Politics: Tommy Douglas Big Dreams

By on March 13, 2016
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Tommy Douglas’ big dreams
Douglas knew how to dream big, championing medicare even when the critics said he’d never succeed.

By Jack Layton, as published in the Mark
When Canadians voted Tommy Douglas our “Greatest Canadian” in 2004, we honoured a man whose example sets the highest bar for today’s political leaders. A portrait of the preacher from Weyburn hangs in my Centre Block office, watching over every meeting with every delegation from every corner of this country. A momentary meeting of the eyes often brings to mind Tommy’s essential teachings.

“Dream no little dreams,” Tommy would say – then show us how. Medicare is impossible, the world cried out. You’ll never balance Saskatchewan’s budget. The medical establishment won’t allow it. It can’t be done. Then he got it done, through a dramatic team effort sparked by his courage to dream big. That same courage lowered Saskatchewan’s voting age to 18, pioneered public-sector bargaining rights, prototyped public auto insurance, launched a public air ambulance service, and issued a bill of rights – all in Tommy’s first term as our party’s first provincial premier.

Contrast Tommy’s vision with more “modern” leaders whose idea of nation-building is to prop up big business and hope for the best. We need more of Tommy, and less of that. More of that Douglas-style dreaming that’s genetically linked to getting things done.

When he came to Ottawa as the NDP’s first federal leader, Tommy set to work building bridges with Lester Pearson’s minority government. Persistently. Pragmatically. The results became defining aspects of Canadian society – national medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, a world-class affordable housing strategy. That’s why older Canadians aren’t surprised to see today’s New Democrats making minority Parliaments work. We’re learning from the very best.

But Tommy’s example also underlines vital limits on compromise. Forty years ago, I was studying at McGill University when Pierre Laporte was murdered by the FLQ. Like so many, I found myself carried away by the popular impulse to applaud Trudeau’s drastic crackdown on the threat that the FLQ seemed to represent. Then Tommy began powerfully condemning the suspension of civil rights under the War Measures Act – risking terrible ostracism to give sober voice to principle: we mustn’t use fear as a smokescreen to trample basic rights. As the vans plucked hundreds of peaceful separatists from the streets of Montreal, something clicked and I rushed to become a New Democrat.

Dream big. Be pragmatic. Stick to your principles. That’s Tommy’s distinguished example. There’s none better for aspiring young leaders looking to make a positive mark on their country.

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