother's assignment was the cloth/boiling needs. My dad's was "to hold the light." I recall my dad saying that the doctor said to him words to the effect, "This isn't going to be pleasant. Do you think you can do the job? Once I start I have to have the light till I'm done." The doctor then proceeded to hand-drill through the skull in an attempt to remove the excess fluid and relieve pressure.

The operation was to be unsuccessful and his dad died some days later, not regaining consciousness from the time of the accident.

Why wasn't his father taken to a hospital? Maybe there was none very close, maybe my family couldn't afford it. Maybe the doctor felt that the remedy could be done just as effectively at home as at a hospital, at less cost. It's hard for me to believe: to be an attendant to an operation, performed in my own home on a close family member, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, and then to see it all for naught, anyhow.

- John Hallman - Oro, Ontario


I recall the winter of 1932. January was very cold and stormy. The temperature would hover between thirty-five and forty-five degrees below zero. That's when my mother took it upon herself to nurse our neighbour who lived a mile away. So every morning she walked and nursed our neighbour with mustard plasters and hot chicken soup. This kept on for three weeks. There was no thought of going to the hospital, because there was no money.

- Birgit Ehier - Medstead, Saskatchewan

When I was pregnant with my first, and later with my second child, I did not visit the doctor until I was five months pregnant. The first fee of $40 took us about two years to pay off. The family doctor allowed us to pay it as we were able. When the second child arrived, the fee was slightly higher, but it was the same arrangement. At that time we didn't have a hospitalization plan either, so the hospital, delivery and nursery charges were approximately $50. We were able to pay that a bit at a time, over two years.

- Ruth Mayor - Winnipeg, Manitoba


We lived in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, in the early forties and my mother was very ill. Dr. Rumball said she must have a hysterectomy, no ifs, ands or buts about it. We had no money. My dad was furious. My mother was in tears for days. My mother went next door and phoned my Dad at work and said that this was a life and death situation and not to worry about paying.

To make a long story short, the hysterectomy was performed the next day. Mom came home about a week later with her stitches in and was to return to have them removed. About the second day home, Mom said there seemed to be something wrong with the incision. We removed the bandage-binding to take a look. Mom's incision wasn't healing; the stitches hadn't held. I ran next door to the service station and phoned the doctor. He said, "I'll be right there."

He was there in about two minutes. He took the bottom sheet on the bed and put it on Mom like a diaper, picked her up and we put her in his car. Back in the hospital, Mom was stitched up again with a different type of stitching.

We never did get a bill. Mom lived to be ninety-one.

- Katherine Morrison - North Bay, Ontari)


I'm a retired Cape Breton coal miner. I went to work in the coal mines after I returned from overseas military service. The reason I went to work in the coal mines is because I have never found a better lifestyle than is offered here and it was the only employment offered here. During my mine employment we, and my father before me, had a system of Medicare long before Tommy Douglas even thought of it. Every week we had a deduction from our pay. In my time it was twenty cents for the doctor, and twenty-five cents for the hospital. They called it "check off". This allowed us and our families to receive free medical care from our doctors and the hospitals. I, and my family, and my father's family, have been in the hospital many times and there was no extra cost to us because of the check off. We even made the check-off payment to the hospital after Medicare came in to pay for extras, such as private rooms and better meals.

Regardless of what people think, the Cape Breton miners had Medicare long before Tommy Douglas. I think it started in the twenties.

- Tony Trociuk - Glace Bay, Nova Scotia

Published by The Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens' Organizations:

A brief history of Canada's public health care system:

Published as part of the Seniors and Health Care Project, a program of the Ontario Coalition of Senior Citizens Organizations

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