The “Dirty Thirties” did not come to an end in southwestern Saskatchewan until after World War II. From 1929 to 1945, drought and poverty conspired with few medical facilities and remoteness to create a medical backwater. In a study of the health status of the region conducted in 1945–46, Dr. Orville Hjertaas reported instances of children dying or lying bedridden because their parents could not afford medicines or simple surgical procedures, and that there was a shamefully high infant mortality rate. He found that doctors were almost as poor as everyone else, making do with payments in chickens and vegetables, and had an average cash income of $27 and a relief payment of $75 per month.
In 1944, the first CCF government led by Premier T.C. Douglas was elected on a platform which included the gradual establishment of publicly insured medical care. Some towns and municipalities in the province already had local health plans, but distribution was patchy.
The CCF government hired a number of internationally prominent health experts. Henry Sigerist proposed the long-term plan; but it was people such as Dr. Fred Mott, Drs. Cecil and Mindel Sheps, Dr. Len Rosenfeld, and Malcolm Taylor who developed a working operational plan and saw to its implementation. They quickly got legislation in place for a first regional public health demonstration area. Community leaders in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, led by the secretary of the Rural Municipality (RM) of Pittville, Bill Burak, were ready to try the experiment. RMs like Pittville and Webb had some experience running co-operative medical and hospital service plans along the lines of that designed by Matt Anderson of RM McKillop in 1939. Although the government had in mind a gradual approach, the committee which set up Swift Current Health Region #1 decided to provide a full range of services from the start. For under $20 a person ($15 per person plus 2.2 mills on the property tax), they organized a program that included doctor services, hospitalization, childrens’ dental care, and a professional public health service including nurses, immunization programs, and health inspectors. The district was run by the secretary-treasurer of RM Webb, Stewart Robertson. The doctors’ representative to the board was a young practitioner, Dr. Cas Wolan, who later became a renowned kidney transplant surgeon. The board was chaired by Carl Kjorven, a farmer from Pennant.
The Swift Current health plan began on July 1, 1946. The first medical officer of health was Dr. Arthur Peart. He was briefly succeeded by Dr. Lloyd Davey, and then in July 1948 Dr. Vincent Matthews became the third medical officer of health, staying on for nearly ten years. He was also the accounts assessor, and kept statistical records which ultimately proved the success of the experiment and later provided a great deal of evidence to the Hall Commission set up by the Canadian government to make recommendations about a national medicare program in 1961.
During those early years, there were many crises, but the number of doctors practising rose from nineteen in 1946 to thirty-six in 1948. The polio epidemic of 1947 nearly bankrupted the region, but it was saved by the timely establishment of provincial funding for hospitalization. There were also floods and outbreaks of food poisoning, and debates over whether the actions of two doctors who purchased X-ray equipment and prescribed its use constituted a conflict of interest (the decision was yes: thereafter, all diagnostic equipment was owned and operated by the hospitals). Robertson, Wolan and Matthews met informally for morning coffee to sort out problems as they appeared, and the board and doctors worked together to make improvements.
The Swift Current Health Region began the first universal hospital and medical care program in North America—two years ahead of the British Health Service. It probably also had the first regional childrens’ dental program in North America. As a result of the preventive and educational work of the nurses and improved access to doctors, the infant mortality rate dropped to the lowest in Saskatchewan. The Swift Current Health Region provided a functioning model to the Saskatchewan government while it was designing the provincial medicare system, introduced in 1962.
Those who remember the early days of the Swift Current Health Region credit a sound board and their positive collaboration with the doctors of the region for succeeding with Canada’s first and most ambitious experiment in medicare.