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Tommy Douglas

Biography reminds readers of the link between faith and politics

By Bill Blaikie

Tommy Douglas
By Vincent Lam
(Penguin Group Canada) $26

A quarter of a century after the death of Tommy Douglas, and after a quarter century or more of a strong association between Christianity and right-wing politics in the public realm, author Vincent Lam has produced a timely and eminently readable biography of Douglas that reminds us of that earlier link between faith and politics called the “social gospel” that was so significant in definitively shaping Canada.

Lam, who penned the Giller-winning fiction work Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, is a physician, and so he quite rightly remarks that Douglas influenced him before he ever knew who he was, as Douglas’s best-known legacy, medicare, enabled Lam to practise medicine without having to also be a businessman. The struggle for medicare is well and sympathetically covered in the book, from the first hospitalization plan after victory in 1944, to the Saskatchewan doctors’ strike in 1962, a time of trial that would contribute to Douglas’s defeat that year when he sought a federal seat in Regina as the first leader of the recently formed New Democratic Party of Canada.

In recounting the story of other political battles, Lam is very good at connecting the future politician to the working-class youth. Douglas’s fight for medicare cannot be separated from almost losing his leg in childhood because his family could not afford an operation. His opposition to the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis had its origins in witnessing Bloody Saturday as a boy during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919.

The formative role of the poetry of Robert Burns in his early family life is also well explained. In the Douglas household, there was Scripture, and there was Burns, and the two combined to create an independent, principled but practical spirit that enabled Douglas to take on the world.

Whether it was going into politics because his church told him not to, smashing a water glass and threatening to carve up the first thug who reached him when a 1944 political rally was violently interrupted, or being an early critic of the Americans in Vietnam, the former youth boxing champion was not to be intimidated. Good thing. Otherwise our health-care system would be indistinguishable from the one to the south of us.

Rev. Bill Blaikie retires this month after 32 years in politics.

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