Premier and national party leader Tommy Douglas was Saskatchewan's most notable and influential politician. He led the CCF to victory in 1944 and led an administration that transformed the role of government in Saskatchewan and across the country.
Douglas was born in Falkirk, Scotland, on October 20, 1904, and grew up in a working-class family. The Scottish Independent Labour Party had heavily influenced his father Tom, and that set the tone for Douglas' political education. Douglas moved with his family to Winnipeg in 1910. At the time, Winnipeg was the centre of a strong working class and social gospel movement. He became active in the Labour party and by the early 1920s decided to devote his life to social reform through Christian ministry. He attended Brandon College in 1924, a training ground for Baptist ministers, and started his first ministry in 1927. In 1929, he accepted a full-time ministry at Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn. While preaching, Douglas finished his BA in 1930 and MA from McMaster by correspondence in 1933. He began a doctorate at the University of Chicago but failed to complete all the requirements, preferring to remain ministering in Weyburn.
For Douglas, religion was closely connected with politics. He believed the best way to serve God was to create a better, more just society. He founded a branch of the Independent Labour Party in Weyburn and was active in the formation of the CCF. In 1934, he unsuccessfully ran in the provincial election. Douglas tried again in 1935, running in the federal riding of Weyburn, and was narrowly elected.
One of seven CCF MPs in the House of Commons, Douglas soon established himself as potent weapon for the party through his oratorical and debating skills. After his re-election in 1940, many Saskatchewan CCF activists called for Douglas to return to provincial politics and lead the provincial CCF. The local party was embroiled in internal strife as party leader George Williams' style alienated him from a large section of the party. Douglas challenged Williams for the party presidency in 1941 and won. A year later he won the party leadership over Williams' supporter, MLA John H. Brockelbank.
After becoming leader, Douglas set about toppling the Liberal government. Party membership expanded and the CCF became more organized. In 1944, Douglas swept the province, winning 47 of 53 seats and capturing over 53% of the vote. During the first term of the government, Douglas put forward an ambitious program of reform. Labour standards were greatly improved, the educational system was consolidated, legislation was introduced to expand the co-operative sector of the economy and bills were enacted to protect farmers from foreclosure. The government established many social welfare programs and began to set the foundation of socialized medicare. The CCF began to play a larger role in the economy through a number of business ventures such as a shoe factory, a box factory, and a brick plant. These ventures attracted a great deal of opposition, and after 1948 the government largely retreated from non-utility business ventures.
The Douglas government was re-elected four times in 1948, 1952, 1956, and 1960. It was largely responsible for the modernization of Saskatchewan by using Crown Corporations to expand electricity and telephone service throughout the province, using natural gas as a heating source, and expanding the province's highway system.
Douglas' contribution was most significant in the field of health care. The government provided a province-wide hospitalization program in 1947, established a medical school at the University of Saskatchewan, and increased the mental health budget. After contesting the 1960 general election on the issue of universal state-run health insurance, Douglas began to set up the parameters of the Medicare system. After a heated consultation process and substantial opposition from the doctors, Douglas moved the Medicare legislation into the Legislature. However, Douglas never saw the legisla
In 1961, Douglas returned to the federal arena to lead the New Democratic Party, which had been created after the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress entered into a political alliance. Douglas first ran for the party in 1962 in the riding of Regina City but, facing the brunt of the doctors' strike over the Medicare issue, he lost. He subsequently won a by-election in the British Columbia riding of Burnaby-Coquitlam and returned to the House of Commons. Douglas continued to lead the federal NDP but would never again represent a Saskatchewan riding. He was re-elected in 1963 and 1965 in Burnaby and, after defeat in 1968, he ran in Nanaimo and won in 1969, 1972, and 1974. In 1972 Douglas resigned as NDP leader, but continued to be a prominent party spokesman until he retired from politics in 1979. On February 24, 1986, Douglas died in Ottawa.