The dark side of medicare’s champion

The greatest Canadian of all time said we should sterilize mental defectives. Wait. Before you report me to your province’s human rights commission for attempting to glorify some neo-Nazi bigot, you should know this: We’re talking about Tommy Douglas. The Tommy Douglas. The socialist icon. The father of our vaunted medicare system. The man recently voted the Greatest Canadian of all time by CBC viewers. His 1933 master’s thesis in sociology — The Problems of the Subnormal Family — staunchly advocated eugenics in the most merciless terms. And almost nobody dares mention anything about it.

That Tommy Douglas holds a venerated place in Canadian mythology is beyond dispute. He’s not just a hero to leftwing nationalists or CBC viewers. When the Reform party created a portrait gallery of “bridge builders” in their caucus room in 1996, Douglas was there. What’s especially disquieting about his flirtation with eugenics is that — as with Max and Monique Nemni’s recent book detailing Pierre Trudeau’s youthful anti-Semitism, reactionary clerico-political views and blindness to Nazi aggression — these are not things that were actively hidden from Canadians. It’s just that we chose to ignore them.

The Wikipedia online encyclopedia entry tells us Douglas “is warmly remembered for his folksy wit and oratory with which he expressed his steadfast idealism, exemplified by his fable of Mouseland .... In 2004, he was voted ‘The Greatest Canadian’ of all time in a nationally televised contest organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.” Then the entry states baldly that he “completed his Master’s degree (MA) in Sociology from McMaster University in 1933. His thesis was on eugenics as a solution for Canada’s economic problems.”

One cannot simply dismiss these views as youthful folly; when Douglas wrote them, he was nearly 30 years old.

From the point of view of the modern left, much is — or should be — profoundly troubling in Douglas’s thesis. He flings about terms like “subnormal,” “defective” and “moron” and condemns unwed motherhood in harshly judgmental terms. He speaks of women “guilty” of abortion and grouses about tax money as well as morals, noting that one “mental defective” let out of an asylum “lived as a prostitute” and produced two “mentally defective” children who were also institutionalized. His conclusion: “The initial cost to the taxpayer has been tripled in this case.”

And far from sympathizing with what we’re now meant to call “sex-trade workers” — whom we should view as exploited women — Douglas denounces prostitutes for “accosting” men from “fairly good homes” and giving them venereal diseases.

Douglas’s attitudes and vocabulary are troubling. But it is his recommendations that are most alarming. First, he advocates compulsory certificates of “mental and physical fitness” and seven days’ public notice before marrying. He goes on to say that since “Society does not hesitate to segregate criminals, lepers or any others that threaten the wellbeing of society,” it should put defectives “on a state farm, or in a colony where decisions could be made for them by a competent supervisor.” He discusses segregating the sexes within such colonies, but says it “would be very difficult to enforce, and would be an unnatural mode of life. It should only be tried if the next suggestion were rejected, namely sterilization.”

Thus we come to Douglas’s most appalling proposal: “Sterilization of the mentally and physically defective.” To meet anticipated criticism, he adds: “medical science declares that it is possible to be sterilized and yet have sexual intercourse. In the main, this is all the defective asks.”

He concedes “that sterilization might be abused ... There are possibilities of abuse in any forward step ... The matter would have to be handled carefully. Only those mentally defective and those incurably diseased should be sterilized.” The subnormal, he suggests, should simply be discreetly given “contraceptive knowledge ... when the family had reached a set figure.” Douglas never defines the difference between a “defective” and someone who’s merely “subnormal.” (He also advocates special classes for subnormal children rather than what is now called “mainstreaming.”)

If all these views do not cause advocates of political correctness to blanch, the Baptist minister also sees a large role for Christian churches in helping subnormal types to imitate conventional middle-class life, to “have teas,” “form clubs” and “learn the useful art of housekeeping.”

He adds that “When education and legislation have failed, there is still One, who can take the broken earthenware from life’s garbage heaps and make them vessels of honor in His temple of love.”

Contrary to occasional allegations, Douglas’s 38-page master’s thesis actually makes no reference to race, direct or indirect. It is almost important to note that, while Douglas never seems formally to have repudiated the views expressed in it, he does seem to have abandoned them. Thomas H. and Ian McLeod’s valuable 1987 biography, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem, notes that he repeated these ideas once, publicly, in a 1934 article for the Research Review, a journal put out by the Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). But after becoming Saskatchewan premier in 1944 (while the Nazis were implementing their own mass eugenics program in Europe), Douglas rejected proposals for eugenic sterilization legislation of the sort his progressive colleagues in the United Farmers of Alberta had passed in 1928. Professor emeritus Meyer Brownstone of the University of Toronto adds that, while in power, Douglas worked hard to improve conditions in Saskatchewan mental asylums.

Moreover, while in 1934 Douglas was expressing conventional pacifist views, in 1936 — as the Nazis were working toward purifying the German race through “racial hygiene” laws and the forced sterilization of those deemed physically and mentally “unfit,” culminating in forced euthanasia programs and ultimately the death camps — Douglas paid a personal and apparently eye-opening visit to Nazi Germany. He returned calling Hitler a “mad dog.” In 1938, Douglas denounced the Munich Pact, telling Parliament that “Yielding to dictators does not buy peace; it merely brings about demands for further concessions.”

While CCF founder and party leader J. S. Woodsworth was the man who cast the sole vote against war with Hitler in 1939, Douglas not only helped bring his party around to supporting the declaration of war, but volunteered for active service. The same childhood leg problem that famously made him a public healthcare advocate probably kept him from being sent with the Winnipeg Grenadiers to face death in the fall of Hong Kong or slow torment and probable death as a POW. Instead, Douglas returned to Parliament and helped Mackenzie King’s government escape its anti-conscription pledge.

Arguably, one could oppose Hitler’s military aggression and still be a bigot. But Douglas’s horror at the militarized apparatus of repression that he witnessed in Germany might have had something to do with his reconsideration of the idea of interning “defectives” in camps, where coercive eugenic medical procedures were performed.

What is peculiar is that this part of Douglas’s life should have disappeared entirely from the official Canadian narrative. The CBC biographical film aired in March, Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, which admits at the outset that “characters, locations and events have been composited, condensed or fictionalized for dramatic purposes” — and which the CBC pulled in June because it had treated Douglas’s political rival James Gardiner unfairly — omits any reference to the nature of his graduate studies. And the Canadian Encyclopedia’s online entry takes us from Douglas’s “further academic studies in Christian ethics” straight to his respectable political activism.

Tim Woods, executive director of Vancouver’s health care-oriented Tommy Douglas Institute, says simply “that’s not a master’s dissertation I’ve read.” Nor does the institute’s Web site profile of Douglas’s “achievements and his beliefs” mention it. Mel Watkins, professor emeritus of economics and political science at the University of Toronto and cofounder of the federal NDP’s renegade “Waffle” faction, says he’s aware of Douglas’s dissertation, but doesn’t know enough about it to discuss it in detail. Still, Watkins argues that eugenics “was very much in the air at the time, which doesn’t excuse Douglas, but does explain. [It] goes to sentencing, as one of my lawyer friends likes to say.”

Fair enough. But why, then, was there no trial?

Possibly because Douglas was not actually the greatest Canadian ever. Actor Michael Therriault, who played him in Prairie Giant, admitted to a reporter in March that he’d never heard of Douglas before auditioning for the film. “Most of my friends didn’t know who he was either,” he said. Standard historical texts, such as Kenneth McNaught’s 1982 revised The Pelican History of Canada, mention Douglas only briefly. McNaught gives him three index entries; Desmond Morton’s 2001 revised Short History of Canada, just five.

And socialized medicine is not working as well as the CBC hagiography implies, not least because, as Douglas himself admitted in 1982, he and his colleagues got rid of market pricing, but never got around to figuring out how to make central planning work — not exactly a minor oversight.

But such considerations are beside the point; before anointing T. C. Douglas a secular saint, Canadians might have at least been thorough enough to let the devil’s advocate mention eugenics. Instead, The Problems of the Subnormal Family went down the memory hole and didn’t come back up. The McLeods’ favourable biography deals with it frankly, and references to it crop up here and there on the Internet — but you won’t even find the actual text online. And McMaster University library has, all these years, been sitting on Tommy Douglas’s own handwritten notes about the subjects of his dissertation. Were such a personal artifact to emerge about the intellectual development of truly important American historical figures — say, Abraham Lincoln or George Washington — it would attract enormous attention, even if it was in some ways embarrassing.

Since Canadian nationalists reproach Americans for their tendency to uncritically mythologize their past, shouldn’t we be willing to examine our own a bit more closely? Americans know — and mention often — that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, and historians have publicly aired suspicions that his slave Sally Hemings was also his concubine. Why can’t we discuss Douglas’s blunder?

Maybe it’s because, in the words of George Stroumboulopoulos, Douglas’s “advocate” in the CBC’s Greatest Canadian contest: “This is what it all boils down to — the 49th parallel. It’s the dividing line between our way and their way. And did you know that on that side every 30 seconds somebody declares bankruptcy because of medical bills? What I’m saying is, Americans go broke because of being sick. I just can’t tell you how glad I am that we don’t live that way. It’s all thanks to Tommy.” A morality play this simple has no place for subtle shading of character or historical cause and effect.

Douglas is famous for such bons mots as, “The trouble with socialists is that they let their bleeding hearts go to their bloody heads,” and “The left in Canada is more gauche than sinister.” Even his flirtation with eugenics was mostly gauche, especially when we remember that it took place just before the horrors of Nazism, an ideology against which he was literally willing to take up arms. What seems truly sinister is the silence that now reigns on this imperfection in a revered national figure.

A longer version of this story appeared in the July 3 edition of The Western Standard.

[First published in the National Post]

ColumnsJohn Robson