Once in a great while, political ideology and voter sentiment truly embrace one another.
When that happens, civic culture and political leadership can create magic in the lives of ordinary people.
During such exceptional times it is not surprising to witness new and innovative approaches to social and economic matters rise to the surface.
In the spring of 1935, in Canada’s wide-open heartland, ideology and sentiment jelled. It was then, guided smartly by Saskatchewan’s favourite son Thomas Clement Douglas, that Canadian social politics came of age.
During his first introductory remarks to Parliament he set the tone for a political career that would last 36 years.
“So this is Parliament,” he began, “I thought it was kindergarten.”
In 1960 Vancouver Sun columnist Jack Scott wrote about Tommy (T.C.) Douglas:
“Forget about politics. Here’s a man who wanted to do something for the improvement of the human race. He chose the method that seemed best to him, quarrel with it if you will.
“He was motivated by an ideal. To call him a politician, as you’d call Bennett or Diefenbaker politicians, is to insult him.”
Today this sincere dedication to personal ideals and political longevity seems like a thing of the past.
Perhaps it is. I hope it is not.
I fear politics now has become shallow and self-serving. One doesn’t have to look further than the recent bogus-hocus-pocus of Kluane’s MLA Gary McRobb to see where we are headed.
Politicians seeking to “McRobb” their constituency serve neither the deeper interests of their fellow citizens nor the lofty sentiments of a particular political ideology.
No one, however, can attribute such politics of sleaze and shallowness to Douglas.
No single statement about the character and integrity of the people of Saskatchewan and their leader Tommy Douglas is more vigorous and illuminating than that delivered by Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King:
“In my heart I am not sorry to see the mass of the people coming a little more into their own, but I do regret that it is not a Liberal party that is winning that position.
“What I fear is that we will begin to have defection from our own ranks to the CCF.”
And defect they did.
In a virtual torrent, Saskatchewan farmers, unionists, teachers, manufacturers, factory workers, small business owners and mothers and fathers flowed to Douglas and his fledgling Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.
What he was doing on the windy grasslands and in the dusty cities was nothing less that building a new party — The New Democratic Party — to deliver a new society, one in which humanity always came first.
“Improving people’s economic conditions is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end,” according to Douglas.
Douglas provided his constituents with a heartfelt and systematic course of political action that provided citizens with a good dose of wellbeing, community pride and jobs.
Bill Davis, one of Douglas’ colleagues in the cabinet, once said, “There are so many things that are deemed worthwhile and talked about that are never done.
“Tommy Douglas talked about things and did them.”
Douglas managed to swim up stream against charges of promoting either the birth of radical socialism or the death of epidemic capitalism. Neither could have been further from the truth.
In fact what Douglas was after was nothing more or anything less than a “planned economy.”
To some it seemed ironic that under Douglas’ leadership Saskatchewan soon became, according to the Globe and Mail, “the biggest booster of free enterprise on the prairies.”
But for the “new democrats,” the expansion of a provincial free enterprise system that was worker-friendly, community driven and environmentally sane was at the core of movement.
As Douglas began crafting a truly ‘people’s party’ out of the philosophical base of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and the League for Social Construction he made one thing perfectly clear:
Real social security for Canadians will occur only when capitalism can be controlled and the political power of the corporate elite can be reduced “without fundamental changes in the structure of ownership and control of industry.”
This was his way of saying unequivocally that the welfare state need not change what is basically fundamental to capitalism.
His understanding of the inherent need to control capitalism and reduce the political power of the elite without limiting the innovation and vigour of capitalism proved to be nothing short of visionary.
Even though Douglas did not have a lock on progressive economic thinking, he did, however, seem to have cornered the market on dedication and principle.
Free enterprise should, according to Douglas, always serve people first and corporate interest second.
We Yukoners should pay particular attention to our Saskatchewan cohorts.
Long-term political and economic change requires incremental steps nourished ever so gently by politicians and voters who are willing to stick it out.
According to Montreal poet Frank Scott, Tommy Douglas “related the whole thing to people, to every type of person.
“He was never very terrifying in his ideas even when putting forth bold CCF policy and he was able to put it into words that made it seem perfectly sensible and reasonable to ordinary people. And he was, therefore, the best.”
I lament the loss of Douglas’ brand of politics. There was a time when a politician’s politics were, to use contemporary language, tight. I miss those days.
Politics has lost much of its polish to the likes of McRobb, Emerson and Stronach.
But I refuse to despair.
Yukoners, like prairie folks, sprout from pioneer seed. And as Western writer Wallace Stegner — raised as he was in the beauty of the Cypress Hills of southern Saskatchewan — once wrote, “Pioneers try to use the past as a template by which to cut the future.”
It is my hope we can still find and elect leaders cut from the template of our rich political past.
Remembering the likes of Tommy Douglas is certainly a step in the right direction.