Tommy’s war on the weak

The greatest Canadian of all time said we should sterilize mental defectives. Wait. Before you report this magazine to the human rights commission, or press hate crime charges for attempting to glorify some neo-Nazi or antiquated bigot, you should know this: we’re talking about Tommy Douglas. The Tommy Douglas. The New Democrat pioneer. The socialist icon. The father of our vaunted medicare system. The man 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 left-wing nationalists like Mel Hurtig or CBC television viewers. When the Reform party created a portrait gallery of “bridge builders” in their caucus room in 1996, Douglas was there (along with Louis Riel and three of the Famous Five). What’s especially disquieting about Douglas’s flirtation with eugenics is that, like recent revelations about Pierre Trudeau’s youthful anti-Semitism, reactionary clerico-political views and blindness to Nazi aggression, these are not things we did not know. We just chose not to think about 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 he wrote it, 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 (you can view a PDF of the original document at 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: “Thus 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 truly alarming. First, he advocates compulsory certificates of “mental and physical fitness” and seven days’ public notice before marrying. He goes on that since “Society does not hesitate to segregate criminals, lepers or any others that threaten the well-being 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.” (After all this, it is surely a trivial offence against contemporary progressivism that 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, “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.” Such religiously inspired rhetoric is rare on the Canadian left today (a lonely exception being NDP MP and ordained minister Bill Blaikie), but for Douglas it was common. In 1954, he told the Saskatchewan legislature he considered public health, like public education, “an inalienable right of being a citizen of a Christian country.” He was also known to urge his followers to build the New Jerusalem in Canada--which may be bad theology, but is unmistakably theology, nonetheless. Yet, today, the conventional wisdom is that religion has no place in politics.

Contrary to occasional allegations, Douglas’s 38-page master’s thesis actually makes no reference to race, direct or indirect. It is even more important that, while he never seems formally to have repudiated those views, he does seem to have abandoned them fairly quickly and very completely. Thomas H. and Ian McLeod’s valuable 1987 biography Tommy Douglas : The Road to Jerusalem (published by Hurtig) notes that he repeated them 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.

Since eugenics was thoroughly discredited by its hideous eruption in Nazi Germany, it is also important to underline that Tommy Douglas never held Pierre Trudeau’s idiotic views on war and peace (as Max and Monique Nemni’s recently released book, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944, details, Trudeau blamed Britain for the Second World War and didn’t support the idea of Canada fighting Nazi aggression). In 1934, Douglas was expressing conventional pacifist views. But 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--Britain’s attempt to appease Hitler by allowing him to annex Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland--telling Parliament that “Yielding to dictators does not buy peace; it merely brings about demands for further concessions.”

Arguably, one could both 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 (just as the youthful Trudeau’s short play about the perfidious Jew swindling the naive French Canadian might bear some relationship to his own rather different approach to the war). For while CCF founder and party leader J. S. Woodsworth was the man who cast the sole vote against war with Hitler in 1939, Tommy Douglas not only helped bring his party around to supporting the declaration of war, but volunteered for active service. In one of history’s ironic quirks, only the same childhood leg problem that famously made him a public health care advocate kept him from probably 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 (in part because, he confessed in a 1942 letter to his associate Clarence Fines, “we are so close to losing the war right now that it makes me shudder every time I look at a map.”).

There is no particular reason that an otherwise good man cannot have also held some repellent views, especially briefly. What is peculiar is that this part of Douglas’s life should so entirely have disappeared from the official Canadian narrative. The CBC biographical film aired in March, Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story, which admits at the outset to making stuff up (“characters, locations and events have been composited, condensed or fictionalized for dramatic purposes”)--and which the CBC pulled in June because it had unfairly treated Douglas’s political rival James Gardiner--also omits any reference to the nature of his graduate studies. And while Wikipedia knows about it, the Canadian Encyclopedia (which began its life as yet another Hurtig production) seems not to. Its 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,” though he admits that he hasn’t read any other dissertations, either. Nor does the institute’s website 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 co-founder 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--goes to sentencing as one of my lawyer friends likes to say.” Fair enough. But why, then, was there no trial?

Possibly because Tommy 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 histories of Canada, 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 A 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 web--but you won’t even find the actual text on the Internet. And in researching this article, Western Standard discovered that the 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 uncritical tendency to 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?

Is it because, in the words of then Much Music VJ George Stroumboulopoulos, Tommy 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.

To discuss such complexity could teach us about youthful folly. For, as we have seen, Douglas was not a child when he wrote his thesis, but his flirtation with eugenics passed--unlike Trudeau’s weakness for foreign tyrants. It was one thing for Trudeau to give a fiery anti-war speech in November 1942. It is quite another for him to write in his 1993 memoirs that, “At the time, Canada was in the grip of a real war hysteria. Is it true that the Gulf of St. Lawrence was swarming with enemy submarines? I have no idea.” To his credit, Douglas had, by 1983, ceased musing about forced sterilization.

Another potential lesson from Douglas’s thesis is that even a great man or woman may have significant flaws. That’s something that might teach us forgiveness. Regrettably, the modern temperament is not as given to forgiveness as, say, a Baptist preacher from Weyburn, Sask., might be.

The lesson that everyone is partly a product of their times could teach us humility about contemporary enthusiasms. But it is highly uncongenial to the progressive temperament to consider that posterity might look askance at, say, unlimited abortion--which seems to fall particularly heavy on the handicapped. Especially given the tendency of progressives to see history, like politics, as a necessarily uncomplicated morality play. The appalling racist episodes and beliefs in our societal past are alleged completely and necessarily to discredit every traditional institution from heterosexual marriage to military prowess to good manners. As Stroumboulopoulos also said, “Tommy Douglas led the rebellion against an older, uglier version of Canada.... Tommy’s values are now Canada’s values.” To admire him despite failings, especially regarding anything that even reminds us of racism, requires discarding the blanket condemnation of western civilization that drives the modern left. That’s why they’ve elected to go with option four: ignore the question altogether.

Douglas is famous for his Mouseland parable (you can find it at and 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 is 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.

[First published in Western Standard]

ColumnsJohn Robson