T.C. Douglas the 'Greatest Canadian'



Tommy Douglas. Premier of Saskatchewan. Father of Medicare.

And now, the Greatest Canadian.

In a live special airing on Monday night, Tommy Douglas received the coveted title of "Greatest Canadian" as CBC counted down the Top 10 candidates in their national contest.

"Who would have thought it? A Prairie boy with fire in his belly, who went on to become the founder of medicare," said Greatest Canadian host Wendy Mesley, as she handed the "Canada Cup" to George Stroumboulopoulos, the former MuchMusic VJ who was Douglas' advocate.

"I feel like Tommy Douglas is getting the recognition he serves," Stroumboulopoulos said in response.

In Weyburn, a loud cheer went up amongst the 60 or so people who turned out to the T.C. Douglas Centre to watch the TV special. Many stood up in their seats and clapped, showing their support for the former Weyburn pastor.

"I never gave up hope. I was telling my wife just before that last draw, I said, 'It's going to be Tommy Douglas.' I had a lot of trust in him," said Russell Olson, who appeared in the documentary advocating Douglas that aired on Oct. 18.

"I'm thrilled, thrilled, thrilled," said Douglas supporter April Sampson. "Fabulous. It couldn't have been better."

Tommy Douglas, who was born in Scotland in 1904, pastored in Weyburn during the Depression before entering a life of politics as an MP for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Later, he became the leader of the provincial CCF and then premier of Saskatchewan in 1944.

During his years of service, Douglas enacted many social reforms and infrastructure improvements, such as rural electrification and the first Bill of Rights in North America. His most noted achievement was public health insurance, which he established in Saskatchewan amidst fierce controversy and opposition.

Though Lester B. Pearson's government enacted medicare on a national level, Douglas is credited with the title of "Father of Medicare" for starting it in Saskatchewan.

He died in 1986.

For those who knew the former premier, Douglas was clearly deserving of the title.

"He was here in the years of the dust bowl, the Dirty Thirties, and the people were really down and out. Saskatchewan was hurt the worst in the Depression. And Tommy gave them hope," said Glen Rasmussen, who campaigned for Douglas during two elections.

"He could talk to any man and anyone," said Rasmussen. "He had a great sense of humour. He could warm his crowd up with his jokes and he was a terrific storyteller."

Actor and writer John Nolan, who recently portrayed Douglas in the play "Arrows of Desire," was the host of the party in Weyburn.

Nolan chose Douglas as the inspiration for his play after setting out to find a "great Canadian." After researching many Canadian figures, he subjected them to a list of criteria and found that Douglas met them all, in areas such as legacy and determination in the face of opposition.

Nolan said he thought the sheer coincidence and timing of this contest, happening at roughly the same time as the world premiere of his play, was "unbelievable."

"It's like two things flying out of opposite ends of the universe and somehow coming together," he said.

Over 1.2 million votes were submitted by phone and by e-mail for the CBC's Greatest Canadian contest.

Though the final tally of votes for each candidate was not released, Douglas maintained the lead throughout the contest. His closest challenger was Marathon of Hope runner Terry Fox, who was second throughout most of the contest.

Bringing up third place was Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who climbed out of the bottom rankings after his documentary was aired last week.

The last chance to vote for any of the top 10 candidates was on Sunday night, when CBC-TV aired a live debate between the 10 advocates of the Top 10 candidates.

In his opening argument, Stroumboulopoulos said, "This one is going to be really simple. Tommy Douglas is the father of universal health care, the thing that Canadians consistently declare as our greatest national treasure. That alone makes him the Greatest Canadian, but it's that and so much more. "In fact, it's Tommy's values that became Canada's values. And when we choose to brag about our country, it's because of the things that Tommy gave us. My friends, Canada has great Canadians, and they built their rooms on the foundations of the Greatest Canadian: Tommy Douglas."

The final standings for the Greatest Canadian had Wayne Gretzky in last place, followed by Alexander Graham Bell, Sir John A. MacDonald, Don Cherry, Lester B. Pearson, David Suzuki, Sir Frederick Banting, Trudeau, Fox and Douglas.

To read more about Tommy Douglas, check out the Weyburn Review's website (www.weyburnreview.com) to read a short history of the former Premier, as well as an excerpt of the infamous "Mouseland" story.

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