Medicare 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. <http://hdl.handle.net/10294/3644>
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. <http://amicus.collectionscanada.ca/s4‑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, http://www.nfu.ca/; “Emmett Hall,” <http://www.canada-heros.com/hall_emmett.html>; “Paul Martin, Sr. Biography,” Society for the Recognition of Famous People, <http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/paul-martin-5051.php>; Margaret Conrad, “History Idol: Tommy Douglas,” Canada’s History Magazine, <http://www.canadashistory.ca/Magazine/Online-Exclusive/Articles/History-Idol–Tommy-Douglas.aspx>; downloaded 30 November 2015.