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The Evangelical roots of Canada’s universal healthcare system

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Saskatchewan—Canada’s agricultural hub—experienced a prolonged drought and crippling economic decline. Many farm families faced bankruptcy and some even starvation. Compounding the adversity was a high unemployment rate and soaring healthcare costs.

The picture of available hospital beds might seem promising for us who enjoy the comforts of universal healthcare today, but in the 1930s (before universal healthcare was introduced), empty hospital beds reminded people that affordable access to healthcare was more a privilege of the few, rather than a right for the many.

Economic hardship wasn’t the only force sweeping western Canada in the 1930s. Arising amidst these socio-economic difficulties —indeed in response to them—was the Social Gospel movement. The idea behind the movement was to apply gospel values to the social conditions of the time.

Leading the movement were names such as J.S. Woodsworth (1874-1942)—a Methodist minister and social activist who would become an MP and founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (now the New Democratic Party, NDP)—and Tommy Douglas (1904-1986), the founder of Canada’s universal healthcare system.

Born to a Scottish immigrant family, Douglas grew up attending the evangelical Beulah Baptist Church in Winnipeg. He earned a Bachelor of Arts (BA) from Brandon College and a Master of Arts (MA) from McMaster University. In 1930, he became the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, SK.

Having grown up being influenced by the Social Gospel movement in Winnipeg—where J.S. Woodsworth was the Superintendent of All People’s Mission, a social welfare and education centre for immigrants—Douglas believed that “the great motivating force in society is love for your fellow [human beings],” according to the encyclopedia.

As a pastor, Douglas was hesitant to embrace a “fundamentalist” approach to the Bible and world. Instead he approached the realities of his time with an evangelical focus on social justice and human rights. The difference was of paramount importance to him.

In his book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, David F. Wells captures the difference well:

When we move from Fundamentalism to evangelicalism…we are moving from a counter-community to a community. Fundamentalism was a walled city; evangelicalism is a city. Fundamentalism always had an air of embattlement about it, of being an island in a sea of unremitting hostility. Evangelicalism has reacted against this sense of psychological isolation. It has lowered the barricades. It is open to the world.

For Douglas, being open to the world meant embracing the unemployed, starved and downtrodden in Saskatchewan with the love and care of Jesus.

As a pastor in Weyburn, Douglas made the basement of the church a distributing centre for the unemployed. But soon he realized that being a pastor wasn’t enough. He needed to do more to help solve the systemic problems facing Canadian society.

In 1935, Douglas ran for the newly formed CCF party as a candidate in the federal election. Having won in the Weyburn riding, Douglas and five others—including J.S. Woodsworth—formed the first CCF caucus in Ottawa.

However, the CCF’s success was limited federally. But in Saskatchewan the party was much more popular. In 1942, Douglas assumed the leadership of the provincial CCF, and just two years later, he led the party to victory—capturing 47 of 53 seats.

As premier, Douglas urged the federal government to introduce universal healthcare. In 1959, he announced that Saskatchewan would implement its own publicly-funded system. Saskatchewan’s universal healthcare system was a success. Within a few years, Ottawa would follow suit and extend that system to everyone in Canada. It was Tommy Douglas’ greatest achievement as a public servant.

“The Social Gospel movement of Douglas’ boyhood set out to build the kingdom of God on earth,” states the encyclopedia. For Douglas, human rights was central to the gospel— “values that emanate from the teachings of Jesus.”

This article originally appeared on the Canadian Theological Students blog in the Spring of 2015.

  1. I like how Wells explains the difference between Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. I can’t help wondering if this is a Canadian distinction, though. In America, Evangelicals have been described as Fundamentalists who got mad and are taking their doctrinaire stances into politics and law.

    • Thanks for your response David : ) Wells is actually speaking about the American experience, trying to clarify and point out the distinction between traditional evangelicalism and the fundamentalist hijacking of the movement in America in general.

  2. Brian Stiller

    To say Tommy Douglas is an evangelical is a enormous stretch of what it means. He was part of the rise of the social gospel movement which found its roots in Walter Rausenbush.
    Brian Stiller

    • My view of evangelicalism is definitely more charitable than that of your generation Brian. What I and others in the Jesus-centered writing movement are trying to do is to rethink our “evangelical” convictions and root these in the person and work of Jesus while borrowing from other faith traditions if it aligns with the Gospel, as opposed to trying to “fit into the mold” of many contemporary expressions that unfortunately divorce salvation from the earth.

  3. I won’t get into an argument over the definition of evangelical but this article is very close to home. In 1932 my grandmother died in Saskatchewan three months after giving birth to her youngest child. She had a treatable illness but was turned away by the doctor because they could not pay. The crops had failed that year. Nine children became motherless and the consequences of that situation still play out. I was ten years old myself before my parents paid off medical expenses around my birth. I grew up knowing my complicated birth had caused severe financial hardship for the family. Universal health care came in shortly after and Christian compassion was the motivation.

    We simply don’t hear stories like this here anymore. I have never ever heard of a Canadian who wants a return to the days when profit trumped compassion or to become a country that adopts a “survival of the fittest” philosophy. We are very grateful for Tommy Douglas’ compassion for families like mine.

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