Tommy Douglas, who led the first social democratic government in North America, was often described as a pragmatic leader who was impatient with ideology and theoretical debate. “He provided the framework on which the socialism of the Seventies can be built,” wrote Maclean’s contributing editor Heather Robertson. In memory of Douglas, who died on Feb. 24, 1986, part two of a Maclean’s exclusive from a decade before his death takes an intimate look at the man who came from left field. Read part one here. Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.
On June 15, 1944, the CCF won a landslide victory in the Saskatchewan provincial election, taking 47 of the 52 seats in the legislature. The victory was a surprise to no one except the Liberals. “I thought we'd win,” said the new premier, Tommy Douglas. “I didn’t think we’d have the tremendous majority we have. We won seats we had no business winning, seats in which we just got somebody to run so we'd have a name on the ballot. And we won them!” The country was stunned.
“People thought the world was coming to an end,” says Tommy, “that this was the beginning of a Communist revolution and we were going to wreck the province, ruin the finances, repudiate all our debts. Imperial Oil were doing some small amount of drilling in Saskatchewan. They just picked up their drilling rigs and went home.”
The fear was the result of a scurrilous Red-scare campaign designed by the Liberals to inflame the deep racial and religious tensions in Saskatchewan. “People were told they would lose their farms,” says Tommy, “that we would burn down the churches, nationalize all the little stores, take over the barbershops, garages, filling stations. They’d say that Douglas beat his dog to death, that M. J. Coldwell’s real name was Goldberg and that he was an English Jew — there was a good deal of anti-Semitism in some areas of the Prairies — that I was a secret Communist, that we were all a dangerous bunch of radicals, taking our money and philosophy from Russia, and that we were going to bring the Russian system here. Imagine what that did to central Europeans in Saskatchewan, people who had fled from Communist persecution. Of course they were frightened.”
After 10 years of Liberal smear tactics, the voters had become shock proof. "I remember a meeting in Stockholm, Sask.,” grins Tommy. “There was a woman in the crowd with three small children tugging at her skirts. 'They say on the radio that you’re going to socialize the children,’ she said. 'Is that true?’ The speaker assured her it was totally false. ‘I thought it was too good to be true,’ she said.”
But the Red scare had quietly pushed the CCF to the right. The militant socialism of the 1933 Regina Manifesto — including pledges to nationalize money, key industries and land — was discreetly dropped and by 1944 the word “socialism” had disappeared from CCF campaign literature. The socialist government the Saskatchewan voters elected so jubilantly on June 15, 1944, was dedicated to the familiar conservative virtues of common sense and honest parsimony.
“The first thing we did was to cut the cabinet ministers' salaries,” says Tommy. “I think it was probably the stupidest thing we ever did. We cut out the Lieutenant-Governor’s residence and a lot of things of that sort. There were a lot of big cars, Buicks and so on, and we put them all up for auction. And we got rid of the chauffeurs.” As premier Tommy earned $6,500 and the cabinet ministers made $5,000. Tommy laid down the law at the first cabinet meeting: “We’ll forgive you for making mistakes, but if you start getting your finger into the kitty you’re out."
Money, or the lack of it, quickly became an obsession with the new CCF regime. The CCF had understood the financial disaster of the Depression; they had not comprehended the extent of the financial chaos bequeathed them by the Liberals. “They owed the federal government money, hadn’t been able to pay,” says Douglas. “They owed the banks money, hadn’t been able to pay. They had been borrowing money to build roads and schools. There was a little school in Assiniboia that had been paid for twice in 40 years; now it was a wreck and they still owed the capital. They hadn’t been able to pay their debts so they refinanced every loan at higher rates of interest, always higher rates of interest. One third of the total provincial revenue was going to pay interest charges.”
Saskatchewan was $238 million in debt in 1944; $100 provincial bonds were going for $83. The province was virtually bankrupt. Occupying a precarious middle-ground between Marx and big business, the CCF was vulnerable to pressure and pressure from big business was forceful and immediate; a week after the CCF took office Canadian banks foreclosed on a $ 19-million loan the government had taken to buy seed grain for farmers burned out in the total crop failure of 1937. “Nobody had bothered about it for six years,” says Tommy. “As soon as we took office the banks wanted their money.” Saskatchewan refused to pay; Ottawa sued in the Supreme Court and won. The threat was clear — if the CCF made any attempts to socialize private investment in Saskatchewan, the banks would foreclose, drive the province into bankruptcy and force the collapse of the Tommy Douglas government.
“You cannot build an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism,” said Tommy in the Throne speech of 1944.
To prop up the economy the government frantically bought up Saskatchewan bonds and urged everyone else to do the same. Provincial Treasurer Clarence Fines announced on the radio that he had personally borrowed $50,000 from the bank to invest in Saskatchewan bonds. Within three years the bonds were up to $116. Ten percent of the provincial budget was set aside to pay off the $238-million debt. “Once the financial institutions knew there was a chance to make money, they didn’t care if we were CCF or Liberal,” says Douglas. Imperial Oil crawled back offering a fee of $20 million a year (two-thirds of the Saskatchewan budget) for an oil monopoly in the province. “I remember what I said to Imperial Oil,” says Tommy, “ ‘Get lost’.”
In spite of its poverty the CCF embarked on one of the most ambitious and progressive legislative programs this country has ever seen; when the first session of the legislature opened on October 19, 1944, the CCF presented 76 pieces of reform legislation, much of it unprecedented in Canada — compulsory health insurance, state auto insurance, crown corporations for electricity, air and bus transportation and natural gas, free medical care for the old and indigent, increased pensions, consolidation of rural schools, marketing boards and producer co-ops and a network of regulations through which the government established greater control over the economy than was known anywhere else in Canada. The CCF had only one way to pay for its reform program — taxes. “We told people,” says Tommy, “if you’re going to build schools or hospitals or roads, you’re going to pay for it. Now!”
In Saskatchewan socialism was not so much a matter of principle as of survival: in a bankrupt province, state monopoly was the easiest way the government could earn money. The CCF’s abhorrence of debt reflected Tommy’s own attitude to money. “I never bought anything in my life except a house that I didn’t pay cash for and I never had an easy moment until I had paid it off.” He was more conservative about money than Alberta Social Credit premier Bill Aberhart and his caution matched exactly the penny-pinching suspicion of the rural Saskatchewan voter. “We made enemies,” he confesses. “Our legislative program seems mundane now, but at the time it was almost revolutionary. If I had to do it all over again I’d slow the pace down somewhat, do half the first four years and save the rest for the next four. It seems incredible now that people would complain about paying five dollars a year for hospital care, but all kinds of people wrote in. Why should they pay? They’d never been sick a day in their lives.”
The entrenched conservatism of the Saskatchewan public was a shock to the CCF: in 1948 the government was reduced to 32 seats. It was still a comfortable majority but the rebuff brought home the irony of democratic socialism — you can only go as far as the people will let you. CCF policies such as municipal reform which were potential political hotspots were quietly abandoned, much as references to socialism had been dumped from the platform in the Thirties, and CCF literature began to give greater emphasis to bread-and-butter programs such as roads, schools and rural electrification.
Having set in motion all the reforms it promised during the Depression, the CCF rested, secure in the notion that it had created the world anew. At a time when the party might have moved into a basic restructuring of Saskatchewan society it opted for accommodation. It would not create a classless society but rather would satisfy all classes by being middle-of-the-road — a party that proudly advertised itself as one which “shuts out no one.”
“Douglas never was a socialist,” scoffs one old party member. “There wasn’t a socialist in the cabinet.”
Douglas established instead what he liked to call “managed capitalism,” a free enterprise system in which private business was tempered by co-ops and state ownership was confined to key monopolies. The CCF made only token gestures to stabilize agriculture, which made up almost 90% of the province’s wealth when the government took office, and, with the exception of natural gas, did not establish control over the development of natural resources. Imperial Oil came back, along with other multinational corporations, and until 1973 royalties on oil and potash remained trivial. “I don’t think any party could win an election after drilling 17 dry holes at $100,000 apiece,” says J. H. Brockelbank, a Douglas cabinet minister who managed to win every election he contested. Faced by the highest taxes in Canada and an economy periodically impoverished by agricultural depressions, Tommy ardently began to court investment by outside corporations.
“We are glad to have you in our midst!” he told a convention of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association in June, 1954. “We need the cooperation, the understanding of the industrialists of the other parts of Canada, of the financial and investment houses, because, after all, we are not in competition, we are members of a family . . . I believe that increasingly industry will begin to look toward the west as a very appropriate place in which to locate some of its branch plants.”
Tommy stumped the rubber chicken circuit assuring the Moose and Lions and Elks that “Saskatchewan is on the march to keep its date with destiny.” Was this the old Tommy, this smug, self-congratulatory chamber of commerce propagandist reeling off production statistics, boring people with homilies on the United Nations, assuring everyone that, thanks to the CCF, Utopia had been achieved? “My father hated him,” says a Saskatchewan girl. “He reeked of piety.”
Self-righteousness made the CCF vulnerable to embarrassment. A government-owned shoe factory and woolen mill in Moose Jaw went broke; Ross Thatcher, CCF MP for Moose Jaw, touted as Tommy’s successor, quit to join the Liberals, and in 1960 Clarence Fines, bragging openly about his wizardry on the stock market, retired on his personal fortune in Saskatchewan government bonds. All events were blown into major scandals. This was the time of the Cold War, the McCarthy witch-hunts, the Rosenberg spy trial; fear of the Red smear made the CCF defensive. Party conventions, designed to set policy, were carefully orchestrated to suppress or ignore controversial resolutions and the grass roots political structure which had built the CCF was turned into a massive vote-getting machine in which women continued to occupy the menial positions of cake-bakers and money-raisers. The government ran on its record: the 1952 “Program for Progress” became a “Program for Prosperity” in 1956. People accustomed to literate and astute political debate were given a CCF propaganda comic book; voters who, in the Thirties, had been reading Shaw and Jack London and Hansard were handed Tommy’s speeches. Tommy started doing little commercials for businessmen:
“Progressing with the province in step with the ever-changing west is radio station CKRM,” he broadcast in 1954 over radio station CKRM. “Starting with two employees in 1926, this radio station now has 42 employees and is one of the most popular radio stations in our province. It is gratifying to see this radio station keeping pace with the growth of our province.”
“Listening to Tommy the seats never got hard,” observes a Saskatchewan farm woman, “but he seemed to lack the dignity of his position.”
Tommy’s inflated rhetoric opened a serious credibility gap. Not only did the government take credit for an agricultural boom over which it had little influence, but it became clear to the taxpayers that the much-touted reforms for which the CCF patted itself on the back were being paid for by themselves. A quiet erosion of CCF popular support became obvious as early as May, 1957, when Tommy, the old bull of the CCF, rashly challenged upstart Liberal Ross Thatcher to debate the record of Saskatchewan’s crown corporations. The debate took place in the community hall at Mossbank, Sask., and the whole province was listening:
“Overcast skies and intermittent rain have discouraged picnics and travel to a certain extent,” the radio announcer whispers into his microphone over the roar of 1,200 people, “however a bright but tense holiday spirit prevails and the hall has been filled to capacity . . .” It sounds like a boxing match. Hundreds of people have lined up for hours to get a seat in the Mossbank Hall; hundreds more are sitting in cars parked on the grass around the hall listening over loud speakers. “Thousands of residents of this province are joining us over this radio network to listen to what has been billed as the debate of the year, the battle of the giants . . .” continues the announcer. Every partisan gesture is greeted with a roar and stomping of feet. Three hours later the decision is unanimous: “Tommy sure as hell didn’t win that one!” snorts a cabinet colleague. Tommy debated brilliantly but he was on the defensive; socialists felt he failed to defend the principle of state ownership, free enterprisers were impressed by Thatcher’s plea for private investment. So sympathetic had the CCF become to private enterprise that voters began to feel they might as well have the real thing.
“I campaigned for our CCF candidates in the 1957 and 1958 federal elections,” reflects Tommy. “People would come up after a meeting in droves and say ‘Tommy, it was good of you to come and we’ll vote for you in the provincial election, but we’re gonna vote for Diefenbaker!’ ” The Conservatives took all but one federal seat in Saskatchewan in 1958. Obviously the CCF was not getting through to people what democratic socialism was all about.
“No, that’s right,” says Tommy. “Of course we weren’t.”
The CCF offered honest, efficient, progressive government, good government. Its policies were so sensible that many were picked up by Ottawa and other provinces and transformed the Canadian social structure. But a planned economy is not necessarily a socialist economy. Many of the reforms were essentially administrative. School consolidation, for instance, created newer and larger schools but it also hastened the decline of hundreds of small villages, strengthened the power of reactionary school boards and failed to provide Saskatchewan children with a more enlightened education than that offered in other provinces. A large bureaucracy was created to run the welfare state; since the civil servants were better paid than most Saskatchewan residents they became an elite class which soon interposed itself between the government and the people.
The CCF’s weaknesses, like its strengths, reflected Tommy’s own personality. Up close, out of the spotlight. Douglas is surprisingly stiff and awkward, solitary, aloof, suspicious of strangers, a prim, wizened man in a well-pressed inexpensive suit who looks, as Bruce Hutchison wrote in 1944, like the president of a small-town Rotary club. His smile switches on, too bright, too friendly, yet his slate-blue eyes are cold, guarded. The ingratiating “Tommy” image is a facade, an actor’s mask concealing a man of formidable intelligence, biting wit and compulsive energy, a man of strong loyalties and sudden rages controlled by iron self-discipline. Douglas is a Christian soldier armed with the moral indignation and zeal of a Cromwell; he has the conviction of the righteous, and the rigidity.
A pragmatic, busy man. Tommy was impatient with ideology and theoretical debate and quick to block out problems for which he had no immediate solution. Gifted with a photographic memory (Stanley Knowles made money at Brandon College betting on Tommy’s ability to read a Free Press editorial twice and reproduce it word for word) Tommy picked up and discarded fashionable economic theories with bewildering speed; with an exaggerated respect for expertise, he trusted in technology to bring about political reform and, spurred by a blind faith in growth economics, went chasing after the very corporations the CCF had originally pledged to eradicate. The result was what people in Saskatchewan call “square socialism,” socialism for the rich, a tax shell game without the pea. In fact, the CCF took almost malicious pleasure in Saskatchewan’s recurrent depressions, blaming their financial troubles on the Liberals and deliberately perpetuating the image of the poor farmer on which their political support had been founded in the Depression. A politician to the core, Douglas was a man of whom it was said, as Tommy said of his arch-foe federal Liberal agriculture minister Jimmy Gardiner, “he was a man that had one passion and that was power.”
In 1960 Tommy declared that the Regina Manifesto had come true; laissez-faire capitalism had been eradicated in Saskatchewan. He went to Ottawa to lead the New Democratic Party in the House of Commons, the place he had contemptuously dismissed as “an old men’s home” in 1935. In the next Saskatchewan election the CCF was defeated by Thatcher’s Liberals on a free enterprise platform.
The CCF-NDP has been in power in Saskatchewan for 30 years, a hegemony interrupted only by what the faithful dismiss as the seven lean years of Liberal interregnum between 1964 and 1971. It is no longer the party of the “little man,” the persecuted and powerless; it is the establishment. Is this it, then, the New Jerusalem, Saskatchewan, a province of banks and beer parlors where the CPR is the biggest private landlord and the only communes are owned by Hutterites, where the family farm is still the cornerstone of the community and all major industry is in the hands of private enterprise, where the co-ops sell the same cornflakes at higher prices than independent grocers, where the average income is still below the national average and where 10,000 people a year find somewhere else to live?
There is little evidence of socialism in Saskatchewan. Is it just a time lag, or has the revolution been perverted into what Independent MLA John Richards, prime mover in the socialist Waffle movement which split from the NDP last year, calls “a Mackenzie King administration,” a conservative political machine which has achieved the omnivorous power of a single party capitalist state?
Tommy’s own assessment of his achievements is very modest; “I think we established the idea, for people who work on farms and in small businesses and in laboring jobs, that, in a crunch, the government is on their side. I think we managed to sell the idea that there are things you can’t do individually that you can do collectively.”
“Tommy is a myth.” says Richards, “but I’m sensitive about myths. Without noble myths man cannot carry on. There are grave inadequacies in what he did, but he was of his time and he provided the framework on which the socialism of the Seventies can be built.”
This is the second of two articles by Heather Robertson on Tommy Douglas.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.