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Tommy Douglas biography tells 'kind half' of his story

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Tommy Douglas

Extraordinary Canadians

By Vincent Lam

Penguin Canada, 235 pages, $26

Tommy Douglas, the preacher-politician most associated with creating the health-care system of which Canadians are so proud, is alive in many ways 25 years after his death.

At home, the federal government is battling to keep secret its 1,000-page dossier on the former Saskatchewan premier and member of Parliament, on whom it spied for much of his half-century in public life.

In the United States, the hysterical and fruitless debate over modernizing health care resounds with the same accusations of state control and communism that opponents hurled falsely and unsuccessfully at Douglas from the 1940s until his ideas became mainstream in the 1970s.

On television, Douglas's grandson Kiefer Sutherland saves the world weekly as tough guy Jack Bauer on 24.

Douglas, whom the CBC selected as the "Greatest Canadian" in 2004, is a natural subject for one of the final three entries in Penguin Canada's readable Extraordinary Canadians series, short biographies of people whose ideas and actions helped to create our nation.

In total, 18 titles have been released since 2008. The other final two titles are former prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and hockey legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard.

For the Douglas biography, the choice of author Vincent Lam, a Toronto medical doctor whose book of stories Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures won the 2006 Giller Prize for fiction, emphasizes Douglas's central role in establishing medicare.

Lam's generous account frequently veers toward hagiography. Douglas's humour and high expectations arouse the best instincts of his colleagues; the comforts of Ottawa do not diminish his crusading energy.

He was a socialist idealist but not an ideologue, Lam argues. The book's thesis is that Douglas's many achievements grew out of his practicality.

The few unspecified mistakes of the left-wing Saskatchewan government that he led from 1944 to 1961 can mostly be blamed on excessive enthusiasm, Lam believes.

The book's epigram quotes Douglas telling his daughter Shirley in 1951: "My dream is for people around the world to look up and to see Canada like a little jewel sitting at the top of the continent."

This blend of self-assurance and modesty is reflected in the titles of several chapters: Practical Christian, Boy Preacher, Reluctant Candidate.

The book does include a handful of telling details such as the ulcer-plagued Douglas giving up his diet of raisin pie and coffee for poached eggs and milk.

Lam occasionally employs techniques suitable for fiction but dubious in biography. For example, he describes bullets whistling past a teenage Tommy and his friends observing the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike: Doubtful, since they were watching the action in the streets from a roof.

As an aging politician, Douglas listens to nighttime boxing broadcasts while shadow-boxing in the dark. What shadows was he seeing?

Another flaw is an anachronism.

Lam quotes several politicians praising Douglas's speeches as a rookie MP in 1935. "We all went, because we always learned something," says Lincoln Alexander, a Tory.

The problem is that Alexander did not become an MP until 1968.

This biography focuses on the creation of medicare in Saskatchewan, the lasting achievement of Douglas's political career. It does not linger on the premier's controversial importing of strikebreaking doctors in 1962 in order to break the opposition of physicians, big business and the news media.

Lam draws a clear arc of Douglas's life. His beliefs sprang from his working-class birth in Scotland in 1904 and his family's immigration to Winnipeg, where he witnessed the bloody class warfare of the General Strike and where he experienced the worst and the best of medical care after a serious leg injury.

He became a Baptist minister, devoting himself to the social gospel that teaches that humans should work together to create the brotherhood of man rather than postpone their gratification for an uncertain celestial future.

He helped found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation that became the New Democratic Party.

Later, as a member of Parliament, he witnessed Liberal and Conservative governments claiming credit for adopting many of his party's long-held principles.

Lam deals with Douglas's most controversial view, an advocacy of eugenics that was not uncommon in the 1930s, in a mere three paragraphs. In his master's thesis, The Problems of the Subnormal Family, Douglas argued for sterilizing the "mentally defective and incurably diseased."

Such notions are abhorrent in today's Canada and eugenics has no scientific basis, Lam makes clear.

But he argues that Douglas was simply imagining a better world. In office, the practical politician repudiated those views.

Contrast this brief nod with historian Charlotte Gray's much fuller and more critical treatment of pioneering suffragist Nellie McClung's similar views in her biography in the same series.

Perhaps Lam is emulating a trait that he admires in Douglas: "Unfailingly, he told the kind half of every story."

Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College and writes the Information Tsunami blog at

Here are all 18 biographies released since 2008 in Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series:

Big Bear, by Rudy Wiebe

Lord Beaverbrook, by David Adams Richards

Norman Bethune, by Adrienne Clarkson

Emily Carr, by Lewis DeSoto

Tommy Douglas, by Vincent Lam

Glenn Gould, by Mark Kingwell

Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin by John Ralston Saul

Wilfrid Laurier, by André Pratte

Stephen Leacock, by Margaret MacMillan

René Lévesque, by Daniel Poliquin

Nellie McClung, by Charlotte Gray

Marshall McLuhan, by Douglas Coupland

L.M. Montgomery, by Jane Urquhart

Lester B. Pearson, by Andrew Cohen

Maurice Richard, by Charles Foran

Mordecai Richler, by M.G. Vassanji

Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, by Joseph Boyden

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, by Nino Ricci

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2011 J10

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