Below is a chapter from NYC's latest book, No Expectations: A Memoir by James N. McCrorie.
NO EXPECTATIONS is a brief memoir of a Montreal working class kid, the son of Scottish immigrants, who lowered his sights, abandoning a lively ambition to either go to sea or become a railroader, and settling for the life of an academic. The choice did not keep him out of some of the historical struggles of his time, including the fight for medicare in Saskatchewan in 1962, the wild cat strike of 1964, when CN railroaders shut down the railroad, paralyzing the nation, and university reform, which dominated campus life throughout the 1970s.
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Chapter 10 MEDICARE
.It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was thrilled by my research work. The whimsical thought of railroading was banished from my mind. I was travelling all over the province, meeting and interviewing all manner of farm men and women, becoming acquainted with the intriguing history of the province, marveling at how so many men and women, many non-English speaking when they arrived, dared to settle this formidable semi arid desert and create upon the land one of the most enlightened and progressive human communities in Canada.
There was another consideration. I was falling in love with this semi arid desert. True. I missed Montreal, the St. Lawrence River valley and the Canadian Shield. (I was yet to discover that the shield was part of the far north of the province; a region I was yet to visit.) But the variety and complexity of the plains and the parkland began to attract me. Experience and acquaintanceship were undermining my initial displeasure with my new geographical surroundings.
There was a final and decisive consideration. In Quebec, I had been politically cynical. The Duplessis regime and era, later referred to as la Grande Noirceur, was right wing, anti-labour, pro business (controlled by the Anglos), authoritarian and openly corrupt. The truth would not be offended if the provincial police force was described as being staffed by ill educated, ignorant goons and thugs. Most social services were run by the Church, whose clergy, for the most part, were reactionary.
There is one memorable incident that is deeply embedded in my memory. The workers at John Manville’s mine at Asbestos, Quebec, went out on strike. Archbishop Charboneau of Montreal gave a homily one Sunday morning in support of the workers. Duplessis, it was reported, was livid. He ordered the hierarchy of the Church to remove the impertinent cleric. They did so, removing him from office and banishing him to retirement in Victoria, B.C. He was not even permitted to die in his beloved Quebec. Such was the vindictiveness and cruelty of the Premier. Such was the disposition of the Church hierarchy. Working men and women were to be kept in their place.
In the late 19th century, Marx and Engels had proclaimed that “Men make their own history” This heresy, of course, gave offence to historians who looked to impersonal forces in the unfolding of human events or eagerly subscribed to the “Great Man of History” explanation.
In the Quebec of my youth, I never entertained any notion of how history was made. Capital, a corrupt state and a reactionary clergy ruled the roost. The contrast with what I was discovering in Saskatchewan shook me to the core. These dam, persistent farm men and women! Many of them poor. Many of them of modest formal education. Many of them speaking English with a Slavic, or Germanic or Scandinavian accent. They would gather at least once a month during the long, inhospitable winter. They often met in a local hall, many of which were less than comfortable. They would then dare ask basic questions about their communities, the province, the nation, indeed the world. They naively believed that they could change the world, that they could, under the right circumstances, shape their own history. What astonished me was the discovery that they had already done so. Their outlook on life was infectious.
In the winter of 1913, the women’s section of the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (a lineal forebear of the SFU) had passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a medical care programme. Health, they had concluded, was far too important to be left in private hands The payment for the provision of health care should be a public, provincial responsibility.
For many years, the idea of medicare remained dormant. However, when the United Farmers of Canada (Saskatchewan Section), the successor to the SGGA and predecessor of the SFU joined with labour to form the Farmer Labour Party in 1932, the idea was revived and later absorbed into the programme of the CCF (1933).
It was not until the provincial election of 1960, however, that the CCF felt the Government was financially ready to develop a public, compulsory medical care insurance programme. The election was bitterly fought over the issue and the CCF won.
In 1962, Premier Douglas resigned and his office was taken over by Woodrow Lloyd, the MLA from Biggar. It was to his government that the task was given to draw up the necessary legislation and implement it. This they did and medicare became a reality on July 1, 1962. All hell broke loose.
The Liberal Party, right wingers, most doctors, insurance companies (including American firms) the CMA, the AMA and the provincial press all joined hands to at least rescind the legislation and paralyze, if not destroy the provincial government. In a matter of a week, the province was close to civil war. I was both shaken and intrigued. I had never experienced anything like this before.
I believe it was a Wednesday of the first week of the doctors’ strike. It was mid morning and I had gone over to the SFU office on an errand. I was seated in the President’s office with Roy Atkinson and Doug Yonge. The phone rang. Roy took the call and made some notes. “It is taken care of”, he snapped as he terminated the call. He then informed us that the caller was one of the ministers in Lloyd’s government. Apparently a young doctor had arrived from down east and was prepared to go to Meadow Lake and practice. He was from the city and not acquainted with rural communities. Could the SFU send someone up to offer support and advice?
Doug immediately offered to go. He asked Roy for the name of the doctor. When Roy replied: “Guy Mercier”, my jaw dropped. “From Montreal?” I asked in disbelief. “Yea” was the reply. “He and I were active in the SCM together when Guy was in medical school”, I said. Never one to hesitate, Roy “‘ordered” me to join the expedition. I hastily returned to the University and barged in on Art Davis. I requested two weeks vacation. I was shrewd enough to realize that if I was going to enter the fray, it had to be on my time, not the university’s. Art, of course, immediately granted my request with a broad grin on his face. I suspect he would have liked to have gone himself.
Doug and I arrived at Meadow Lake in the late afternoon. Doug was a master of handling provincial highways and navigating rural, gravel roads. We parked in front of the medical clinic and went in. Doug spoke for both of us when he said we were from the SFU and that the Government had invited us to meet with Dr. Mercier.
We were offered seats in the waiting room and after a brief interval, Guy came in. He approached Doug and didn’t seem to notice me. When he did, he grabbed my hand and exclaimed in an excited voice: “What in heaven’s name are you doing here?” Doug replied: “He came west to get an education.”
We met and dined with Guy after the clinic closed. I believe Doug and I stayed the night before returning to Saskatoon. Guy nearly exhausted us with his endless questions, most of which we were able to answer to his satisfaction.
The trip made up my mind. I would spend the next two weeks devoted to the fight to save medicare. Saskatchewan was making history and for the first time in my life, I was going to be actively part of it. I felt liberated.
I didn’t have to wait. Upon arrival in Saskatoon, Roy informed us that he was going into the northeast to organize. He invited me to join him. He had already been organizing in the Biggar area, with a volunteer group of railroaders and SFU members. They had raised $38,000 in 48 hours with the intention of recruiting doctors and providing proper medical service. It was one of the great victories in the war. The opponents of the Government were shaken. I believe Roy never did get the credit to which he was truly entitled.
Our first evening meeting was in Kamsack in the heart of a Doukhobor community and in a region that had been heavily settled by Russian immigrants. The hall was packed; even areas where people could stand were jammed with men and women.
Roy spoke first and his fiery remarks to join the battle were greeted with nervous applause. The faces in the audience betrayed uncertainty, fear. I was called upon to say a few words. My reading of the audience had been correct. They didn’t want fire and brimstone. They wanted reassurance, to be reminded that their support for medicare was responsible and caring, that what they were going to accomplish would set an example for the nation.
I spoke quietly and briefly. I started with a simple question. What was medical care insurance about? My answer went something like this. “Anyone in a community can fall ill. If it is serious, they will require medical attention. Medical attention can be costly and the payment for care can become a financial burden – an impossible one for some to bear. With medicare, all of us share the burden of paying . Each year, we each throw a few bucks in the kitty. Hopefully, our health will be good and we will not have to draw on the public fund we have built up. But if we need medical care, the bills will be paid out of the public insurance fund we have established. Medicare is about sharing, about looking out for each other.”
“Where are these people who oppose this approach coming from? Are they that selfish that they don’t care about the well being of their neighbours? Are they that greedy that they can’t spare a few bucks once a year and share fairly in paying for the health and welfare of those who reside in their community?”
It was at this point that there was a discernible shift in the mood of the meeting. A few faces growled at being publicly called for what they were. The vast majority began to nod their heads in agreement with the line of argument I was developing.
I concluded in this way. “Over the years, the people who homesteded and settled this district, many of whom could not speak English when they arrived, fought the railways who wished to overcharge, built your co-operatives in face of the fierce opposition of the local banks and merchants, built your wheat pool against the combined might of the grain trade. YOU built this community by working with your neighbours, not disregarding their welfare. You and your parents turned this province from a semi arid desert into the most progressive region in the Dominion. YOU will do it again with medicare! YOU will do it the way you have always done great things: in co-operation with your neighbours, by standing together with them. It is the proper thing to do. It is the decent thing to do.” The hall erupted.
That night, Roy and I were invited to the farm of one of the SFU members. By the time we arrived, the yard was jammed with trucks and the large farm house packed with farmers and their wives. Large platters of Russian food appeared from nowhere. Large glasses were filled to the brim with a fine, potato based home brew. I was surrounded with friendly and inquisitive guests. I was usually asked if it was true that I really came from Montreal! One great bear of an old man with a thick, walrus mustache patted me on the back and said in a loud, Russian accented voice to no-one in particular: “This young man from Montreal speaks truth. I lived through those times. It was like he said it was. This man knows much. He speaks truth”. I had great difficulty falling asleep that night.
I had crossed my Rubicon. We had a chance to make history.
Roy and I traveled for the next ten days. Roy did most of the speaking. He was splendid. After each meeting, we would analyze the reaction of the audience and Roy would adjust his remarks accordingly. With each passing day our confidence grew. Confront the people with the truth and most of them would rally.
This is not the place to recount the full drama of that July of 1962. Mention, however, should be made of the critical role of Woodrow Lloyd. This tall, shy scholarly, soft spoken former teacher possessed a will of iron. As the doctors and their supporters escalated the struggle, Lloyd’s temperature seemed to drop. Outrageous demands were met with a cold and dismissive “No”. In the middle of the crisis, he ruthlessly shuffled his cabinet, almost daring timid waverers to jump ship. Before the end of the month, the doctors caved and medicare was here to stay. As Douglas would later publicly remark, medicare would not have been possible without the fearless leadership of Woodrow Lloyd.
When I returned from vacation to the Center, I was greeted with a surprise. I was summoned to the Director’s office. The moment I entered and sat down, I could sense that something was remiss. Bill Baker was uneasy. After a few moments of small talk, he came to the point. President Spinks had been on the blower, demanding to know why this Saskatchewan Field Research Fellow was swaning about the province, stirring people up over medicare. I was bringing the University into dispute. Why, I wasn’t even a medical doctor and therefore in no position to publicly comment on a subject about which I was professional ignorant! Baker hinted that Spinks wanted me dismissed.
A digression is in order. John W.T. Spinks was an English chemist who had come to the province during the depression to accept a position in the Department of Chemistry. He had acquired something of a reputation as a chemist. He was vain, ambitious, lacking in social skills. He nevertheless persisted and was eventually appointed to the Presidency. He was opposed to the establishment of the Center at the University, privately supported the doctors over medicare and eventually dismissed Dr. Wendel McLeod, a protégé of Norman Bethune and the provincial government’s hope to steer the College of Medicine in the direction of social and preventive medicine.
I knew I was in trouble. I hastily suggested that the two of us meet with my Research Director, Art Davis. Bill kindly agreed. What a meeting! Art exploded. He informed Bill that I was on holidays, that I was speaking for myself, that I was bringing more credit to the University than that “fucking Englishman.” (Art was forever the New Englander). Bill, who disliked conflict, saw the wisdom of Art’s position when Davis promised that the Canadian Association of University Teachers would get involved if I was in ANY WAY reprimanded. It would become a national civil rights issue, with all the attendant publicity. Spinks was denied his pleasure. I believe he never forgave Bill for this and I never forgave Spinks. Years later, at the Regina College of the University of Saskatchewan, I quickly joined the ranks of the radical professors and attacked Spinks publicly at every opportunity.
But I was not the only thorn in that little bastard’s side. During the depression and lonely, Spinks drifted in the direction of a small community of intellectuals: professors, lawyers, artists, doctors, and journalists who resided in Saskatoon. They used to gather at a café on 2nd Avenue. There Spinks met Mary Striliaff, a young Doukhobor farm girl who worked at the café as a waitress. They fell in love and married.
There was a problem. In Spinks’ eyes, a proper Englishman should never stoop to marry a farm girl. Pleasure her? Yes. Marry beneath his station? No. Besides she was Russian and raised by those mad Doukhobor sectarians. In his social life, Spinks recognized that these were not social qualities to commend him to his betters. I am assuming that Spinks privately believed that these blemishes would be forgotten and would never raise their threatening heads again. He was mistaken. Party to this group of intellectuals was a brilliant, self taught journalist, maverick, socialist, a trouble-maker without peers. His name was James F.C. Wright. I had met him through Alf Gleave. Jim was instantly intrigued by this Montrealer interested in the farmers movement. He and his wife, Diana, befriended me.
Jim was a tall, well built man in his late sixties, who walked with a slight stoop. His face was round and enigmatic. As often as not, he would begin a conversation by rubbing his hands together and saying “Yes, and …….” in a very quite voice.
He had been born and raised in Bethany, Manitoba, where his English born father ran a general store, in front of which always flew the Union Jack. His mother was from Hamburg. Jim’s recollection of his childhood was revealing. He was something of a loner, mischevious and insatiably curious. He left home after completing grade eight, to hitch hike to Winnipeg and become a wiper in the CPR yards. He later drifted west and took employment in the oil fields of Alberta. Along the way, he learned to write, eventually becoming a self taught journalist.
During the depression, he moved to Saskatchewan and became involved with the farmers movement, particularly the young CCF. He wrote a number of “political” plays which aspiring thespians in the Party put on in country halls. It was during these years, after taking employment with the Saskatoon Star Pheonix under the guidance of the legendary Phil Wade, that he took an interest in the Doukhobors, eventually writing Slava Bohu, the definitive history of the sect. The book won the Governor-General’s award for historical literature in 1940.
It was during his brief visit to Ottawa to receive the Award that he met Diana Kingsmill, the daughter of Sr. Charles and Lady Kingsmill. Sir. Charles was the first Admiral of the RCN and Lady Kingsmill was the daughter of wealthy, Ottawa timber merchants. Diana was presented in court at St. James and was a member of the 1936 Olympic ski team.
When the two announced their intention to marry, Lady Kingsmill is alleged to have asked Jim what would happen to her if this dreadful CCF Party ever came to power. Jim was to answer sweetly and softly: “We would shoot you.” Diana was instantly disinherited and when the couple moved to Landis, Saskatchewan, they were obliged to take up residence in a retired, CPR caboose. Many years later, Lady Kingsmill repented and Diana came into a generous inheritance upon her mother’s death. It was this money they enabled them to buy the acreage in Cory RM and build Mistaka, along with an outdoor, heated swimming pool.
I was always a frequent guest at Mistaka and when Jim and Diana learned that Spinks had tried to sack me over my involvement in the medicare struggle, Jim went into action stations. For the rest of that summer, when I would go out to visit, and after ample “refreshment”, Jim would phone Spinks, usually late in the evening and put to the pompous president a series of baffling, irritating questions. Diana and I would sit by and listen, covering our mouths to smother our laughter. Spinks, of course, had no choice but to humour Jim, as this wild, unruly adventurer knew the President’s secret. He further knew that Jim was quite capable of any manner of mischief, particularly through the press. That was Jim, loyal to his friends – at least those he had not already alienated.