CANADA DAY CELEBRATION: Gratitude, Potential and Problems (oh yeah, and the inimitable Tommy Douglas)

“Nothing can be quite so resentful as a man who has ridden on your back for fifty years, and then you make him get off and walk.”
—Tommy Douglas

Tommy also said:

“The time has come for us to break away from the old-line parties and to elect a government that will represent all those who, with hands and brains, produced the wealth of this country.”

How can a country not be something special when the man voted ‘The Greatest Canadian‘ just a few years ago—Tommy Douglas—said such a bold statement—and actually meant it?

See some very untrivial Tommy Douglas trivia at the bottom of the page.

Tommy Douglas, for the record, was the father-in-law of Donald Sutherland, and the grandfather of Kiefer Sutherland.


With my sister, her husband and two children visiting Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, on Canada Day (July 1st), and after my friend Tim yelling at me for not mentioning Easter on Easter, I must say, a day late, how incredibly fortunate I am to live in Canada.

Concerns for political and religious freedom, limiting (visible) pollution, clean water, education, civil rights, our health care system and so on, are all remarkably positive—troubles notwithstanding.

I say this with the caveat that I am not a big State person. Compassion before patriotism. Human before Canadian. Borders, boundaries and exclusions are, in all their complexity, challenging to my belief systems and my heart.

Still, citizenship in this world, depending on the country, and for better or worse, is often the difference between rights and virtually no rights. Just ask the average refugee.


But as I get older—and, yes, that is happening (I now comb over my back-hair to add thickness to my head hair. Just kidding—I actually use my relentless ear hair for that). Where was I? Yeah. The older I get, no matter where I have the good fortune of traveling to in this inconceivable world—where, to me, we are all brothers and sisters—the more grateful I am to come back to Canada.


That feeling is deepened when I get back to Vancouver. It is a highly privileged lifestyle for a considerable percentage of the population. At least it is for me. Canada, as far as countries go, is a great country, with much to praise.


I do not say that naively, I hope. Canada’s per capita energy consumption is a disgrace, and shows a lack of personal initiative and hopeless leadership. I have heard we are the largest consumers of energy, per capita, in the world. Not a good event in which to win the Gold Medal—and here we are awarded the shameful Bronze Medal, “an embarrassing 27th out of 29 OECD nations in terms of energy use per capita.” Alberta, with the environmentally disastrous tar-sands, has been said to consume two-and-a-half times the national average.


In Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside remains, for countless reasons, a social catastrophe. And the fact that something like 30% of the disenfranchised in the area are First Nations, indigenous, is also a disgrace.

Hopefully the Truth and Reconciliation Commission over the crime of Residential Schools will continue to help a healing of which we can all gain more compassion, pride and traction. A friend of mine who works with indigenous people seeking compensation, and also works on the commission, was very happy with the three people appointed to oversee the proceedings.

Further, a First Nations person is something like nine times more likely than the rest of the Canadian population to be incarcerated in Canada. Without being able to offer solutions, I can still say this is repugnant. There was a thoughtful film on one sliver of the topic put out by Hugh Brody this year.


Our present government’s policies towards drug addiction also remain abysmal, largely backwards and still in lock-step with America’s disastrous War on Drugs Policies. Former Minister of Health Tony Clements actually called Insite, the only supervised needle injection site in North America (there are around 50 in the world), “an abomination.”

Thick ignorance—and not even fiscally pragmatic.

One of the main and most inspiring concerns and goals of Insite (and decent human beings): harm reduction. It seems to me a country’s commitment to harm reduction—perhaps even more so in deeply disenfranchised communities—is a marker for that country’s enlightenment, compassion, sustainability and leadership.

The above mentioned are some of our weaknesses. There are more, to be sure. It’s not easy being human. But there is greatness here, and great potential—as there is everywhere.


And a mere glance at the Amnesty International magazine that comes every few months—and seeing true abominations in China and elsewhere with ten year jail sentences meted out over pro-democracy emails etc—reminds me to the core of my being the greatness (or at least sanity) of the Canadian government’s overall relative reluctance to use force against its citizens. This allows for the hope and brilliance of free speech, at least to a large degree (this freedom thanks to the efforts, over generations, of the people themselves, protesting on Canadian soil).

This freedom, earned by courageous people acting in solidarity, allows for the opportunity to have no excuse to not fight for increased social justice and freedom, here and everywhere.

And with freedom of speech, one can choose solidarity or division, all along the spectrum. One can choose love, and defending the vulnerable. How great is that? Think of the potential, even in a crazy world.

I am privileged to have grown up and live in Canada. I am grateful to be here. But at my best, my heart is with all sisters and brothers, everywhere.

Lots of love to you and yours, sisters and brothers, in solidarity. I encourage comments: agreements, disagreements and inspiring ideas and additions.


You have to check this fantastic audio recording from Tommy Douglas.


—Brought in North America’s first Medicare (universal health care in Saskatchewan). The mass of doctors, yes, the doctors in the province—backed up by the North American medical establishments—vilified Tommy, doing everything they could to stop its manifestation. Remember this! Showing no ability for working class moxy, the doctors abandoned their strike against universal health care after three weeks.

When Medicare passed in Saskatchewan in 1961/62—see also Emmett Matthew Hall—the rest of Canada wanted it too. A few years later, Medicare went national.

—Ushered in the first Bill of Rights (of its kind) in North America, outlawing discrimination for gender and race equality in Saskatchewan (1947), eighteen months before the United Nations! When he called for a national Bill of Rights in 1950, no one supported him.

—Balanced the budget for 17 straight years.

—Early and strongly outspoken opponent (1965) of the Vietnam War.

—Changed the liquor law to allow women to also drink in bars (Keifer, no!). Not bad for someone who was a Baptist minister before going into politics.

—Said a big fat “No” to Trudeau administering the War Measures Act (Martial Law) in 1970. In the day, this was very unpopular, but showed the measure of the man’s belief in civil liberties (geezuz, a socialist-libertarian).

—Basically brought paved roads, electricity and indoor toilets to rural Saskatchewan.

—Made employers guarantee employees a minimum of two weeks paid vacation every year.

—He brought in old-age pension.

—His Arts Board in Saskatchewan was a North American first.

And for all this he was accused of being a Bolshevik, etc etc, by the same ol’ fat cats…

Happy Canada Day!


Later in the day!

Wouldn’t you know it? After writing all of the above, I discovered an article on line from John Robson of the Western Standard talking about Tommy Douglas’ masters dissertation. Written in 1933, the paper is, evidently (I haven’t seen it), an ugly 33-page essay advocating eugenics—the sterilization of so-called “Subnormal” families (mentally disabled) to minimize the perpetuation of “morons” on society. In the paper, Robson says that Douglas also advocates physical and mental health certificates.

Eugenics was actually deeply popular at the time. Nonetheless, this is not pleasing or pretty.

Did Tommy have a change of heart afterwards and come to see the fascist nature of those ideas? I can’t say for sure, but all evidence seems to point that way. Tommy witnessed Hitler (a real pro-eugenics guy) in 1936 in Germany and called him a “mad dog.” He was also sure Hitler could not be appeased. Douglas pushed for war and offered to enlist himself.


In contrast, the Canadian Prime Minister in 1937 said upon meeting Hitler:

“He smiled very pleasantly, and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man and his country…his eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicated keen perception and profound sympathy (calm, composed)—and one could see how particularly humble folk would come to have a profound love for the man.”

Now that’s scary.


Once Premier of Saskatchewan, Douglas pushed for and achieved better care for institutionalized mental patients, universal health care [unheard of] and he produced in 1947 the first Bill of Rights in North America (even before the UN). The Bill outlawed discrimination due to race and/or gender. Tommy also advocated workers rights, equalized gender drinking rights, brought in old-age pension and on and on.

Although not knowing the deepest thoughts of Tommy’s heart, he seems by his actions to be a profound and progressive champion of human rights, inspiring, indefatigable and utterly trend-setting for the time.


I don’t know, but I feel that John Robson has perhaps a political bone to pick. My guess is he is repulsed by the social democrat ideal. I could be wrong. Either way, Tommy’s life remains remarkable.


It should also be noted that in 1928, five years before Tommy’s dissertation, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta actually enacted the Sexual Sterilization Act, the objective being to prevent mentally disabled persons from producing off-spring.

In short, at the time, Tommy’s dissertation was not even particularly radical. On the other hand, his 1947 Bill of Rights and his 1962 Universal Health Care Plan were downright incendiary, futuristic and ushered in social revolutions.

I do agree with Robson that it is interesting that the dissertation is rarely if ever brought up by Douglas’ supporters.

I guess that’s human nature (curable, perhaps, by eugenics).

But perhaps as Robson himself said in his article, paraphrasing, Douglas is barely known, anyway.


In 1883, Sir Francis Galton, inspired by his half-cousin Charles Darwin, coined the term. The popularity of eugenics in the early part of the century is fascinating and disconcerting. It was commonly taught in universities at the time, and according to Wikipedia:

“From its inception eugenics was supported by prominent people, [of wildly differing ideologies] including Margaret Sanger [birth control advocate], Marie Stopes [birth control advocate], H. G. Wells [science fiction writer], Woodrow Wilson [Democrat president], Theodore Roosevelt [Republican president], Emile Zola [French writer], George Bernard Shaw [vegetarian playwright], John Maynard Keynes [bail-out economist], John Harvey Kellogg [prudish doctor and cereal-namer], Winston Churchill [colonizer and mostly conservative British war-hero], Linus Pauling [scientist and Vitamin C guy] and Sidney Webb [can’t remember].”

Hitler [bad person], of course, is the most famous proponent—and executer. In Sweden, evidently, a eugenics program was continued until 1975.

The wonderful GK Chesterton [fat, witty and insightful] was an early opponent.

And that’s it. Love ya!



2 Responses to “CANADA DAY CELEBRATION: Gratitude, Potential and Problems (oh yeah, and the inimitable Tommy Douglas)”

  1. Karen says:

    Hi Pete,
    I, too, am always grateful to come home again after traveling. I think partly it’s simple familiarity, but home is home. I’m proud to live in the United States and understand what a stroke of luck it was that allowed me to be born into such ideal circumstance. Yes, the United States has been vilified often, especially in the last eight years, not just by the global community, but by its own citizens. And that’s what makes all democracies great—its citizens can vilify it all they want. I have a relative in Ukraine who, while that country was still under the Soviet Union, cried when he learned it was true that in the United States one could criticize the government without fear of retaliation. The concept that there are places where one can speak freely was almost inconceivable to him. It’s a right so many take for granted, not just in the United States and Canada, but in other free nations as well. A right we should cherish and protect.

    Folks often overlook the similarities between the history of Canada and the United States, and there are perhaps more than either country would like to admit. A shoreline is a shoreline, and in the very early days, there was no border; it was simply a “New World.” The same waves of immigration that shaped the United States shaped Canada. If you couldn’t get in here, you tried there and vis versa. There are still families separated by the border but close enough to visit. And Canada is guilty of many of the same sins as America: slaves, wrongs committed against indigenous peoples, discrimination against different races and ethnic groups as they arrived on these shores. Canada is as much a melting pot as the United States, with all the conflict and strength that brings.

    Energy consumption in both countries is a disgrace (how long has your computer been on?), but pales in comparison with countries in the Middle East and Iceland…oh, and Vegas.

    One bright spot is that the Obama Administration is making changes, albeit some very quietly. For example, it declared America’s War on Drugs a failure and is working on a new approach, hinting at changes that will directly affect incarceration rates. The environment is again being taken seriously and local/smaller farming operations are being better supported. But all change takes time and at least change has made it to the agenda.

    Another parallel: the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada (in that order) are the most charitable countries in the world. Perhaps the citizens of our countries do understand just how fortunate we are and in times of disaster quickly put our differences aside and rally to the aid of those in need.

    But no matter how precisely a government is defined on paper, governments are attended to by humans, with all our human strengths and frailties. Balancing the all too human desire for power (which money often translates to) and the altruistic attributes humans have is always a difficult task. There will always be bias, favoritism, and greed. Absolute power does indeed tend to corrupt absolutely. We all too imperfect humans can never create a perfect government, but the intrinsic good in people (because I believe most folks are good) usually rights the ship before it capsizes.

    Last, don’t be so hard on Mr. Douglas. He would have been 29 when he delivered his masters dissertation. Eugenics was indeed a very popular concept at the time—which in many parts of the United States took on a decidedly scary racist tone—and a sure-fire successful dissertation is often based on defending a popular political/social/academic theory.

    And remember being 29? We thought we had it all figured out—I mean we were almost 30! Now, as we get older (cause I’ve noticed that’s happening to me too! What IS the deal?), we look back and realize we had almost no clue at 29.

    I give Mr. Douglas credit to have put his beliefs in writing only to reflect on his own words and perhaps see his beliefs in a different light. Anyone can get stuck in the rut of blindly defending their beliefs. It takes a much bigger person to admit their error by their words, but especially by their actions.

    Hope all had a great holiday weekend that we are free to celebrate at all!

    Love to you and all those you love,

  2. As always, dear Karen, great thoughts and comments.

    And I hope you didn’t think I was being too hard on Tommy. As we both say, eugenics was definitely ‘popular’ in the day, at least for those not threatened by it, for the love of god. And I remain a big fan of Tommy, and inspired by his progressive foresight, and agree with you entirely that for someone to be able to have caused no damage with some dissertation at 29, and then to change his tune by his actions, profoundly, relentlessly, with great courage, is simply a wonderful, humbling and inspiring thing.

    Indeed, 29. I remain in a deep mystery about what is going on and what it all means at my tender age of 44. Gratitude, humility, compassion, love, hope!

    It was so lovely to have met you and yours in DC! Facing Ali is on a billboard in Times Square, I heard today. I have a picture. Whether it is Times Square, I don’t know, but I will post it if I figure out how!

    Lots of love,


    PS: Generally, in terms of melting pot, whether true or not I don’t know, America is thought to be a full on melting pot (as are we in many ways), but given our laws on behalf of the French language, which by association spills into other areas, Canada is often considered more a multi-cultural society as opposed to a full on melting pot. We are indeed both, though, and perhaps it’s semantics.

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