Review: A charming children’s book tells the story of Tommy Douglas

Medicare is seen by many Canadians as central to our national identity, and Tommy Douglas was voted “the best Canadian” in a 2004 CBC poll.

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A Boy Named Tommy Douglas

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Beryl Young with illustrations by Joan Steacy | City Center Press

$19.99, 32pp

Born into poverty in 1904, Tommy Douglas became a Baptist minister in Saskatchewan and a champion of the social gospel, first from the pulpit and then from the political stage.

An early leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), he served in Ottawa as an MP in the 1930s and led his party to form the Social Democratic Government of Canada in Saskatchewan, where he served as Prime Minister from 1944 to 1961.

As prime minister, Douglas led the fight to establish a government-funded health insurance program that was opposed by business interests and many of the province’s doctors. The program, the template for Canada’s health care system, was established in Saskatchewan in 1961 and expanded across the country by Pearson Liberals in 1966.

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Many Canadians view Medicare as central to our national identity, and Douglas was voted “the best Canadian” in a 2004 CBC poll. He is widely seen as a national icon, though some critics suggest his image, like that of Martin Luther King Jr. in the USA icon.

A Boy Named Tommy Douglas, from Vancouver’s Midtown Press, a picture book for children ages five to eight, tells Douglas’s origin story and his lifelong commitment to social justice. As a child, Douglas suffered a leg injury and a serious bone infection. His parents didn’t have the money to pay for the surgery that would save his leg, and Tommy was facing the specter of amputation when a philanthropic surgeon offered to perform the leg-saving operation for free.

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The procedure was a success, and Douglas went on to play hockey and box lacrosse, as well as carry out his grueling political career on two solid legs. But his experience left him with a lifelong dedication to equity, a dedication that informed his remarkable career as one of the nation’s leading social democrats.

This is a charming little book, if a little too hagiographic, that will introduce children to an important moment in Canadian history. The illustrations, by Joan Steacy, are bold and colourful, with a retro look that might have been seen in children’s books when Tommy Douglas was growing up.

This book would make a great gift for any child, or your grumpy anti-vaccine relative, to remind them what real Canadian radicalism looks like.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver, and has recently had the opportunity to be grateful for Canadian health care. He welcomes comments and story suggestions from him at [email protected].

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