Mothers of Medicare in Canada

Vi & Jack - sod shackMedicare is Canada’s most popular social program and various men have been identified as its progenitor including T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, Emmett Hall, and Paul Martin Sr. Although the charismatic Douglas is most frequently cited as the “father of medicare” in Canada, he did not see himself as a lone heroic man. He was fully aware of the many women and men who made critical contributions. Canadian medicare, which originated in Saskatchewan, came into being as the offspring of both female and male activists. The popular myth of a solitary hero needs to be balanced by focusing on medicare’s maternal forebears. Farm women were at the heart of the movement for accessible health care services.

The social movement that resulted in the establishment of medicare in Saskatchewan began in 1915 when Violet McNaughton and the Women Grain Growers (WGG) launched a campaign for “medical aid within the reach of all.” (See Taylor, “Violet McNaughton” on this site.) Saskatchewan had very high rates of birth and maternal and infant mortality. McNaughton and others in the WGG were very concerned about thousands of white settler mothers who were giving birth without trained mid-wives, nurses, doctors, or hospital care.

McNaughton knew firsthand about the medical shortcomings in the rural areas of the province. In 1911 she had an emergency hysterectomy after a long trip to a Saskatoon hospital 60 miles from her family’s homesteads. Although she was dangerously ill, her husband could only afford one visit during her two months in the hospital. This experience and post-operative damage were “burned” into her psyche. She understood that thousands of farm women faced conditions that were often worse and many died or had damage from childbirth. McNaughton and the WGG were determined to relieve “the sufferings of our prairie mothers.” (McNaughton, “Our Welfare Page,” 1916.)

To push the government into taking action McNaughton toured the province in 1916 speaking to the 15 district conventions of Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association (SGGA) and the provincial conventions of both the SGGA and the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, the province’s two most powerful organizations. She convinced them to advocate “medical aid within the reach of all.” Therefore, in 1916 and 1917 the provincial government passed legislation enabling local governments to levy taxes for municipal nurses and doctors and to establish union hospitals for three or more neighbouring municipalities.

Many farm women belonged to the Homemakers’ Clubs sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan. It did not allow the Clubs to engage in political work that might antagonize the provincial government. However, once the legislation passed, McNaughton persuaded them to work with the WGG and other activists in local campaigns for the plebiscites that enabled municipalities to levy taxes to hire municipal nurses, to sign employment contracts with doctors, and to build union hospitals. At first these local campaigns were painstaking slow, but the number of successful local campaigns increased when the militant United Farmers of Canada, Saskatchewan Section (UFC) replaced the old SGGA and the Farmer’s Union in 1926. Annie Hollis, a democratic socialist who worked closely with McNaughton from 1917 onward, was the first Woman President of the UFC and an adamant supporter of better health care services.

In 1925 McNaughton, a suffragist and an agrarian feminist, became the women’s editor of The Western Producer, the most widely read farm paper in the West. (See Taylor, “Valentine’s Day 1916” on this site.) For 35 years she used its pages to promote better healthcare services and other causes. Saskatchewan farm women were active in the SGGA and the WGG from 1914 to 1926, the UFC from 1926 to 1949, the Saskatchewan Farmers Union (SFU) from 1949 to 1969, and the National Farmers Union (NFU) from 1969 onward. Women in these groups, such as Zoa Haight, Sophia Dixon, Elsie Hart, Annie Hollis, Louise Lucas, Beatrice Trew, and Thora Wiggens, read The Western Producer religiously. They campaigned for better health care services from within these farm organizations and through other community groups like the Homemaker’s Clubs, the Anti-tuberculosis League, and the State Hospital and Medical League. The municipal contracts with doctors varied a great deal so some rural people had better coverage than others. Nevertheless, by 1950 173 doctors were being paid by Saskatchewan municipalities, many more than the numbers paid by governments elsewhere in Canada.

Many women in farm organizations took their commitment to improve health care services into the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) after its creation in 1933. These women included Lucas, the Woman President of the UFC from 1931 to 1933, and Dixon who held this office from 1933 to 1934. Both attended the first convention of the federal CCF in Regina. When the provincial CCF was elected in a landslide in 1944, with Douglas as the premier, it began to work toward a universal medicare program by implementing new services, such as an Air Ambulance and hospitalization, as funds became available. CCF women politicians such as Beatrice Trew, a farm woman from Lemsford, and Gladys Strum, a farm woman from Windthorst, advocated better health care services. (See Taylor, “Gladys Strum” on this site.)

CCF proponents of medicare were often elected provincially and federally because Saskatchewan farm women were superb political organizers. These organizers included Elsie Gorius a farm woman from the Assiniboia area in southern Saskatchewan who was regarded as one of the best political organizers in Canada, Olive Wells from Tuxford also in the south, and Gertrude Harvey from central Saskatchewan. Harvey was the long-time campaign manager for M.J. Coldwell, the CCF MP for Rosetown from 1935 to 1958 and the leader of the federal CCF from 1942 to 1960.

Decades of such commitment were recognized in 1961 when Trew, then the Women’s President of the SFU, was appointed to the Thompson Commission that recommended a universal medicare program for Saskatchewan and the medicare bill passed in the legislature. It came into effect on 1st July 1962 when Douglas was a New Democratic Party (NDP) MP and Woodrow Lloyd was the CCF Premier. In the House of Commons, Douglas and other NDP MPs, argued for a national medicare program. In 1966 the federal government established the Canadian medicare program based on the popular Saskatchewan program. Organized farm women in Saskatchewan, such as Nettie Wiebe of the NFU, remained ardent champions of further improvements.

Alfred Gleave, a farm activist from 1932 onward, was the president of the SFU in 1962 when he played a pivotal role during the tumultuous implementation of medicare. Active in the CCF-NDP for decades, he was a key observer of the contributions to the movement for better health care services by farm women from McNaughton onward. He did not succumb to celebrating the “fathers of medicare” while forgetting its “mothers.” His book United We Stand, a history of the farm movement, gives Saskatchewan farm women the credit they deserve. (Gleave, 185.)


Photo: Violet and John McNaughton in front of their Saskatchewan sod house, likely taken in 1910




Saskatchewan Archives Board (SAB), Women in the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation Collection, 32 taped interviews by Georgina Taylor R-5827 to R-5874, R-8130 to R-8166. See in particular the interviews with Sophia Dixon, Elsie Gorius, Elsie Hart, Eloise (Lucas) Metheral, Gladys Strum, Olive Wells, and Thora Wiggens.

A taped interview by Georgina Taylor with Rose (Ducie) Jardine, July 1991, in possession of the author. A taped interview by Georgina Taylor with T.C. Douglas, June 15th 1982, in possession of the author.

Alfred P. Gleave, United We Stand Prairie Farmers 1901-1975 (Toronto: Lugus, 1991).

Nanci Langford, “Childbirth on the Canadian Prairies 1880-1930,” Journal of Historical Sociology 8(3) (September 1995): 278-302.

Tracy Leigh Steele, “Efforts to Reduce Infant and Maternal Mortality in Saskatchewan During the Setlement Period,” M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, 2013. <>

Georgina M. Taylor, “The Campaign for Medical Aid Within the Reach of All,” chapter 7 in “‘Ground for Common Action’: Violet McNaughton’s Agrarian Feminism and the Origins of the Farm Women’s Movement in Canada, ” Ph.D. dissertation, Carleton University, 1997, 376-467. <‑bin/Main/BasicSearch?coll=18&l=0&v=1>.

—, “Equals and Partners? An Examination of How Saskatchewan Women Reconciled Their Political Activities for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation with Traditional Roles for Women,” M.A. Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, 1983.

—, “Mothers of Medicare” a three part series in “Western People” the magazine supplement of The Western Producer 16, 23, 30 July 1998.

—, “Violet McNaughton,” “Valentine’s Day 1916, a Day of Triumph for Saskatchewan Women,” and “Gladys Strum” on this site.

Nettie Wiebe, Weaving New Ways (Saskatoon: National Farmers Union, 1987).

Barry Wilson, “Alfred P. Gleave,” in Brett Quiring, ed. Saskatchewan Politicians Lives Past and Present, (Regina: University of Regina Canadian Plains Research Center, 2004), 88-89.

National Farmers Union,; “Emmett Hall,” <>; “Paul Martin, Sr. Biography,” Society for the Recognition of Famous People, <>; Margaret Conrad, “History Idol: Tommy Douglas,” Canada’s History Magazine, <–Tommy-Douglas.aspx>; downloaded 30 November 2015.

Suffrage and the Temperance Movement in England and Beyond

Somerset Willard Polyglot Petition

One of the most famous marriages in women’s nineteenth century activism is that of suffrage and temperance. These causes had much in common: friends, money, political affiliations, tactics. Their relationship was certainly not perfect and rifts made headlines, but theirs was a relationship that mattered. In searching for information on early suffrage movements from textbooks to wikis, much is also learnt about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the role played by temperance women in much of the English-speaking world. Although temperance was a serious political movement that helped train women in the conventions of political lobbying, when it comes, in particular, to the English literature on suffrage their contributions are generally overlooked.

As Ian Tyrell illuminates in Women’s World, Women’s Empire women created a vast and effective political network through the temperance movement. Under the banner of temperance, women agitated for moral, social and political changes, including suffrage.   Whether it was changing the laws about alcohol or about who could vote, these politically active women were very often one and the same. The most famous global champions were American Frances Willard (1839-1898) and her close friend the English aristocrat Isabella Somerset (known as Lady Henry Somerset; 1851-1921).

But temperance women do not always get their due in the scholarly and popular literature on women’s suffrage. In English accounts in particular, they are almost entirely missing from suffrage scholarship, perhaps because their suffragist activities were more subdued than the suffragette militants. While the Pankhursts and their followers were disrupting meetings, being force-fed, smashing windows and running out onto the horse track, thousands of temperance activists maintained their long running strategy of lobbying, collecting signatures, campaigning for sympathetic political candidates and running for school boards and other offices they were permitted to hold. From their earliest days English temperance women urged women to fight for the right to vote because they believed only the ballot could persuade policy makers to change the rules governing alcohol consumption and protect women and children from men’s alcohol-fueled violence.

The English connection between temperance and suffrage was so strong that it eventually caused a major schism in the wildly popular British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA). A small faction argued that they wanted suffrage and temperance to be separated and pressed the BWTA to give up agitating for the vote. In contrast, the bulk of the BWTA, like their colleagues in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, saw the causes as inextricably linked. Eventually dissidents broke away and formed a temperance only organization while the majority acted on the advice of Frances Willard, ‘do everything.’

Once English women did get the parliamentary franchise, the BWTA urged its membership to stay politically engaged. Women should put their voting power to work, and the BWTA taught them how to do it. In fact, when the Evening News polled its readers in 1907 about who they thought the first female Prime Minister should be, they overwhelmingly chose Lady Somerset, the longtime president of the BWTA (February 27). Such dreams, however, were not to be. In the 1920s, women activists turned increasingly elsewhere for inspiration. A new generation often interpreted opposition to booze, like opposition to pornography in the 1980s, as little more than sour-faced and hopelessly out-of-date puritanism. In that condemnation, the full range of the WCTU challenge to the status quo disappeared from sight. In fact, its determined opposition to violence against women and children, an abuse that continues to scar the world, suggests that recovery of its history is overdue.





Barrow, M. (2000) Teetotal Feminists: Temperance leadership and the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage in C Eustance et al. A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History (pp 69-89). New York, New York, USA: Leicester University Press.

Black, R. (2010) A Talent for Humanity: the life and work of Lady Henry Somerset. UK: Antony Rowe Publishers.

Evening News, London (1907, February 27) newspaper cutting.

Niessen, O. (2008) Aristocracy, Temperance and Social Reform: The Life of Lady Henry Somerset. London, UK: Tauris Academic Studies.

Shiman, L. (1992) Women and leadership in nineteenth-century England. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Tyrell, I. (1991) Woman’s World, Woman’s Empire: The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930. Chapel Hill, NC, USA: University of North Carolina Press.

Valentine’s Day 1916, A Day of Triumph for The Women of Saskatchewan


GGG Suffragette Cartoon from GGGOn Valentine’s Day in 1916 Saskatchewan suffragists converged on the Legislative Building in Regina. They had been invited to attend the Legislative Assembly by Walter Scott, the besieged Premier, who apparently hoped his invitation would be seen as chivalrous. Scott’s Liberal government, which had been stalling, was doing an about-face, in part because it was in a race with the governments in Alberta and Manitoba. It wanted Saskatchewan to be seen as the most “progressive” province in Canada. Violet McNaughton, who was the leader of the suffrage movement in Saskatchewan, later recalled that when she and the other leaders of the provincial suffrage alliance, arrived at the Legislature they were shown to “the ‘Seats of the Mighty’ by the venerable Sergeant-at-Arms.” The galleries were full of suffragists from many areas of the province who had gone to Regina to present petitions with thousands of signatures in support of women’s suffrage to the Premier.

Scott told the assembled suffragists that he was committing the government to passing a suffrage law giving women a provincial franchise equal to the men’s franchise. In her study of the suffrage movement in Saskatchewan one historian concluded that, even though Alice Lawton, the President of the suffrage alliance, “fluttered her handkerchief facetiously and trilled ‘this is so sudden,’ the event was in fact an anti-climax.” Lawton appears to have been a bit of a romantic, it being Valentine’s Day and the premier being a handsome fellow. McNaughton saw the day differently. Having worked so hard for an equal franchise for women, she experienced the day as neither romantic nor anti-climactic. For her it was an important historic occasion. She had emigrated from England where the franchise for working-class men had been extended four times during the nineteenth century because the elites feared disorder and violence if they did not do so. In 1909 when she left Britain women were campaigning for the franchise, but the intransigent government would not grant it to them, even though some of them had used violence to get attention. Before 1916 the only countries to have granted national universal suffrage were New Zealand in 1893, Australia in 1901, Finland in 1906, and Norway in 1913 so for McNaughton this Valentine’s Day was a day of triumph. What had McNaughton and other suffragists done to push the Premier to issue the invitation when he had refused to grant women’s suffrage a few years before?

W.R. Motherwell, a prosperous farmer who was the Minister of Agriculture and a friend of the Premier, had claimed that women did not really want the vote because “they endure no wrongs which are not removed under the present system.” In 1912 when the question of women’s suffrage had been debated by male Members of the Legislature Assembly amid disparaging remarks and laughter, Motherwell had summarized the government’s case. He said women had a “right” to the vote, but until a “considerable number of women approached the government urging the extension of the franchise to women” the government would not consider it. The Grain Growers Guide, an agrarian paper widely read in Saskatchewan, graphically depicted the premier’s attitude in a 1913 cartoon showing the government’s stalling tactics and its distain for the suffragists. It showed Premier Scott saying “Speak!” as he held a card labeled “Votes for Women” above the head of a woman begging like a dog. McNaughton, who refused to beg, sent a letter to the editor of “The Guide” in which she said the Premier’s handling of the petitions and the letters she and other farm women had gathered and presented to him had caused them a great deal of “useless trouble.”

McNaughton, an agrarian feminist with a strong belief in the co-operative ideal, was the president of the Women Grain Growers (WGG). She worked closely with Zoa Haight, the Vice President, and other farm women in the WGG. After they were rebuffed by the government McNaughton realized that in order to get the vote the WGG needed to form an alliance with other suffragists who were willing to work hard in order to gather signatures on more petitions. This was not easy in a province where most people lived in primitive conditions on homesteads, but McNaughton and the suffragists who were working with her believed in using constitutional methods so they persisted. From February 1914, when she and other farm women brought the pro-suffrage WGG into being, she had worked tirelessly to forge a suffrage alliance. She had convinced the evangelical feminists in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and equal rights feminists who formed Political Equality Leagues in the cities to set aside their differences and to work with her and other agrarian feminists in the WGG. Together they launched the Provincial Equal Franchise Board (PEFB), which then co-ordinated a concerted drive for signatures.

Powerful conservative opponents like George Exton Lloyd, an influential Anglican clergyman who was the principal of the Church of England college at the University of Saskatchewan, opposed an equal provincial franchise for women. Because he had a life-long hatred of booze, he and his supporters wanted women to be granted a temporary franchise so they could vote for prohibition in a plebiscite and then he wanted the franchise to be taken away from them. This infuriated the suffragists in the WCTU and therefore with McNaughton’s encouragement they had thrown themselves into collecting signatures on the PEFB petitions. She later estimated that there were 21,000 signatures in total on all of the petitions the suffragists presented to the government during the campaign.

Once the suffragists had won the provincial franchise McNaughton reorganized the PEFB to fight for the dominion, municipal, and school board franchises and for other feminist goals. The first provincial election in which Saskatchewan women could vote was in 1917 when Zoa Haight was the first woman to run for a seat in the Legislature. McNaughton gave Haight her whole-hearted support. The dedication of suffragists across Canada, such as McNaughton, Haight, and Lawton, and triumphs like the one on Valentine’s Day 1916 mean that today Canadian women can stand for election and they can vote in federal, provincial, municipal, and school board elections.



Further reading:

Catherine L. Cleverdon, The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (1950. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1974).

Elizabeth Ann Kalmakoff, “Woman Suffrage in Saskatchewan.” M.A. Thesis, University of Regina, 1993.

Georgina M. Taylor, “Coming ‘Together On Common Ground For Common Good’ During The Suffrage Campaign,” chapter six in “‘Ground for Common Action’: Violet McNaughton’s Agrarian Feminism and the Origins of the Farm Women’s Movement in Canada,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Carleton University, 1997, 229-280. <‑bin/Main/BasicSearch?coll=18&l=0&v=1>, 21 February 2015.

—, “‘Let us co-operate’: Violet McNaughton and the Co-operative Ideal,” in Co-operatives in the Year 2000: Memory, Mutual Aid, and the Millennium, ed. Brett Fairbairn and Ian MacPherson (Saskatoon: Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan, 2000), 57-78.

—, “Organized Farm Women in the WGG, the UFC, the SFU, and the NFU,”in The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan,  <>,  21 February 2015.

—, “Violet McNaughton,” in Veronica Strong-Boag, “Women Suffrage and Beyond: confronting the democratic deficit,” <>, 21 February 2015.