Tommy Douglas speaking at a New Democratic Party of Canada rally in Toronto, March 29, 1963. While Douglas was not the premier of Saskatchewan when Medicare came into effect in the province on July 1, 1962, he is credited as the father of single-payer, universal healthcare in Canada. (Photo: Boris Spremo/The Globe and Mail)

Topics: Justice | History

60 years ago, Canada’s health-care system began amid a storm of controversy

Saskatchewan's health minister at the time reportedly slept with a shotgun for fear of his life


I was a child of Medicare in Saskatchewan. My parents were poor farmers. My mother had long been suffering from an undiagnosed disease which turned out to be multiple sclerosis. My father told me later that in some years, they paid more on doctors’ bills than they earned on the farm.

In 1961, the provincial government announced a plan to have visits to the doctor paid from taxes rather than having individuals pay out of pocket. Most doctors were opposed. They said the government was turning them into civil servants and would interfere in their relationship with patients. Premier Tommy Douglas said the only thing to change would be the method of payment, with doctors billing the government, rather than patients, for services rendered.

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In July 1962, most of the province’s doctors went on strike for 23 days. There was bitter division over Medicare, with loud demonstrations and even calls for violence. Tensions ran high. William Davies was the health minister in 1962, and he told me in an interview years later that during the strike, he slept with a shotgun beside his bed.  Some people claimed that Medicare was communism. My parents thought that was ridiculous. They agreed with Douglas, who said that people had a right to medical care, whether or not they had the money to pay for it.

Dennis Gruending (right) with his parents and siblings, circa 1962. (Courtesy photo)

I was 14 years old in 1962, but the Medicare crisis has had a lasting impact upon me. Barely out of university in 1972, I agreed to write a history of the consumer-based community health clinic set up in Saskatoon to provide services during the strike. That booklet was on display in the waiting room for years. I also wrote biographies for two important players in Medicare, including one for Emmett Hall, the Supreme Court justice who led a Royal Commission into health care that recommended Medicare for the nation in 1964. In 1968, the Liberal government of Lester Pearson passed legislation to share costs with the provinces. Eventually, they all signed on.

Although he did not wear his religious faith on his sleeve, Hall was a committed Catholic layperson who took the church’s social teaching seriously. He was both a spiritual and a practical man. He believed that Medicare was the best way to deliver services equitably, and that it was the right thing to do.

Janet Sommerville, a former chair of the Canadian Council of Churches, has written, “The principles guiding our health-care system have an unmistakable affinity with the love of neighbour urged on us by God’s word in Scripture.” I agree.

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Medicare has served us well. There are, however, areas that demand urgent improvement. They include immediate action on hospital crowding as well as wait times for emergency room service and elective surgeries. They can and must be addressed, but we have generally good health care and it is available to everyone.

Both Hall and Douglas proposed that Medicare should eventually include publicly financed vision care, dental care, pharmacare and more. Douglas always said that rearranging the financing of health care so that everyone would have access to it was only the first step. The second was to reorganize the delivery of care to promote illness prevention, and to extend the plan beyond hospitals and physicians.

The political climate during the neo-conservative years of the 1980s and beyond did not allow for that. There have always been politicians and some think tanks who chafe under a system where the provision of health care is a public good rather than a private commodity. They want to move us to a profit-driven system. It is the enduring support of ordinary Canadians for Medicare which has prevented that from happening.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us how vulnerable we are as individuals, and how important our governments are when we need help and protection. For the first time in many years, we are on the verge of expanding into publicly financed dental and pharmacare. Hall and Douglas would approve.


Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and a former Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan.

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  • says:

    I have discovered that I am somewhat of a socialist at heart. If the members of government truly represent the people then their objective should be to try and do what's best for the people, even if some misinformed folks don't want it. Medical care is one of the most important aspects of our nation. It affects every one of us. I feel we need the gamut of care including dental care and pharma-care. Before any of us vote for a candidate we need answers as to how they envision Canada and Canadian society within the next twenty years and they should be questioned about their vision. We must take care of one another and fulfil Pierre Trudeau's hope for a "just" society.

  • says:

    There will always be those who try to shoot down a good idea if they think it will negatively affect their own interests. That's human nature. But Canadian Medicare has been a boon for Canadians since its inception. But we can do more. We need dental care and pharma-care. It's about time and it's the right thing to do. As well, as I see what's going on south of the border, our social programs need to be codified so they cannot be done away with at the whim of some future government.

  • says:

    So much for MD's opinions on government and people. Thank God they don't run the country. Things are bad enough as they are
    You know Tommy Douglas must be rolling continuously in his grave. We have made shit of the health care system he has bequeathed to us. When I was a kid you didn't get to see a doctor until you were at death's door. The health care system changed that at first. Now if you want to survive you pretty much have to pay yourself. Our health care system is a myth. In any case it's only as good as it's weakest link.

  • says:

    I can remember the bad old premedicare days when my family lived in terror of serious illness that might require a visit to the doctor or hospital. Tommy Douglas's government truly deserves praise for starting the publicly funded health care system in Canada.

    We not only need to expand medicare into hitherto unfunded health-related areas, but need to do more to ensure our fellow Canadians' physical and mental well-being.

    We should all be watchful when governments try to erode medicare and other social programs.Ray