Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas

Brent Decker
Norm Quan Bursary Winner

Thomas Clement Douglas, better known as Tommy Douglas, was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1904. The Douglas family immigrated to Canada in 1910, but returned to Scotland in 1914 due to Tommyís father enlisting in the war effort. Five years later (1919) Tommyís family returned to Canada.

Tommy had made the most of his younger years. He had belonged to a successful debating team, who had even posted a victory over an Oxford University Debating team. While living in Brandon, Manitoba, Tommy took up boxing and was the light heavy weight champion of Manitoba twice. He also took public speaking courses, and eventually became a lay preacher. He was definitely a well rounded individual before enrolling at Brandon College in 1924.

T.C. Douglas received his BA from Brandon Collage in 1930. That year he married Irma Dempsey. Tommy was also ordained at the Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan that same year. It was in Weyburn where Thomas C. Douglas began getting involved in politics.

With the depression government aid simply was not enough to get by on. Tommy did not sit back and watch, he played an active role in forming the Weyburn Association of Independent Labour Party, also known as the ILP. The ILP soon joined the United Farmers of Canada. These two groups together were known as the Farmer-Labour Party. At the 1932 Calgary convention, which the Farmer-Labour Party was active in, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (or the C.C.F.) party was born.

In 1933 Douglas received his MA in sociology from McMaster University. The following year Tommy was defeated when running in the provincial election for the C.C.F. party. This loss was a sharp set back for Douglas because had been confident in himself. Tommy worked really hard to expose himself and his party. "I went around to the little schoolhouses, talking like a professor, explaining our platform. We were lucky if the collection gave us enough for gas to get to the next place."l

Tommy vowed to never run again in politics after the 1934 provincial election defeat. He planned to go back to the church and work on his Ph.D. However, two things happened to change his mind. First, Tommy had the support of his church congregation, but maybe even more importantly the superintendent of his church threatened to end Tommyís preaching ministry had he not agreed to run in the 1935 federal election. The superintendentís exact words were, "If you donít leave it, and if you donít stay out of politics, youíll never get another church in Canada, and Iíll see to it. The board has given me authority."2

Within twenty four hours of the superintendentís threat Tommy Douglas made it known that he would run in the federal election as a member of the C.C.F. It was a turbulent summer for Douglas as it was the summer of the the shameful riot of July 1,1935. The riot occurred when unemployed trekkers (poor people who wandered the plains Ďon the railsí looking for work or a meal to survive) were attacked by the RCMP at a peaceful meeting in Regina. At that moment Tommy decided to hit the electorate between the eyes, and went on the campaign trail.

In 1935 Tommy became MP for the Weyburn constituency. While in Ottawa Tommy faced a government that considered the prairies and talk of drought nothing but a yawn. It seemed Ottawa was more concerned with French being printed on Canadian currency. Tommy felt this was trivial and irrelevant. After all people across the prairies were starving and would be willing to accept money in any language. I believe this drove Douglas to an incredible pace that he maintained despite bouts with ulcers. Economic problems, basic to the survival of Canadianís every day lives, was the most important issue in Tommyís mind. During the Depression the first thing Tommy thought about was to have the people working so they had enough food and clothing. Douglas had never forgotten his years as a minister in Southern Saskatchewan and all the transient young men that came to their door. "We never turned anybody down I still almost weep. Some poor soul always lined up - oh gosh, they never stopped coming. Iíll never forget that period."3 Tommy was re-elected as the MP for Weyburn again in 1940.

Douglas was a man who was concerned about every Canadian, rich or poor. He pushed to have everyone treated equally. He was a compassionate man who did everything in his power to be fair to all Canadians. He wanted this country to ensure every one of a job, especially those who were going to war for Canada. This is what Tommy had to say at a debate May 23,1940, when Canada was sending their men to war. "One year ago men could be seen riding the rods on freight trains across Canada. Today hundreds are in His Majestyís uniform. Most of us know some of these young men personally. Theses men are going to fight for a society that could not even give them a job. What do we propose to do with them when they come back on the rods? God forbid."4

By 1941 Tommy Douglas became President of the Saskatchewan C.C.F. He continued fighting for what he thought was right, but soon would enter an exciting new faze of his political career. In 1944 the C.C.F. allowed him to make a bid for premiership of Saskatchewan. That same year Douglas became the first C.C.F. premiere in Saskatchewan.

The C.C. F. during the election concentrated on assuring farmers that they would never have to worry about being evicted from their farms. During the campaign Tommy went as far as to say that the C.C.F. party would resign if even just one farmer was evicted from his land. Tommy did not try to be anything that he wasnít. He knew very little about the day-to-day operations of a farm, but he did not try to pretend he knew it all. Douglas was not going to try to lie to the farmers, thatís why the farmers trusted Douglas and stood behind him at the poles. The C.C. F took forty-seven of fifty- two seats in the Legislature, and the party had an impressive fifty-three percent of the popular vote. This would turn out to only be the tip of the iceberg. Douglasís reign of power lasted until 1961, and many steps forward were made by himself and his party.

Tommy was able to keep the promises he made during the elections. For example, Tommy promised to, and did, increase old age pensions. In addition to this he removed claims against estates under two thousand dollars and caveats from property for seniors. Another accomplishment that Tommy was able to achieve was to reduce the provincial debt in excess of seventy-two million dollars, while farmers were able to reduce their own personal debts. The C.C.F ensured security of Saskatchewan residenceís, both rural and urban. To be more specific farm families were protected against eviction under mortgage from the home quarter, while city families obtained protection from the mediation board.

During the C.C.F years forty-five large school units were formed. Each school unit received grants (some poorer districts had their grants increased by one million dollars). Some school unit budgets were subsidized by up to seventy-five percent by the government. For the first eight grades of school, text books were provided and many children were assisted so they could attend high school. Tommy Douglas believed in equal education opportunities for everyone. He told the tax payers that he would give all the children a fair shot at a good education, and he definitely kept that promise.

In his time as premier Douglas increased the Mothersí Allowance as well as providing a large share of maternity costs, and disabled fathersí were eligible for grants. Tommy also encouraged the Cooperative movement, and itís growth was substantial during Douglasís reign. A department was formed in the C.C.F. government which assisted Coop development. In three years of power the Saskatchewan Coops increased by 197 new organizations and 180,000 new members.

Tommy Douglasís C.C. F. government revised the Saskatchewan Elections Act to extend the vote to all Indians. Even though Douglas had legislated the Bill of Rights in 1946, which prohibited discrimination on grounds of race, color, or creed (considered the most advanced legislation of its time) Tommy always felt the darkest problem he faced in his political career was the degradation of the Indian people of Saskatchewan. Douglas knew that no real solution was possible without the help of the federal government to solve the Indian problem. "The practical, obvious solution to Douglas (as it was to Trudeau 20 years later) was to do away with the reserves and the degradation that went with Ďwardshipí and integrate the Indians with all speed into Canadian society."5 Besides the right to vote Douglas gave the Saskatchewan Indians the right to drink liquor like white people. This met with misgivings with the general public as well as many older natives. However, Tommy would always fall back on the broad truth that there has to be the same laws and rights for all people.

During Douglasís almost 18 years of power in Saskatchewan nothing was as controversial or provoked such bitter feelings as free health care to the citizens of Saskatchewan. Douglas was determined to have every person in this province treated equally in every way including health care. The Collage of Physicians and Surgeons took the stand that government invasion of personal health services was trespassing on the rights and freedoms of patient and doctor. They felt that government interference would inevitably lead to a decline in the quality of medical care in Saskatchewan. However, Douglas and his party would not let up. In the end free health care, free treatment of cancer, tuberculosis, polio, venereal disease, and mental illness were obtained. In 1961 the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act was made law. This kind of health care plan separated Canada from other countries then and continues to be one of this countries best attributes.

Tommy Douglas had great concern for the welfare of industrial workers and the labour movement in this province. He supported, and worked hard on behalf of organized labour and the trade union movement. At the 1944 session the C.C.F. government of Saskatchewan passed the most advanced labour code in Canada - the right of collective bargaining. This bill got an irate reaction from business groups. They felt it was forced upon them, and that Saskatchewanís labour population was too small, and did not need (or deserve) the Trade Union Act. Along with this Act the C.C.F. guaranteed two weeks holiday with pay per year of employment. This also included part-time workers who accumulated work credits at the same ratio. This bill met with opposition, but at the same time Saskatchewan workers were far ahead of any other Canadian employees.

In 1961 Douglas resigned from provincial politics. The C.C.F. was over, and replaced by the New Democratic Party, which Douglas was the chosen leader. In 1962 Douglas was defeated in the Regina constituency in the federal election, however Tommy was elected in a by-election in Burnaby/Coquitlam. He was re- elected in Burnaby/Coquitlam in both 1963 and 1965. In 1968 Tommy Douglas was defeated in the federal election, but was elected in a by-election again, this time in Nanaimo/Cowichan Islands. Douglas resigned as the leader of the NDP in 1971, but was appointed the energy critic for the NDP. He was re-elected in the Nanaimo/Cowichan Islands area in 1972 and 1974. Finally Douglas decided to step down from politics, and did not seek re-election in 1976.

Although Tommy Douglas was in politics many years after his reign as premier of Saskatchewan, I believe his most memorable and important work was done as a premier. The labour movement and introduction to Medicare are two of the most important thing this country has. Every country in the world is envious of Canada, and Tommy Douglasís work is a big reason why. Tommyís compassion, intelligence, charisma, and hard work played a large role in shaping Canada the way it is today. Canada, on a global scale, is known as a kind, caring, generous country, and I can not think of a better ambassador of our country than Thomas Clement Douglas. Tommy died in Ottawa on February 24th, 1986. A bust of Thomas Clement Douglas will be placed in the legislatureís rotunda in time for the millennium celebration.


1 Shackleton Doris,Tommy Douglas, McClelland and Stewart, 1975, p.68

2 Lewis, The Making of a Socialist University of Alberta Press, 1982, p.80

3 Shackleton Doris Tommy Douglas, McClelland and Stewart, 1975, p.49

4 Tyre Robert, DOUGLAS in Saskatchewan, Mitchell Press, 1962, p.71

5 Shackleton Doris Tommy Douglas, McClelland and Stewart, 1975, P.204


Lovick L., Tommy Douglas Speaks, Oolichan Books, 1979.

Shackleton Doris, Tommy Douglas, McCIelland and Stewart, 1975.

Spafford Duff and Ward Norman, Politics in Saskatchewan, Longmans Canada Limited, 1968.

Thomas Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, University of Alberta Press, 1982


Tyre Robert, Douglas in Saskatchewan, Mitchell Press Limited, 1962.

Whelan Ed, Touched by Tommy, Whelan Publications, 1990.

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