North America’s first socialist government: Following the Saskatchewan NDP from Medicare to Meili

One month before the provincial election, the current conservative government of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Party, posted an infographic comparing themselves to the official opposition, the social-democratic Saskatchewan New Democratic Party (NDP).

The Saskatchewan NDP has often been at the centre of the province’s long history of progressive politics. It evolved out of Canada’s first democratic socialist government, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

What the Saskatchewan Party’s graphic does not acknowledge is that the CCF were responsible for introducing the concept of universal healthcare to Canada, putting the idea into practice in Saskatchewan while they were in power in 1962.

Despite continuous pride in NDP-created programs like healthcare, Saskatchewan voters haven’t elected an NDP government since 2003.

This year, polls are predicting that when the Saskatchewan provincial election comes around on Oct. 26, the Saskatchewan NDP will lose to the Saskatchewan Party by a majority vote.

The current Saskatchewan NDP party leader is Ryan Meili, a doctor whose outspoken commitment to social programs like Pharmacare and Saskatchewan’s bus service brings the party closer to its CCF roots than it has been in decades. However, Meili came into his role in 2018, right in the throes of the Saskatchewan NDP’s dip in provincial popularity.

With American political figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) raising the profile of democratic socialism and Medicare in political conversations across North America, The Pigeon charts how in just over 50 years, socialist Saskatchewan became a conservative stronghold.    

Rural voters have always shaped Saskatchewan politics, and the Saskatchewan party’s current hold on the province is no exception.

A 2011 study found that over 70 per cent of the Saskatchewan Party’s strongest supporters were rural. Last year, speaking to the National Post about the 2020 provincial election, NDP party leader Ryan Meili admitted that “the NDP has not been successful in rural Saskatchewan for some time.”

The current state of rural support for the NDP stands in high contrast with the party’s deep roots in rural Saskatchewan. The NDP’s historic predecessor, the CCF, was itself borne out of Saskatchewan’s Farmer-Labour Group.

Formed between the Farmer’s Union of Canada and Saskatchewan’s Grain Growers Association in the 1920s, the group soon defined itself as expressly socialist, and entered politics when it formed the Saskatchewan division of the CCF.

Democratic socialism is a political ideology. It seeks to create a “democratic economy” that moves away from the structure of capitalism, wherein corporations have control of production, labour and the economy. According to the ideology, democratically elected governments have a greater control over industry, and will look out for public rather than private interests in a way corporations won’t.

In 1933, when the CCF gathered to write “The Regina Manifesto,” a statement of their beliefs and goals as a party, they were upfront about their socialist, anti-capitalist ideals.

One of the opening paragraphs of the manifesto begins with, “We aim to replace the present capitalist system, with its inherent injustice and inhumanity, by a social order from which the domination and exploitation of one class by another will be eliminated.”

The CCF’s manifesto echoes critiques of capitalism in Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, emphasizing the oppression and exploitation of those who do not own their own property or labour under capitalism.

The CCF failed to form government in Saskatchewan for a decade after the Regina Manifesto’s publishing due to their limited rural support.

Then, in the late 1930s, the CCF moderated their socialist policies. In particular, they limited their proposal for governmentally-controlled sectors to transportation, communications, and power alone, and supported Canada entering the second World War despite their original declarations of pacifism.

Suddenly, the party started gaining traction in the province.

At the same time that the CCF began growing support in the province, fear of socialism as the harbinger of communism and authoritarian rule was rising in the Western world.

For some, socialism’s promise of government control sounded like fascism. This fear became all the more popular in the 1940s as the Cold War began and the US began its anti-communist campaign as part of the conflict with the communist Soviet Union.

The city of Regina’s daily newspaper, the Leader Post, published an opinion piece the day before the 1944 election in which the author claimed the election would “affect vitally the way of living of every individual, will affect the right to own and use property and would decide whether a stultifying dictatorial system would be imposed.”

Despite this discourse, the CCF’s proposed policies of creating publicly funded health care and a social welfare state began to gain popularity, especially in a province still recovering from the financial consequences of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. At that time, Saskatchewan was ravaged by drought and hail, leading to widespread crop failure.

An example of drought in 1930s-era Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of: University of Saskatchewan Archives

By 1937, two-thirds of the province’s farmers were mired in poverty. Even in 1941, residents were still fleeing Saskatchewan in droves.

Then, in 1944, the CCF was elected to Saskatchewan’s provincial government under premier Tommy Douglas, in a time when over half of employed citizens in Saskatchewan worked in rural agriculture.

The CCF passed over 100 bills in their first term, establishing the Department of Social Welfare and bringing telephones and transportation under government control as Crown corporations.

While socialized healthcare was a lifelong motivator for Douglas, the CCF didn’t introduce the idea of universal healthcare until 1959.

Douglas’ lower middle-class family immigrated from Scotland to the Prairies in 1911. As a child, he suffered from a bone infection known as osteomyelitis and was frequently in hospital—something that his family couldn’t afford. Douglas’s leg would have had to have been amputated if it wasn’t for a chance offer from a distinguished local surgeon to operate for free, so long as his students could observe the procedure.

Later in life, Douglas said the he “felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg, or his life, upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first class surgeon to his bedside.”  

In the middle of the 1959 byelection, Douglas pitched the idea of Medicare to the crowd at a public meeting in Birch Hill, Saskatchewan.

Lorne Brown, former provincial president of the CCF youth, was in the room the night Douglas announced his plan for Medicare in Northern Saskatchewan.

 “That became the big issue of the 1960 election; they won the election on that basis,” said Brown in an interview with The Pigeon.

Medicare became such a popular idea among Saskatchewan citizens that the parties running against the CCF in the 1960 election couldn’t outright oppose the idea, despite the socialist basis of the concept being against their party politics.

However, the idea of government controlled healthcare was not popular among medical professionals.

Local doctors were opposed to government regulation in their field and felt it would limit their autonomy as physicians. They organized, and managed to gather $100,000 to use in propaganda campaigns, spreading pamphlets and renting radio airtime to call Medicare a socialist plot. They even spread myths about the possibility of required abortions in the new plan.

On the day Medicare officially came into practice in 1962, most Saskatchewan doctors closed their offices in protest.

Despite backlash from the medical community, Medicare went forward and also succeeded, eventually being established at the federal level in 1966. Douglas became known as the father of socialized medicine in Canada.

Medicare’s success in Saskatchewan can be attributed once again to the province’s rural communities. Pre-1944, there were existing small-scale examples of Saskatchewan’s rural hospitals offering healthcare coverage to communities during by the Depression. This left a lasting impression of the benefit of a universal healthcare system on Saskatchewan’s citizens.

In 1961 the Saskatchewan CCF had become the Saskatchewan NDP after Douglas became leader of the federal NDP in 1961. The Doctor’s Strike ended when the Saskatchewan NDP reached a compromise with the doctors in 1962.

This came in the form of the “Saskatoon Agreement,” which allowed doctors to opt out of Medicare and even raise their fees if they chose to work within the new system.

While Saskatchewan’s CCF government successfully established many socialist policies and approaches to governance, like any political party, it had an internal political left and right. Its core ideals were frequently softened to appeal to voters and party members, even in its early days.

By the time Saskatchewan’s universal healthcare bill passed, it didn’t account for pharmaceutical drugs. Canada is the only country in the world with a universal healthcare system that doesn’t include Pharmacare.

Jim Harding, a Saskatchewan activist who was a member of the CCF Youth and an active advocate for the federal NDP, recalls that a large amount of money came in from the US to fight Medicare in the 60s from the American Medical Association and the American Pharmaceutical Association.

“They wanted to prevent government involvement in generic drugs,” he said in an interview with The Pigeon. “Where are we today? We still don’t have Pharmacare,”   

After the NDP was defeated in 1964 by the Saskatchewan Liberal Party, it didn’t form government again until 1971, under new party leader Allan Blakeney.

Blakeney promised universal drug coverage. He once told Harding’s father, who was a farmer and CCF organizer, that he would pay for it with money from the uranium industry.

“He was counting on a boom in the nuclear power industry and revenues and royalties from uranium to pay for the drug plan; he told my dad that,” said Harding.

Today, NDP leader Meili has made the establishment of Pharmacare a campaign promise, but Saskatchewan is a different place than it was when it elected a government based on socialist healthcare policy in 1961.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Jim Farney, department head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Regina, said one main barrier to establishing Pharmacare today remains.

“How do we pay for this?”

“I think the difference between now and the 1960s is we brought in Medicare at a time of unprecedented economic growth […] we’re not in that place now, we don’t have a young population, there is no baby boom.”

As Saskatchewan moved out of the economic successes of the 1960s, the Western world moved toward neoliberalism.

Professor of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan Dave McGrane defined neoliberalism as a movement “toward a more market-based society.”

Neoliberalism is the opposite of socialism, based on the concept of privatization and moving the ownership of resources and labour from public control into private hands.

As an ideology, neoliberalism was popularized and practiced in the 1980s by figures like US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Although neoliberalism was popularized by conservative politicians and aligns with conservative ideals, according to Harding, neoliberalism compromised the social-democratic ideals of the NDP.

Roy Romanow was the first NDP premier following the global shift to neoliberalism in the 1980s, but Harding argues that neoliberal ideas limited the socialist policy of NDP premier Blakeney in the 1970s, and Saskatchewan’s most recent NDP premier, Lorne Calvert, in the early 2000s.

Under Roy Romanow in the 1990s, the Saskatchewan NDP ran what Brown considers to be “the most right-wing of NDP governments that ever governed a province.”

Whereas Blakeney expanded Crown corporations in the 70s, Romanow was modest in his government’s public investment, shying away from expansion and focusing on trying to get the provincial debt under control.  

What marked his two terms as premier—and what severed the relationship between rural voters and the NDP to this day—was his decision to close 52 rural hospitals.

Farney, who has written extensively on Canadian conservative politics, told The Pigeon that the closure of those hospitals has gone down in legend in Saskatchewan.

From a historical lens, Farney said Romanow’s government made the decision to close the hospitals because they were “under a lot of fiscal stress.” They came into power following a conservative government under Grant Devine that, according to Farney, “mismanaged the province’s finances.”

Devine was the first Progressive Conservative premier to be re-elected in Saskatchewan, largely thanks to support from rural voters. He led Saskatchewan’s first expressly neoliberal government, and one of his first actions as premier was organizing an “Open for Business” conference, emphasizing his commitment to private investment and free enterprise.

These neoliberal ideas attracted Saskatchewan’s rural communities, who were experiencing an economic shift. Farney credits rising rural support of conservative neoliberalism in the 1980s to a change in agricultural business.

“[In the 80s] Saskatchewan hits a tipping point. Farms shift from being fairly small family enterprises to being big business, and the mind set of those rural communities changes too. It becomes much more free market oriented. That pushes a lot of those ridings and most of those voters to the right of the spectrum,” said Farney.

Rural people were no longer family farmers who saw their rights reflected in labour unions and socialism but were instead corporate owners who began to see themselves as small business-people.

They had become, by and large, entrepreneurs who wanted equal opportunity to rise up towards wealth through a free market.

In Farney’s opinion, neoliberalism, although a politically conservative idea, did cross party lines through the 1980s into the 1990s.

“Both the NDP and what became the Saskatchewan Party came to have this imagination that the Saskatchewan state is very constrained in what it can do, and that in economic and fiscal policy, [the government’s] job is to ensure a competitive business environment.”

A popular conservative narrative in the province is that the NDP ruined Saskatchewan’s economy, while others say Romanow’s cuts and conservative spending saved it. Under conservative premier Devine, the provincial deficit peaked at $1.2 billion between 1986 and 1987.

Additionally, eight of his cabinet ministers were charged in a fraud scheme to steal money through the Saskatchewan caucus.

However, those economic details aren’t what looms large in Saskatchewan’s political imagination. Instead, it is dominated to this day by Romanow’s hospital closures which the Saskatchewan Party uses as an indication of how little the NDP cared about rural populations. 

Although as of 2014 only 7 per cent of Saskatchewan’s workforce is still employed in agriculture, Saskatchewan voters remain invested in the narrative of the province as a place that must protect its farmers.

This investment is part of what Farney refers to as “Saskatchewan nationalism.”

“It’s not separatism, but it’s a group of people […] who are really proud to be in Saskatchewan, probably don’t love the idea of big government, but love the service they get from the Crown [corporations],” said Farney.

‘Big government’ refers to heavy government intervention in daily life, rather than a hands-off market-based approach, and is the kind of government regulation that socialist policy requires, and neoliberalism decries.

Farney says the conservative Saskatchewan Party has captured these voters.

However, while voters have moved away from socialist forms of government intervention, the Saskatchewan people remain proud of Crown corporations.

The last time the Saskatchewan Party lost a provincial election to the NDP was in 2003. In 2007, new Saskatchewan Party leader Brad Wall acknowledged that the loss was in large part due to the previous Saskatchewan Party’s refusal to commit to not privatizing Crown corporations.

“The biggest mistake the Saskatchewan Party has made in its ten years,” Wall said, “[was] not being clear enough on its stance on Crown corporations and not respecting the citizens’ strong desire to keep them public.”

In 2017, the Saskatchewan Party eliminated the Saskatchewan Transportation Company’s (STC) government funding from the budget. The STC was a government-funded cross-provincial bus service established in 1946 under premier Douglas.  The Saskatchewan Party’s cuts in turn limited rural access to healthcare and other services. Those outside cities lost all access to affordable public transit, and private businesses struggled pick up the slack.    

Premier Brad Wall’s government cited a decline in the number of users and profitability when they announced the STC’s closure.

Financial loss wasn’t new for the STC bus service, but under the original CCF government that put the STC in place, the losses were accepted as part of running a Crown corporation; the CCF didn’t expect public services to be profitable.

In early STC records, recordings of financial loss are accompanied by expressions of relief at having a service in place to help citizens travel through what was a particularly harsh winter.

Echoing the CCF’s original intentions for the service, Meili has said that if elected, the Saskatchewan NDP would bring the bus service back.

“We owe it to the people of Saskatchewan to restore this essential service,” he said in a statement to the CBC.

“if you look at the stuff that’s coming out today from the Saskatchewan NDP, particularly post-2000, it’s a bit more like the traditional social democracy of Tommy Douglas,” said McGrane.

McGrane is currently running as an NDP candidate for Member of the Legislative Assembly.  

Harding, who lives in a rural riding in Saskatchewan, was disappointed by the Saskatchewan NDP’s campaign pamphlet that was put in his mailbox last month.

“There’s nothing in it that would motivate any of my friends out here [to vote for the party]” he said.

“I know it doesn’t resonate here, [and] I’m interacting with a fairly diverse group of rural people,” Harding said the current NDP platform and approach.   

Through social media, Meili’s campaign has made clear attempts at reaching out to rural voters and emphasizing his rural roots, filming campaign videos on his family farm.

On Sept. 27, the Saskatchewan NDP announced a five-point plan for rural healthcare which includes reopening rural emergency rooms closed by the Saskatchewan Party earlier this year, and consultation with Indigenous and Métis groups on better access to rural care.

The NDP has also released several infographics emphasizing the 12 rural emergency rooms the Saskatchewan Health Authority shut down to convert into more beds for patients from big city hospitals as part of their response to COVID-19. The focus on those recent rural closures is their answer to the Saskatchewan’s Party’s continued emphasis on the hospitals Romanow closed.

In a 2018 poll asking Saskatchewan citizens who they’d vote for if a provincial election was held that day, the Saskatchewan Party still had over 50 per cent of support, with the NDP trailing 17 per cent behind.

The Saskatchewan Party’s support was bolstered by a 37 per cent lead over the NDP in rural Saskatchewan.

As of 2017, just 100 companies were responsible for 71 per cent of the global industrial greenhouse gas emissions, led by the fossil fuel industry.

In the US, the AOC-endorsed Green New Deal has brought forward policies that move away from capitalism as an answer to the ecological crisis our planet is facing.

 “In some ways what Bernie and AOC are talking about is a bit of throwback to traditional social democracy,” said McGrane, adding that he also believes this of Meili’s proposals.

Meili has not joined the current premier in opposing the federal carbon tax altogether, but he has expressed criticism of the way it applies to everyone, and not just major polluters.

A 2018 poll found more Canadians now support the carbon tax than oppose it. However, Saskatchewan was an outlier, with support for carbon tax in the province under 30 per cent.

Despite their reservations about the current NDP, neither Brown nor Harding want to discourage anyone from voting for the party in the upcoming election.

“It’s gotten to the point now, where, until something new is built, you have to support the lesser of the evils,” said Brown.

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