The evangelical roots of Canada’s universal healthcare system

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Saskatchewan—Canada’s agricultural hub—experienced a prolonged drought and crippling economic decline. Many farming families faced bankruptcy and some even starvation. Compounding the adversity was a high unemployment rate and soaring healthcare costs.

The picture of available hospital beds might seem promising for us who enjoy the comforts of universal healthcare today, but in the 1930s (before universal healthcare was introduced), empty hospital beds reminded people that affordable access to healthcare was more a privilege of the few, rather than a right for the many.

Soul care to social care

Economic hardship wasn’t the only force sweeping western Canada in the 1930s. Arising amidst these socio-economic difficulties —indeed in response to them—was the Social Gospel movement. The idea behind the movement was to apply gospel values to the social conditions of the time.

Leading the movement were names such as J.S. Woodsworth (1874-1942)—a Methodist minister and social activist who would become an MP and founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (now the New Democratic Party, NDP)—and Tommy Douglas (1904-1986), the founder of Canada’s universal healthcare system.

Born to a Scottish immigrant family, Douglas grew up attending the evangelical Beulah Baptist Church in Winnipeg. He earned a Bachelor of Arts (BA) from Brandon College and a Master of Arts (MA) from McMaster University. In 1930, he became the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, SK.

Having grown up being influenced by the Social Gospel movement in Winnipeg—where J.S. Woodsworth was the Superintendent of All People’s Mission, a social welfare and education centre for immigrants—Douglas believed that “the great motivating force in society is love for your fellow [human beings],” according to the encyclopedia.

As a pastor, Douglas was hesitant to embrace a “fundamentalist” approach to the Bible and world. Instead he approached the realities of his time with an evangelical focus on social justice and human rights. The difference was of paramount importance to him.

In his book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, David F. Wells captures the difference well:

“When we move from Fundamentalism to evangelicalism…we are moving from a counter-community to a community. Fundamentalism was a walled city; evangelicalism is a city. Fundamentalism always had an air of embattlement about it, of being an island in a sea of unremitting hostility. Evangelicalism has reacted against this sense of psychological isolation. It has lowered the barricades. It is open to the world.”

For Douglas, being open to the world meant embracing the unemployed, starved, and downtrodden in Saskatchewan with the love and care of Jesus.

As a pastor in Weyburn, Douglas made the basement of the church a distributing centre for the unemployed. But he soon realized that being a pastor wasn’t enough. He needed to do more to help solve the systemic problems facing Canadian society.

Social care to political care

In 1935, Douglas ran for the newly formed CCF party as a candidate in the federal election. Having won in the Weyburn riding, Douglas and five others—including J.S. Woodsworth—formed the first CCF caucus in Ottawa.

However, the CCF’s success was limited federally. But in Saskatchewan the party was much more popular. In 1942, Douglas assumed the leadership of the provincial CCF, and just two years later, he led the party to victory—capturing 47 of 53 seats.

As premier, Douglas urged the federal government to introduce universal healthcare. In 1959, he announced that Saskatchewan would implement its own publicly-funded system. Saskatchewan’s universal healthcare system was a success. Within a few years, Ottawa would follow suit and extend that system to everyone in Canada. It was Tommy Douglas’ greatest achievement as a public servant.

“The Social Gospel movement of Douglas’ boyhood set out to build the kingdom of God on earth,” states the encyclopedia. For Douglas, human rights were central to the gospel: “values that emanate from the teachings of Jesus.”


This article originally appeared on the Canadian Theological Students Association’s blog in the Spring of 2015.

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