On July 1, 1962, doctors in Saskatchewan went on strike to try and stop the province from creating a universal healthcare system. A reminder that not all strikes are inherently good, this attempt by elites to withhold their labor so that workers with less money than they would not receive good healthcare was a pretty bad moment in Canadian history. But the doctors lost and the people won, ushering in a far better healthcare system in Canada than the U.S.
In his 1960 reelection campaign, Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas announced his support for a universal medical insurance plan. Douglas was a major social democrat and one of the best leaders ever elected in Canada. He was deeply committed to improving health care in his province. His first step was in 1947, when he created the Saskatchewan Hospital Insurance Plan, which provided free inpatient hospital care for all residents. This proved quite popular. So did his further plans and his 1960 announcement helped him win that election. He created a commission to create and implement the plan. But there was one constituency that was outright outraged and opposed to this–doctors. They were furious that the plan placed limits on what they could charge for those services, even though it did not place them on salary like some universal healthcare plans. The Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons announced its opposition and said that doctors would simply refuse to go along. That was not going to stop Douglas.
In 1961, the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Bill was introduced into the provincial legislature. It passed soon after. This was not a long and drawn out process. It took about a month. At this point, Douglas had stepped up to lead the New Democratic Party and Woodrow Lloyd was premier. The doctors were furious and put enormous pressure on him to not implement the plan. Lloyd sought to delay. The plan, known as Medicare, was supposed to go into effect in April 1962. He moved it back three months.
Meanwhile, doctors said they would leave the province if they could not have privatized medicine. In May 1962, the Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons announced its doctors would refuse to work if Medicare was implemented. Now, this was not a union. Most certainly, doctors did not have any sense of solidarity, as we would understand it. Both in the U.S. and Canada, this profession was dominated by rich guys in it for themselves. But these professional associations can serve as quasi-unions when professional interests require it. And withholding their labor was overwhelmingly supported by the rank-and-file doctors in the province. They thought socialized medicine was the devil incarnate. So when Lloyd allowed public medicine to go into effect on July 1, 1961, about 90 percent of the doctors refused to work. This was absolutely a strike and one for the worst possible reason.
There was very real pushback to the doctors. Remember, outside the doctors, universal socialized medicine was becoming more popular. There were definitely conservative elements in the province who were nervous about it, but they were not the majority. So, many of the people of Saskatchewan were furious. A sort of vigilante group calling itself The Swift Current Citizens Safety Committee formed in that town in the southwestern part of the province and started sending threatening letters to doctors. The letters claimed that the doctors or their families would face physical harm if they did not return to work by July 6. This was not going to happen. But, ironically, one doctor suffered a fatal heart attack upon receiving the letter. Too bad there weren’t doctors he could go to that might save him.
More productive than violence was the government bringing in doctors from other parts of Canada, the UK, and the U.S. to fill some of the gap. If you want to call them scab doctors, go ahead I guess. The doctors hoped for public support, but it didn’t happen. There were astroturf organizations that developed, particularly the Keep our Doctors campaign, led by mothers who supposedly worried they could not keep the doctor of their choice. Some of this was real concern, but this was also a highly coordinated campaign with lots of support of the media. They hoped a July 11 rally in Saskatoon would bring 10,000-15,000 people in support, but it only brought 4,000, many of which were the doctors and their families. By July 15, it was clear the strike would fail. Doctors started returning to their jobs. The government brought Dr. Stephen Taylor, now Lord Taylor, in from Britain, who had helped implement that nation’s National Health Service, to mediate the situation. He crafted a deal that addressed some of the doctors’ concerns on the margins. They could now opt out of the plan, though that didn’t mean much since the people wanted inexpensive universal healthcare so not many were interested in the full-price medicine the doctors demanded. The doctors also received greater payments from the government and more doctors got to sit on the governing commission. It worked. On July 23, the strike ended. This was a big enough story that the end of the strike ended up on the front page of the New York Times, which, when you consider just how little coverage there is in the U.S. of anything that happens in Canada, is kind of remarkable.
By 1965, most of the opposition to socialized medicine among doctors in Canada had disappeared, as the apocalyptic nightmares of the doctors had not come true. All political parties in the province now officially favored the plan and promised to strengthen it. It did not lead to a decline in doctors or medical services there. Doctors did not in fact flee to other provinces. Moreover, studies soon discovered that Saskatchewan developed the lowest medical costs of any province in the nation. By the mid-1970s, all of Canada had socialized medicine, starting with British Columbia. Unfortunately, doctors south of the border did not learn anything and remained the most staunch opponents of socialized medicine in the United States for decades to come. There are right-wing doctors in Canada today who still oppose the system and want to go back to before 1962, but that will probably never happen.
It’s also worth noting here that outcome of this strike was not inevitable. It’s possible the doctors could have won. They did have some real support in the province, not to mention from other doctors and conservatives throughout the nation. Universal health care was still a very new thing in 1962. Had the doctors won, it’s entirely possible that universal healthcare never would have happened in Canada and that nation’s healthcare would look more like the disaster that is the United States today.
More broadly, it’s important to remember that not every strike of workers is going to be something we need to support. The public interest also exists. People want to think that unions or workers actions are inherently good and something that require solidarity. But that’s a romantic dream. The reality is that every labor action will affect people in complex ways. While we should generally support workers actions unless they are absolutely counter to the needs of the people, when said strikes–say cops striking because some city implements a police review board or doctors refusing to work based on their own personal greed–we are under no obligation to support them. That doesn’t mean we bust their unions, though that was of course not relevant in the Saskatchewan doctors case. But it does mean we as the public make demands upon them and come to a solution.
This is the 399th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.