Second opinion

Origins of socialized medicine in Canada run deeper than Douglas


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Tommy Douglas is thought of as the father of medicare, but the push for socialized medicine began far earlier than its enactment in Saskatchewan in 1962.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/08/2019 (1380 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tommy Douglas is thought of as the father of medicare, but the push for socialized medicine began far earlier than its enactment in Saskatchewan in 1962.

In her latest book, Radical Medicine: The International Origins of Socialized Health Care in Canada, Esyllt W. Jones illuminates the ideological and social underpinnings of medicare. It’s an absorbing explanation and a contemporary analysis, acknowledging the shortcomings of people considered visionary and inclusive at the time.

Jones, a professor of history at the University of Manitoba and a prolific writer about Winnipeg’s early history, became interested in the topic when she researched her book Influenza 1918: Disease, Death and Struggle in Winnipeg, a study of how the immigrant populations were ravaged by the Spanish flu after the First World War. Poverty and substandard housing created conditions that left nearly 1,000 dead in a matter of weeks.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Winnipeg author Esyllt W. Jones became interested in the history of socialized medicine after doing research for a book on the Spanish flu.

The push for disease prevention and better health care in Europe and North America was spurred by the Russian Revolution and the dream of building a society to serve the needs of the people. The Soviet model was the polyclinic, a facility which addressed nutrition, vaccinations, healthy housing and safe working conditions, as well as medical care. In the 1920s and ’30s, advocates of social medicine toured the Soviet Union, including Dr. Norman Bethune, who later developed the portable blood transfusion unit in the Spanish Civil War, and Dr. Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin.

Visitors’ conclusions were coloured by political leanings or softened by hopes, but all saw a sociological approach to health care was the key to a happier, more productive society.

Jones compares various forms of community medicine in England at the same time, some of which prescribed building libraries and green spaces to add quality and beauty to the lives of working people.

In Canada, proponents included many people from the left, among whom were a significant number with Jewish backgrounds, whose families had experienced poverty and discrimination in Eastern Europe. Their disproportionate participation mirrored their parents’ political activism. The first generation educated in Canada, “motivated by a belief that government could do good in the lives of ordinary people,” they forged ahead despite anti-Semitism they encountered both from government and within the ranks of progressive circles.

A notable activist was Dr. Mindel Cherniak Sheps, a female Jewish physician who fought gender discrimination, too. In Radical Medicine Jones admits she “fell quite in love” with the brilliant, tireless Sheps. At age 31, Sheps had already made her name in public health, and pressed for equal pay for female teachers as a school trustee in Winnipeg. In 1944, Douglas recruited her to plan socialized medicine in Saskatchewan. She criss-crossed the largely rural province, consulting with communities to do “public good,” against concerted opposition from some in the medical field.

Jones points out that “the movement was not without its oversights, silences, mistakes, bigotry.” Headed by Swiss medical historian Henry Sigerist, the commissioners held “racialized and colonialist” views of Indigenous people, with Sigerist writing, “Ill health of the Indians is a menace to the health the white population since the two races mix freely.”

Jones’s accessible style and thorough analysis shows how universal health care became integral to the character of our country after it was adopted countrywide in the 1960s.

Notwithstanding its social value, health care is always starved for money. While we grumble about wait times and access to services, we should remember that no one leaves the doctor’s office or the hospital worrying about where they’ll find the cash to pay for services rendered. Jones gives us the history as a guide to making it work better.

Harriet Zaidman is a children’s writer and freelancer in Winnipeg. Her middle-grade novel, City on Strike, is set during the 1919 General Strike.

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