The people's preacher

How Tommy Douglas honed his political skills behind the pulpit of a small-town church

The people's preacher

Dick Darrell/Toronto Star

Even before his political career began, Tommy Douglas—who immigrated to Canada from Scotland as a child, and came from hardscrabble roots—understood that, “at the end of the day, politics needed to be about practical things,” says Vincent Lam, an emergency room doctor and Giller Prize-winning author, whose latest book, part of Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, profiles the father of universal health care in Canada (in stores March 8).

During the Depression, Douglas—then a small-town preacher in Weyburn, Sask.—was deeply affected by the poverty and inequality that surrounded him, Lam writes, and worked tirelessly to address the problems. “For him, being a preacher was completely practical,” Lam says, “because it meant you would deal with people.” This was Douglas’s guiding philosophy in those years, as well as through to his stint as Saskatchewan premier, and, finally, as the first leader of the federal New Democratic Party. Douglas “wasn’t someone who came to socialism from a rarefied academic perspective,” Lam says. “His thinking came from the ground up.”

As premier, Douglas presided over North America’s first socialist government, from 1944 to 1961. Yet he proved to be a unifying figure, admired by those on both sides of the political spectrum. “Some of the most creative thinking in policy and government doesn’t bow to those easy ideas of left and right,” Lam says. The health care system, he adds, “is part of the idea that societies should be constructed primarily to take care of people, and for people to help each other.”


While those investors who had become rich in the soaring equity markets of the 1920s lost their shirts in the Depression, many workers and farmers lost their pants, socks, and underwear. As Tommy and Irma, a young couple who looked more like teenagers than a pastor and his wife, settled in Weyburn, Sask., the price of grain collapsed, local businesses were shuttered, loans were called in, and family farms were foreclosed. Children did not attend school in the winter for lack of shoes to wear. The streets of Weyburn were lined with young men who had nothing to do. Saskatchewan was economically devastated.

Douglas was known as the “boy preacher,” with an irrepressible cowlick and wiry frame. His dynamic and thought-provoking work at the pulpit did not go unappreciated. He, however, was acutely aware that the spiritual guidance he provided from the pulpit did not help those parishioners who were being sucked into the economic whirlpool of the Depression.

Douglas had no intention of confining himself to polite company and an absorbed life of prayer. The vocal Christian left that had first drawn him to the ministry was trying to find practical ways to help people. As was he. The Calvary Baptist Church basement became a relief office and employment agency. Tommy and Irma were constantly buying for and giving things to people, and Douglas made frequent appeals to his congregation for more donations from those who were still able to give. He advocated before local town councils for greater assistance to the poor. As he became more deeply engaged in this work, he became increasingly aware that his charitable endeavours were addressing only the symptoms of the problem and not the underlying issues.

One day the local magistrate rather craftily called up Douglas and told him that he was going to deal with the cases of 11 juvenile delinquents in court that day. The magistrate lamented that they were repeat offenders, and he would have little choice but to send them to the grim Industrial School in Regina unless something could be done for them. Douglas went to the court and met the group of young offenders. “Maybe it was because it was Monday,” he later said, “and I hadn’t gotten over the Sunday sermon, but I ended up having the 11 of them committed to my care by the police magistrate. I wondered what on Earth I was going to do with them. I took them home. To march in with 11 ragamuffins was quite a sight, and my wife, to whom I’d been married for less than a year, just about went home to her mother. She was a good sport, though.” Tommy and Irma found clean clothes, and Douglas organized odd jobs, classes, and sports activities for the boys. He discovered that they were very good at fighting but didn’t know any of the rules of boxing, which he tried to teach them. One Sunday, while he was preaching, the boys burgled a store, and when the owner complained to Douglas, he found them gorging on stolen chocolate and smoking cigarettes. The minister hauled them into his office and gave them a long, powerful sermon, one of his best. When it was done, the boys began to cry. They promised to never behave so badly again. On their way out, one of the boys proceeded to return to Douglas his watch, knife, pen, and other items that he had stolen during the harangue. In 1945, when Douglas was touring the European theatre of war after becoming premier of Saskatchewan, he encountered the erstwhile thief again. He had become an army sergeant, and was assigned to Douglas as part of an honour guard in Holland. Over the years Douglas had the satisfaction of encountering many of these boys, who had cleaned up and done well for themselves.

The people's preacher

Dick Darrell/Toronto Star

The minister had become a social activist. He could hardly help himself: his concern for the disadvantaged and his particular affinity for youth were deeply ingrained from his own roots as a struggling immigrant boy. Also, he was never shy about telling people what he thought they should do. He had a knack for doing so in the most convincing way possible, whether he was cajoling boys away from a life of crime, or taking a local lawyer on a tour of some of the poorest households in Weyburn to persuade him of the genuine needs in his community.

Douglas asked questions about the economic crisis of the 1930s that seem as relevant today as they did in his time: “Why did this society break down? What was wrong with it? Why was it that when you had a surplus of food and clothing and almost every known commodity produced by an advanced technological society, there were people who couldn’t get decent houses to live in, couldn’t get clothing to wear, and who couldn’t get enough to eat?” To try to learn some of the answers, Douglas decided that he would pursue further education. The Calvary church allowed their young minister his summers off to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Chicago. In the summer of 1931 he was sent to do fieldwork in that city’s hobo jungles, where he witnessed misery far surpassing anything he had seen in Weyburn. There were wastelands filled with thousands of young men similar to himself, the main difference being their bad luck. There were university students who had been forced to drop out for lack of money, who were ashamed to go home. There were skilled tradespeople who could find no work. Douglas was among those who concluded that the suffering of people during the Depression was man-made, and that the capitalist system responsible for the dire predicament was unable to fix the problem.

At the University of Chicago he sought out American socialist academics and found that they had no practical answers. He concluded that there was a type of armchair academic Marxist who debated ideology and stopped there. Douglas recalled, “I went to their meetings. They spent most of their time debating whether or not, come the revolution, you would have communal feeding in the basements of schools, or whether we could have communal kitchens. The fact that people didn’t have anything to eat didn’t seem to bother them at all.”

When he returned to Weyburn in the autumn of 1931, Douglas set about organizing the town’s unemployed. He persuaded city council to provide an abandoned house that he made into what he called a “club room” for unemployed men. Coal was donated to heat the house, and a telephone was installed so employers needing workers could call. Douglas appeared frequently before the city council on a variety of issues. He presented school nurses’ reports on children who were malnourished or had no shoes or clothing. He lobbied for more money for the unemployed. He sometimes found himself arguing with provincial relief officers who wanted to cut rather than increase benefits. As Douglas’s activities shifted more and more from offering charity to demanding government action, some observers labelled him a dangerous radical.

As far as Douglas was concerned it was plain that God wanted faithful people to advocate for those in need, to confront suffering and injustice in concrete ways, and to convince people that they must assist with each other’s struggles. However, he was beginning to bump up against the limitations of what he could do as a religious leader.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.