The CCF’s victory 70 years ago this June changed Saskatchewan

by Dave Margoshes

illustration by Nigel Hood

June 15, 1944 — election night in Saskatchewan. In Tommy Douglas’s CCF committee rooms at the Weyburn Legion Hall, young Tom McLeod, a protégé of Douglas, is manning the phones.

Ten-year-old Shirley Douglas, her hair in pigtails, comes running in. “Is my father the premier yet?” she asks breathlessly.

“Not yet,” McLeod replies. He picks up another phone.

The smell of victory is in the air. In Europe, Allied forces are fighting their way up from the beaches of Normandy where they landed nine days ago, and there’s a sense that the war will soon be over. In Saskatchewan, people can taste better times.

By 9 p.m., it’s clear Douglas has won his own riding in Weyburn. “Is my father premier yet?” Shirley asks again.

Before the night is over, the CCF has won a landslide 47 out of 52 seats, and Shirley watches as her father is carried on the shoulders of his supporters down Main Street.

Propaganda War

If you think politics are dirty today, consider the 1944 campaign.

The CCF victory was the result of a convergence of three things: the Depression, which hit doubly hard on the drought-ravaged prairies; the formation of the radical Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932 by farm, labour and left-wing groups; and the person of Tommy Douglas, a charismatic Scottish-born Baptist minister from Weyburn with an enlarged social conscience and a gift of gab.

Elected to Parliament in 1935, Douglas came home to Saskatchewan in 1942 to lead the provincial wing of the CCF. It was a great time to be a socialist in Canada. The CCF’s popularity was soaring across the country. The party had been sending MPs to Ottawa since 1935 and became official opposition in Saskatchewan in 1938. It also gained opposition status in B.C. and Ontario. Now, Douglas set his sights on forming government.

But the Regina Manifesto, which the CCF adopted at its first national convention in 1933 and which called for the elimination of capitalism, put the party squarely in the establishment’s crosshairs. A nationwide attack, led by Bay Street bankers and industrialists, claimed that socialists were communists in sheep’s clothing, and that CCF governments would confiscate property, insurance policies and bank accounts. The Liberals, who’d ruled Saskatchewan since its creation as a province in 1905, claimed the CCF would close both churches and beer parlours.

“The attacks became more hysterical with every passing day,” Douglas remembered.

The Powers That Balked

Saskatchewan’s newspapers did everything they could to stop Douglas’s momentum, and even suppressed a Gallup Poll that predicted a CCF victory, running their own poll that showed the Liberals ahead. Regina’s Leader-Post predicted Tommy Douglas as premier would usher in a “stultifying dictatorial system.”

The CCF’s most powerful weapon against these attacks was Douglas himself. He was a tireless, eager campaigner with a thrilling voice and a seemingly magic touch. In all his talks, he hammered away at his two favourite topics: health care and the plight of farmers.

Douglas promised steps to diversify the provincial economy, then completely dependent on wheat, and to face down the eastern bankers so eager to throw farmers off their land. And he pledged to do something about health care where 65 per cent of Canadians who had surgery were forced to go into debt to pay for it.

Douglas charmed voters with a hard-headed, realistic appraisal of their situation, and with Jesus-like parables — spiced with his unique sense of humour.

His most famous story was about Mouseland, where the cats were in power. The cats were smart, and they passed good laws — for cats. “But, oh, they were hard on the mice,” Douglas would say, rolling his eyes. Under the black cats, conditions were terrible for the mice, so they voted them out and gave power to the white cats. But the white cats were just as bad, so next election the black cats were given another chance. On and on it went, until one day, one mouse had a bright idea. “Say,” he said, “why don’t we elect mice?”

The cats, and even some of the mice, called him a radical, a Commie, a Nazi rat. But the other mice began to talk about the idea, and it spread.

“My friends,” Douglas would finish, with a wink, “watch out for the little fellow with an idea.”

Promises Kept

After the CCF victory, newspapers across North America declared that Tommy Douglas had established “a beachhead of socialism on a continent of capitalism.” And, in fact, Saskatchewan was transformed during two decades of CCF rule.

Within its first year in office, the Douglas government achieved many of its promises: free textbooks in schools, a government automobile insurance company (the first of its kind in the world), and a law to protect debt-ridden farmers. Government workers were invited to form unions years ahead of other provinces, and the most advanced labour code in the country was enacted. Another law provided for two weeks paid holiday, putting Saskatchewan workers way ahead of their fellows in other provinces.

In 1944, Saskatchewan had only 138 miles of blacktop. Under the CCF, thousands of miles of roads were paved, and electricity was brought to most farmyards. Incomes rose, and thousands of people enjoyed a sense of security they’d only dreamed of before.

The government also addressed quality-of-life matters, establishing the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the first such agency in North America, to foster the arts. Liquor laws were relaxed, allowing women to join men in beer parlours and cocktail lounges, and drinks to be served in restaurants. The first small claims court in North America was established. A Bill of Rights, prohibiting discrimination based on race, colour or religion, was adopted in 1946, years ahead of other provinces and the federal government. Indians were granted the vote, and Douglas helped form the Union of Saskatchewan Indians which later became the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations.

Prior to the nasty battle over medicare (free doctor care) in 1962 there were plenty of other medical advances, including free care for some 30,000 single mothers, widows and seniors, free treatment for cancer and psychiatric problems, and the first air ambulance service in Canada. A medical school was opened at the University of Saskatchewan, and the number of hospital beds doubled within a decade, taking Saskatchewan from last in the country to first.

Free hospital care was launched in 1947 at a cost of $7.5 million, or 15 per cent of the provincial budget (by 1955 it had risen to $29 million, or 20 per cent of the budget). To help pay for it, there was a premium of $5 per person or $10 per family, and a limited sales tax was enacted. To hospital officials worried about government interference, Douglas said, “We have enough to look after without worrying about whether or not the bedpans in Tisdale are clean.”

Economic Miracles

Saskatchewan was $178 million in debt in 1944, equivalent to about $2.5 billion today. The Douglas government earmarked 10 per cent of each year’s budget to pay off the debt. By the time the CCF left office 20 years later, it was virtually gone.

Further debt was avoided by setting money aside in a “sugar bowl” account to pay for new schools, hospitals, roads and government buildings. They didn’t get built until the money was available.

The key to that was growing the economy.

Two chief instruments of that growth were co-operatives (think Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) and Crown corporations. What he had in mind, Douglas said, was “a mixed economy combining public ownership, co-operative ownership, and private ownership.”

Saskatchewan already had power and telephone Crowns, and the government jumped into the insurance business. On a smaller scale, the CCF got into transportation, taking over money-losing bus lines and even starting a northern airline service. Before long, there was a government-owned printing plant, box factory, tannery, woolen mill and shoe factory. For a while, the government was even behind a project that saw herds of wild horses in southwestern Saskatchewan rounded up for sale to meat-hungry postwar Europe.

“The CCF does not want to own everything,” Douglas declared. “The only freedom we were taking away was the freedom to exploit someone else.” The eastern-dominated press and business world were critical, but individual businesses found plenty to like in Saskatchewan. From 1948 to 1960 the province had Canada’s highest growth rate, fueled to a large extent by discoveries of oil, natural gas, potash and uranium. The government had a hand in the development of all these industries, and also brought steel manufacturing to the province.

Along the way, Saskatchewan ironically became, as The Globe and Mail pointed out, “the biggest booster of free enterprise on the prairies.”

Sometimes the government stumbled. Mostly, though, it was on the mark and, as one journalist put it, Douglas “presided over the province’s leap into the 20th century.”

Waning Days

The CCF had come to power on a wave of optimism. Saskatchewan was in bad shape, and Douglas promised to fix things. It’s debatable, though, how committed the voters ever were to socialism. The CCF won five straight majorities, but never again by as big a margin as in 1944, and with most of the CCF’s promises enacted, the economy on an even keel, and the move to modernize well under way, the fires of radical change were burning low. Saskatchewan looked to Tommy Douglas for good government, not the overthrow of the established system. And he delivered.

In 1961, things changed drastically when the CCF morphed into the New Democratic Party, and Douglas won its national leadership. Following his departure, the doctors’ strike provided a tumultuous birth for medicare, and in April 1964 the CCF (now NDP) suffered its first electoral defeat in Saskatchewan when Douglas’s successor, Woodrow Lloyd and his government, were bested by Ross Thatcher and the Liberals.

But that, as they say, is another story.

Disturbing Disconnects
The “Tommy The Commie” crowd’s historical amnesia gets a psychological diagnosis

by Gregory Beatty

There’s psychological a disorder called “cognitive dissonance” where people hold two (or more) contradictory values, beliefs or ideas simultaneously. People who suffer from it, psychologists say, desire to avoid disruption in their lives. They crave certainty, so they twist reality to make it fit their worldview.

Here’s an example: we have people in power today who never miss an opportunity to express their pride and love for Saskatchewan. Yet at the same time, they revile the political party that’s been in government for almost half the province’s history.

Seven years into a still popular Brad Wall-led Saskatchewan Party administration, they’ve even concocted a mythical distinction between a “New Saskatchewan” of prosperity and growth and “Old Saskatchewan” presided over by “Tommy the Commie” and his fellow travelers in the CCF/NDP where life was apparently unbearable. Quite an accomplishment indeed, dispensing with a huge hunk of our province’s history like that — especially in a hardscrabble land like ours, where survival from indigenous times onward has always been hard.

No government is perfect but as Dave Margoshes outlines in his feature, Saskatchewan was in crisis when the CCF was elected in 1944. And the argument is generally made that no private sector option existed for us to get the necessary infrastructure in place like roads, power, telecommunications and transportation to modernize the province. Our sparse population, and the devastation wrought by the Depression, meant there was no money to be made by the private sector here. So we rolled up our sleeves and did it ourselves.

History records that the 1950s in Saskatchewan were incredibly vibrant. Attracted by the CCF’s progressive agenda, all sorts of educated and highly motivated people moved here from all over the world. The arts, architecture, science, the civil service, education, medicine and more all flourished. Even the Riders did okay — what with the Glen Dobbs-led Grey Cup appearance in 1951, and a team on the rise a few years later until the Mount Slesse plane crash in 1956 that took the lives of four all-stars.

Saskatchewan has always been a province that’s punched above its weight. Yes, sometimes people left here purely for ideological reasons. i.e. to get rich in Alberta, then lord it over everyone back home. But many others who left and achieved acclaim were motivated by a genuine desire to serve others and promote their Saskatchewan values on the national and international stage.

Even the current economic boom’s groundwork was mostly laid by the NDP. Our “prosperity” is largely due to factors beyond our control anyway: the emergence of viable markets in countries such as China and India. Their huge populations and growing economies need resources — such as oil, natural gas, potash, uranium and minerals that we have in abundance — and commodities such as wheat, durum, canola, pulses, beef, pork and lumber that we produce as well.

Simply put, until very recently, those markets didn’t exist. Now they do. And “New Saskatchewan” is destined to reap the benefits for many decades to come.

Another bone some righties pick with the CCF/NDP is that they’ve enforced a socially conservative agenda and generally held us back from being hip and cool like everyone else with … you know, licensed strip clubs and a laissez-faire attitude toward life in general without all the self-righteous bullshit.

It’s true that the CCF had religious roots. But outside of a few outliers, the right wing isn’t exactly a font of social liberation either — especially these days when its power base is largely rural and Christian.

The Sask. Party has been in power for almost seven years now, and guess what guys? Still no strip clubs.

Deny it all you want, but if you were born and more or less raised here and you hate the CCF/NDP, then you hate a good chunk of yourself. Maybe that makes sense to you. It doesn’t to me.