Universal health care a newer, but defining Canadian detail

Going through my latest issue of Details, I was amazed that the issue seemed to be almost all about the Canadian Football League. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of the Canadian game and even dedicated this very space to that subject in the previous issue. But there were a few other issues, and the one that caught my eye was Tommy Douglas. Officially the stamp has been issued to mark the birth of Medicare. But Douglas did much more, including heading up the first democratic socialist government in North America. His other achievements include forming Saskatchewan Power, the first provincially owned automotive insurance, and the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights, the first of its kind in Canada. But there can be no doubt, Medicare is his greatest legacy.

As one of many aging baby boomers I am past the age of 50. It doesn’t bother me, because part of me is pretty happy to have made it this far. It also means that there are a lot of things around that are younger than me, one of them is that Canadian institution Medicare. We call it by different names in different parts of Canada, but across the board Canadians have come to believe that everyone should have access to health care, regardless of their financial status. It has become such a distinctive part of our identity, we often forget that it wasn’t the case when many of us were born. I know, because we were a struggling immigrant family when I was born, so I entered this world at a hospital run by the Salvation Army. There are a few things that sometimes get missed in the story of Medicare and Tommy Douglas.

For one thing, Saskatchewan started working towards universal health care in the 1940s, Alberta introduced public health care in 1950, and Medicare was 50 per cent funded by the federal government, under an act passed by the government of Louis St. Laurent in 1957. That act set five conditions for support: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and accessibility. Prior to Saskatchewan’s Medical Care Insurance Act of 1962 all 10 provinces were developing Medicare programs. What made Saskatchewan special is that the Federal funding was used to fund the services of physicians. The successes in the prairies led to the creation of a national Medicare system in 1966.

That short history lesson reminds us that something we have come to take for granted really is quite a recent innovation. So it is nice to see a stamp that reminds us that this part of our identity is so very new; much newer than Confederation. It contrasts nicely with last month’s stamps for the War of 1812. Those stamps remind us of a part of our identity which is very old; much older than Confederation. What’s more, both these issues speak to present-day Canadians, even those who have only recently arrived. I often joke that Canadians often define themselves in two ways: one, that they have universal health care, and two, that they are not residents of the United States. If that’s the case, these stamps are very truly Canadian.

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