June 30, 2012
|A 'closed' notice is posted on the door of a Saskatchewan doctor's office, 1962|
If, as philosopher George Santayana commented, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, then Canadians may soon face serious attacks on our most cherished social program.
Few of us remember that 50 years ago, from July 1 to July 23, 1962, the doctors of Saskatchewan withdrew their services in an attempt to prevent Canada’s first socialized medical care plan from being born. Despite the “strike” receiving worldwide media attention while it was happening, very little has been written since about events that determined the shape of Canada’s medical care system.
Given the importance of medicare to our collective consciousness — Canadians overwhelmingly judge it to be the single most important thing that makes this country better than the United States — why have our academics, novelists, filmmakers, playwrights and media pundits mostly ignored its difficult and dramatic birth? After spending hundreds of hours immersing myself in 1962 to write a novel called The Year We Became Us, my conclusion is that we ignore the doctors strike because it embarrasses too many powerful interests.
In 1960 the Saskatchewan CCF (forerunner to the NDP), with Tommy Douglas as leader, ran for re-election promising a province-wide socialized medical care plan. The provincial College of Physicians and Surgeons, with funding from outside groups such as insurance companies, the American Medical Association and other Canadian doctors, spent more than either of the two main parties to oppose the government’s plan.
Despite the volume and vitriolic tone of the negative campaigning, the CCF was re-elected with an increased majority. The government then wrote legislation and announced the plan would be implemented on April 1, 1962. Meanwhile, Douglas left provincial politics to become federal leader of the recently created New Democratic Party and was replaced as premier by Woodrow Lloyd. When the doctors demanded more consultation, Lloyd delayed implementation until July 1 and offered to talk.
Instead, the doctors escalated their rhetoric and announced they would withdraw their services if the plan proceeded. Keep Our Doctors committees were formed, mostly supported by business owners, and the province was polarized like never before or since.
On July 1 the “strike” began. The vast majority of the province’s approximately 1,000 doctors withdrew their services and only some emergency services were provided. The government responded by recruiting doctors, mostly from Great Britain, to work in community clinics that were quickly established by unions and other community groups.
After a pro-doctor rally in Regina flopped, the college finally began talking to the government and a deal was reached that ended the strike. Medicare was finally delivered.
Throughout the strike, and before, the Saskatchewan media, especially newspapers, were hysterical in their support of the doctors.
In its first edition after the strike began, the Moose Jaw Times Herald had a lead editorial with the headline “The Day That Freedom Died In Saskatchewan,” followed the next day by “Ugly Image of Dictators” then “Neutrality Never Won Any Fight For Freedom” and a little later came “Legal Profession Next to be Socialized.”
If your sole source of information were Saskatchewan newspapers you’d have thought everyone hated medicare and it was being imposed by a dictator.
So who is embarrassed by the strike, now that medicare is Canada’s most cherished social program? Some doctors, political parties, the business community and right-wing ideologues, certainly.
If it were only a question of embarrassment perhaps the doctors strike should be forgotten. But there are important political lessons to be learned by remembering. In fact, forgetting damages us. It makes a repeat more likely.
So what should we learn from 1962 and the extreme resistance to the implementation of Canada’s first socialized medical care plan? First, that the freedom to conduct business your way does not trump all other rights. Second, that powerful interests are sometimes wrong and can be overcome. Third, don’t believe everything you see, hear or read in the media.
Gary Engler, the author of The Year We Became Us, a new novel set during the 1962 Saskatchewan doctors strike, spent 20 years as a journalist with the Vancouver Sun.