Life of T.C. Douglas celebrated in museum



Tucked away in a corner of the former home of Calvary Baptist Church is a collection of rare pieces of memorabilia of "The Greatest Canadian", the late Tommy Douglas.

The museum celebrates the life of the name-sake of the T.C. Douglas Centre for the Performing Arts, and on Sunday, Oct. 19, Tommy Douglas Day will be celebrated with speakers, entertainment and refreshments, with the public event to get underway at 2 p.m. in the main auditorium.

The Douglas museum home was built onto the original church building, and is a hidden gem housing historic items related to Douglas's years as a Baptist minister, and as a politician, including serving as Premier of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1962, and as national leader of the New Democratic Party in Ottawa until 1979 when he left the House of Commons. Douglas died in 1986.

A community-based effort by a group of volunteers to save and preserve the church building where Douglas served as the minister from 1930 to 1935 - the only posting he ever held as a minister before he entered politics - began in 1983, when it was learned the building was going to be demolished.

"We got the building with the understanding that we would remove the basement and backfill it in," said Ron Wormsbecker, who was involved as the treasurer with the original committee which was organized to preserve the building and have it moved to a new permanent location on 10th Avenue South, immediately adjacent to Weyburn's historic water tower. Other key members of the committee to save the building included Harry-Jae Elder and Terry Hansen, among others.

In addition to redesigning the auditorium to include a stage with lighting and sound equipment, plus a basement area with a meeting room and a kitchen, a memorabilia room was set up with rare artifacts from Douglas' life.

The Centre, as a whole, "also has significance for the Weyburn community. There really isn't a church of this vintage being used anymore," said Wormsbecker, noting the Baptist church building was originally constructed following a typical prairie design in 1906.

The building was successfully relocated in March of 1985 to its current location on a hectare of land on Signal Hill, with fundraising efforts bringing in over $300,000 so the building could be preserved as part of Canada's heritage. The building was officially designated as a Municipal Heritage Property by the City of Weyburn in July of 1987.

In the memorabilia room, the layout of the museum was done by Robert Satre, and the black and glass cabinets for display were built by Ernie Olfert.

Many of the items in the room were donated by the Douglas family, such as his robes, a trowel he used for the start of the medical college at the University of Saskatchewan, and the actual Bible used to swear him in as the Premier of Saskatchewan in 1944.

Many other artifacts came from residents, friends and colleagues of Douglas, including photographs, pamphlets, books and posters, and a bust of Douglas donated by a law firm.

"It's an ongoing collection," said Wendy Sidloski, secretary on the board of the Tommy Douglas Centre. "People are still donating items to it. We get calls from people who have oddities and artifacts they would like to give to us."

The building was officially opened on Oct. 19, 1991, when Irma Douglas and granddaughter Rachel Sutherland was present to cut the ribbon. Also present at the opening was Eleanor McKinnon, who served as the private secretary to Douglas in the Legislature, and was a daughter of the McKinnon family of Weyburn, who owned and operated McKinnon's Department Store downtown (known today as MNP Place, and formerly as the Co-op department store).

The Sutherland-Douglas family made a gift to the centre in the form of a Steinway piano that is over 100 years old, and has been refurbished as part of its ongoing maintenance.

Since the opening, Douglas's daughter, Shirley Douglas, has been back to visit it, as has Rachel Sutherland, and when the bronze statue of Tommy Douglas was unveiled in 2010, Rachel's twin brother, well-known film and TV actor Kiefer Sutherland was on hand, and he visited the memorabilia room at the Tommy Douglas Centre as a part of his visit to Weyburn.

A celebration of Douglas's life and contributions to Saskatchewan and to Canada will be held with the Tommy Douglas Day event on Oct. 19, with keynote speaker Kim Thorson, who is the last surviving member of Douglas's cabinet as premier.

Thorson was first elected in a byelection in 1956 at the age of 24 years, and he served under Douglas in the riding of Souris-Estevan, while Douglas represented Weyburn and was the premier.

Thorson noted the campaign of 1960 "was a great campaign for medicare", but while Douglas was re-elected to power, he himself was not returned for the Estevan riding. "They didn't see fit to return me," he said.

Thorson indicated he will share some of his experiences in serving with Douglas, including the circumstances in Saskatchewan before and after his time as premier of Saskatchewan.

Sharing one story as he perused the memorabilia at the Douglas Centre, Thorson recalled one day when M.J. Coldwell, who was very involved with politics in Regina, drove down to Weyburn and dropped by to see Douglas at his home.

"Irma (Tommy's wife) came to the door, and he said, 'Is your father at home?'" said Thorson, chuckling, noting he had a similar experience in Estevan while working in his failed campaign in 1960.

Douglas served as premier until 1961, when he left provincial politics to become leader of the NDP in Ottawa. During his time in politics, Douglas and his administration were responsible for many innovative programs and policies, such as medicare and hospitalization, and rural electrification and establishment of Crown corporations.

Besides Thorson sharing his recollections, other residents will be invited to share any stories or memories from meeting or knowing Douglas, plus there will be youth entertainment, and refreshments provided in the basement; the memorabilia room will also be open for the public to go through and peruse.

In addition, there will be an announcement updating the public on the fundraising efforts to repair and maintain the Tommy Douglas Centre in a condition that will ensure it will continue to exist as a memorial for Tommy Douglas, and also as a community facility and venue for community theatre, recitals and music festivals, meetings, classes and workshops, banquets and weddings.

article continues below