When Tommy came marching home again (Hurrah! Hurrah!)
When Tommy came marching home again (Hurrah! Hurrah!)
I feel that here I have made at least a brief acquaintance with the kind of unconscious force which Tolstoy believed is decisive in history.—Hugh MacLennan on his 1961 visit to Saskatchewan.
Three frisking pinto ponies surge and bump up the grassy slope until they are frozen on the crest against the fathomless blue sky, like a tableau out of a Zane Grey-era canvas. In the picnic grounds below, a half dozen miles northeast of Regina, there are those endless straw fedoras, in pastel, adorning the cautious men who wear both belt and suspenders. The plastic folding chairs seek the shade beneath the trees as the old-time fiddle contest begins to tap toes in the rising dust. The horseshoes clank. It is, for one final time, “an oldfashioned CCF picnic,” designed to honor the last of the happy warriors, Tommy Douglas, who will not pass this way again once the election writ is dropped.
Tommy Douglas is now 73 (like all men of passionate belief, he seems perhaps 53 in energy) and there has been a tendency lately to denigrate him, to regard with wry amusement his outdated marionette mannerisms and dismiss his pulpit style. One suspects, however, that a reassessment is about in order, that the painful progress of social justice in this tremulous country may spotlight just how much this pugnacious bantam accomplished which, over time, will be perceived as pioneering law, but now in 1978 is taken for granted.
He is the same five-foot-six as when he was lightweight boxing champ of Manitoba. That carefully tended pompadour bounces above the chipmunk grin. His style was a little too evangelical, too corny ever to make him truly comfortable in skeptical British Columbia where he retreated in 1962 after his galling defeat in Regina, first to a Vancouver suburb then, defeated again, to his present Vancouver Island riding. But this is his turf here, this picnic, these roots. His barbecued chicken dinner grows cold in the waiting Winnebago while he tries to work his way through the faithful who’ve driven from all over Saskatchewan for this final chance to grasp the wee chap who gave this province back its pride. “If I’d slept on all the kitchen floors of all the farmhouses as claimed here today,” he sighs as he chews on the chicken, “I’d have been around more than Casanova.”
Saskatchewan is probably the most misunderstood province of all, the home of Holdfast, of Climax, of Cut Knife, Elbow, Eyebrow, Lilac. Ralph Allen, the man from Oxbow, once wrote of “the union of a
very old land and a very young people . . . The Prairies are older than the Nile, older than the hills of Jerusalem, older than Galilee and the Valley of the Jordan.” A million years ago, mile-high glaciers began the process that has produced this silt-rich bread basket. When Tommy Douglas in 1944 became head of the first socialist government in North America, Saskatchewan had the highest per capita debt in Canada, the second lowest per capita income. There were a total of 138 miles of
paved highway in the province. Of 100,000 farms some 300 were electrified.
Over the distance of time, Douglas’ 17 years as premier were indeed a test pattern for what has happened everywhere else: first Bill of Rights in Canada; first supplementary old age pension; first loan plan for small business; first student aid program; first assistance to the arts—a decade before the Canada Council. Today, Regina and outskirts have that familiar, pleasantly sated look of upward mobility so prevalent in Alberta, B.C. and Ontario. M. J. Coldwell, when he met with the young Baptist preacher Douglas in Weybum during the birth of the CCF, was outraged at finding Depression families who had nothing to eat but stewed gophers and coffee made from barley. Today, one of the party’s aides from Weyburn worked on the Jimmy Carter
campaign, learning about computerized telephone lists. The Regina Inn now features a minor Hollywood name in a nightly theatre production of Same Time, Next Year, the Broadway classic on how-to-do-it adultery for the middle class.
What Saskatchewan (and Douglas and the CCF) are most celebrated for, of course, is the introduction of medicare. While nervous Ottawa waffled, the audacity of Douglas was rather breathtaking. After hiring Dr. Henry Sigerist of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, the world’s top authority on social medicine, to do a report, Douglas asked him who the best man would be to run it. “The best possible man” happened to be Dr. Fred Mott, who was untouchable as assistant surgeon-general of the U.S. Army. Douglas phoned the U.S. surgeon-general and somehow got a release for Mott who established a scheme that was followed years later by everyone else in Canada.
There are some 4,000 victims of nostalgia on the mellow Sunday afternoon. His earthy barnyard jokes, dropped with the precision of a pianist, are the more appreciated for being so familiar. If J. S. Woodsworth was the saint in politics and Coldwell the gentleman, Douglas was always slightly suspect when he took over the NDP as the laugher in politics. David Lewis was impatient to take over, as he eventually did, because Douglas did not have that urban radical hate.
Baptists don’t hate. (They don’t let down, either.) He has few close friends, in or out of politics. He has Irma and he has these adoring Depression groupies. Perhaps they should merely regard his record instead. The famed mimic somehow could never handle French, but he was the bravest man in the country in his stubborn stand against the War Measures Act. The Saskatchewan he left now has potash, uranium and oil, in total income surpassing agriculture, and may indeed, as he claims, have more future economic security than anyone else. MacLennan wrote: “These days when I visit Saskatchewan I remember how students from the farms starved during the Depression years in order to get an education. I think how people co-operated, and thereby upheld the dignity of their species.” In that, he saw Tolstoy.
Tommy Douglas stands on a picnic table, the pompadour brushing the red-andwhite stripes of the tent. The sky is now black and jagged lines of lightning pierce the horizon. He has them howling, remembering their misery. He fits this misunderstood province, the province he remade.
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