Tommy Douglas: The Road To Jerusalem

by Thomas H Mcleod And Ian Mcleod
355 pages,
ISBN: 0888303165

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Prairie Baptist
by I. M. Owen

E FORMATION of the CCF was something of an anomaly: an alliance between the Toronto and Montreal intellectuals of the League for Social Reconstruction, strongly influenced by English socialist thought, and the prairie teachers and preachers whose inspiration came from the social gospel that had replaced simple faith in the post Darwinian age. An enthusiastic observer at the CCF's Regina convention in 1933 was the Rev. T.C. Douglas, the young incumbent of Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

Eleven years later Tommy Douglas became premier of Saskatchewan. He held that office for 17 years, leaving only because he was the overwhelming choice to be national leader of the NDP, into which the CCF converted

The McLeods, father and son, have produced a sound, workmanlike biography. As a boy, the elder worked in Douglas's early campaigns, and during his government served as economic adviser to the cabinet and then as secretary of the Economic Advisory and Planning Board. In these capacities he was close to Douglas; the history of that energetic and creative government, told from the inside, is to me the most informative and interesting part of the book. Good books on provincial, as opposed to federal, political history are rare. Many of the important details, and the personalities of important figures like Clarence Fines and Joe Phelps, were vague to those of us who lived far from Saskatchewan at the time, and of course are vaguer now, so many years later.

Nobody could help enjoying Tommy Douglas for his cheeriness in spite of frequent illness, his good though uncomplicated jokes, and his peculiar mixture of relentless combativeness with unbounded good nature. He seemed to Re everybody, and everybody liked him. He even managed to like Mackenzie King (a rare achievement), and King showed genuine affection for him.

It's interesting to watch his growing sophistication; how the eager young Baptist whose M.A. thesis on eugenics proposed to attack poverty by segregating the mentally and morally subnormal and sterilizing the mentally handicapped, the candidate who was nearly expelled from the CCF for naively accepting Social Credit endorsement, evolved into the highly competent and rational' premier.

What's entirely new to me is that in the two or three years before the founding convention of the NDP, Douglas expressed grave doubts (in private letters, never publicly) about the wisdom of the plan to form a new party with the aim of increasing union participation and hence union domination. (I felt the same. "Well, there are always some purists," said David Lewis with a tolerant smile.) It's less surprising that he was reluctant to leave Saskatchewan to take the national leadership, and thought that Lewis should be the leader, as a younger man who was fluent in French, as Douglas wasn't. But Lewis insisted that he must take it. Lewis knew quite well that his years as party boss had made many members resentful of him. And contrary to an assertion of Douglas Fisher's quoted in this book, the leadership had never been in Lewis's plans for himself. ("A native political movement shouldn't speak with a foreign accent," he used to say.) It was either his good fortune or his bad that when Douglas retired in 1971 Lewis was the inevitable choice as leader, for the final four years of his career.

Our system of social security today, which seems strong enough to withstand the best efforts of a deficit cutting minister of finance and of American advocates of level playing fields, is to a great extent the monument of Tommy Douglas. His story is well worth reading, and we can congratulate ourselves in doing so that our political system seems to make Baptist preachers into better politicians than the system to the south of us.


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