Don't get sick! Those were the last words my grandfather said to me as I left Vancouver for the United States. It was 1964. Canada was in the process of implementing a universal health care system. I hadn't noticed, because I was young, healthy and restless.
Now, these many years later, as I witness the health care reform "debate," my grandfather's words have returned to haunt me. He had been a pioneer farmer in Saskatchewan on the Canadian prairies. That's where Canada's universal health care system was conceived during the hard years of the depression and its aftermath.
Medicare (Canada's health care plan) was largely the brainchild of a Baptist minister turned politician, T. C. (Tommy) Douglas. He and others founded a new party in Saskatchewan (which later became the New Democratic Party) based on "humanity before private interests." Universal health care was at the top of their agenda. By 1964, Saskatchewan implemented a health care plan that treated everyone according to their needs regardless of their ability to pay. Despite a doctor's strike that tried to kill it, the farmers - including my grandfather - made sure that this new health care plan survived. Then, just as now, there were those who thought it made total sense and others who thought it was a Communist conspiracy. However, it proved so popular in Saskatchewan that within a few years the federal government adopted it for the entire country. Imagine the audacity of this during a raging cold war. The year the plan went into effect was the year of the Cuban missile crisis.
In 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation conducted a poll to determine whom Canadians thought was the greatest Canadian of all time. It was not Pierre Trudeau, Joni Mitchell, Dan Aykroyd, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Lorne Michaels, Oscar Peterson, Peter Jennings, Celine Dion, Neil Young, Keanu Reeves, nor Wayne Gretzky. It wasn't even Keifer Sutherland or his dad, Donald. No, it was Keifer Sutherland's grandfather, Tommy Douglas, who is credited with making sure that Canadians would have universal, government-funded health care. When Canadians are periodically polled and asked what they are most proud of, in addition to peacekeeping, it is their national health care system.