For twenty years an electorate of Christian men with red necks and white foreheads supported a government that changed their province and influenced all of Canada. This is the story of how that government worked, why it fell, and what it's like now in the most Canadian part of Canada, Saskatchewan

PETER GZOWSKI July 25 1964


For twenty years an electorate of Christian men with red necks and white foreheads supported a government that changed their province and influenced all of Canada. This is the story of how that government worked, why it fell, and what it's like now in the most Canadian part of Canada, Saskatchewan

PETER GZOWSKI July 25 1964


For twenty years an electorate of Christian men with red necks and white foreheads supported a government that changed their province and influenced all of Canada. This is the story of how that government worked, why it fell, and what it's like now in the most Canadian part of Canada, Saskatchewan


I REALIZE that anyone who was there will find this a pretty naïve thing to say, but I sometimes wish I had lived in — or at least got to know — Saskatchewan in the 1930s. The time I did live there was in 1957. I went to Moose Jaw in March, to take up a job on the local newspaper. During the three or four years before that 1 bad worked and lived in most parts of the country, from Labrador to Kitimat, and I had begun to form some ideas about the size and shape of Canada. I wondered if the piece that was missing, the

prairie, wasn't the most important one of all. Not since Alexis de Tocqueville has anyone attempted to understand America — the United States — without peering into its “heartland," the great midwest. But for some reason no one has ever examined our heartland as the same sort of touchstone to a nation, and 1 thought it would be interesting to have a look for myself.

In the nine months I lived there, I learned to enjoy Saskatchewan very much. Nearly every evening through the summer and fall I drove the forty open miles to Regina to court the girl I have since married, and on those long return trips across the changing, moody plains I think I felt something of the strong hold the prairie can exert on its settlers. The people of Saskatchewan seem to be close to the land in a way that no other non-French Canadians are, and the reason I am in some ways sorry I missed the prairies of the 1930s is that the legacy of those years was, in 1957, one I couldn't share. No one who had not been there in the ’30s — who couldn't say. “My son was four years old before he saw rain," and then smile ruefully — could ever really feel a part of the province in the 1950s. This is not to say a young man from elsewhere wasn't wel-

comed or made to feel at home. On the contrary. One of the reasons for the west’s famous hospitality is simply that many westerners are strangers there themselves, so to speak, and the sense of pioneering in a province where civilization is not yet a century old is one that gives .everyone something in common. But the dust and poverty of the Depression — a Depression that was a distant memory in the east by the middle ’50s — had drawn its veterans together like the survivors of a foreign war. I remember talking during the federal election campaign of 1957 to a jolly farm matron from around Swift Current. “I still can't see a dust cloud anywhere without feeling terrified,” she said. “The whole thing comes back so easily.” The prairie holds in common with the sea the power to mold human beings.

For all these reasons, I never thought of the CCF government as particularly remarkable in Saskatchewan. Even to someone raised in southern Ontario, where “CCF” was commonly held to stand for “Cancel Canada's Future,” the socialist experiment on the prairies — if that’s what it was — seemed both inevitable and proper. The protest movements that had produced the Douglas

government made sense not only as protests against the moneyed east and high tariffs, hut against the harsh, bald land the people had settled only a generation or two before, and which had turned against them. Politics have always been very real in Saskatchewan, simply because the effects of government are so important to people so close to the land. Scattered over a quarter million square miles, a population less than half of Montreal’s simply has to pull together, through government, to make do. And, just as they have grappled with their land, the people who settled Saskatchewan have had to grapple with ideas. While a farmer in Ontario could sell most of his crop to a local cannery, his colleague with a quarter section in Saskatchewan had to know' about everything from the Crow's Nest Pass differential to the likelihood of w-ar in Europe, and the men with the red necks and the white foreheads had a long tradition of arguing economic theory and co-operative action before the CCF came along. The founding date of the Territorial (irain Growers’ Association, which might be regarded as the great-grandfather of the CCF, is 1901.

There are three other impressions that Sas-

katchewan left on me as setting it apart from the other parts of the country I had got to know. The first was the complete absence of the kind of people sometimes known as “the families.” In a city like Galt. Ontario, there are perhaps a dozen names that constitute a sort of municipal upper class: principally the factory owners, but also some of the larger merchants. And every child knows who they are. and what kind of car they drive. But in Moose Jaw. which is almost exactly the same size, there is no comparable group. For one thing, there are no factories of any size, and such large enterprises as there are in town are mostly owned by absentees. Even in Regina, where no private industry employs nearly as many people as the Saskatchewan Power Corporation (w'hose presidency is not hereditary), the managers of many of the biggest businesses are men who may well be moved on to head another branch plant next month, and they are not institutions in the city, the way they would be in, say. Halifax.

The second impression I want to set down is a difficult one to document, since it involves so many unmeasurable qualities, but Saskatchewan always seemed to me more publicly Christian —

at least more publicly Protestant — than any other place 1 had known. I don't mean necessarily that more people went to church (although that is possible too), but that the churches seemed to play a more important role in public life. The Protestantism that the early Methodist circuit preachers brought to the plains had been of a special kind. The true Christian, they had taught, was interested not only in salvation for himself, but in helping others, physically and spiritually, while he was still on earth: first you fill a man's stomach and then you save his soul. This worldly Christianity seemed to me — I will just have to take the risk of stepping on someone's toes by oversimplifying here — one turn of the theological dial away from the absolute, fundamentalist, Get-Saved Protestantism that flourished elsewhere in America from the nineteenth century on. and it had sent down deep roots on the prairie. To take just one tiny example: anyone who doesn't dig sermons is well advised to leave his radio off at any hour of Sunday morning in Saskatchewan.

The third thing I want to say about the Canadian heartland is how completely Canadian it is, at least in the sense that it is not American. Nearly every other important population centre in Canada

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Ross Thatcher says there’s only one thing he doesn’t like about socialism — “it doesn’t work”

is twinned by geography to a large American city: Vancouver-Seattle, Toronto-Buffalo, etc. Calgary and Edmonton. two exceptions, have imported enough Americans not to have to go anywhere to hear someone ask for cawffee. But if you drive due south trom Regina the distance between Saint John, New' Brunswick, and Boston you end up on the outskirts of Ismay, Montana. Consequently you do not drive due south. If a Regina housewife wants to go to a larger city to shop, she is much more likely to go to Winnipeg or Calgary than to St. Paul. A by-product of this isolation is that no U. S. television reaches the province, and scarcely any U. S. radio: the most important cultural influence on Saskatchewan over the past few decades has probably been CBK, the powerful CBC radio station with, as anyone who has lived in the province for any time at all can recite, “studios in Regina and transmitter at Watrous." U. S. newspapers are as rare as mountains in Saskatchewan, and only the most popular magazines are on the newsstands. Maclean's, for instance, which has a Canadian circulation roughly double that of Time's Canadian edition, outsells Time by nearly four to one in Saskatchewan. And when a trend like the anti-eggheadism of the early 1950s sweeps the United States—even though, as that particular one did, it seems to have its mother lode in the American midwest—Saskatchewan can remain untouched, and Canadian.

KOSS THATCHER, the son of a local hardware merchant, won a seat on the Moose Jaw' city council in 1942, when he was only twenty-five and not long out of Queen's University in Ontario. He was a socialist, or at any rate a CC.'Fer, when that party was just reaching its zenith everywhere in Canada. He was also, according to Moose Jaw people who remember his early career, an obvious comer in politics: glib, energetic, and sporting an aggressive charm. Now, of course, his enemies dismiss him as an opportunist or a turncoat, and, indeed, it is easy to read simple personal ambition into everything he has done since. But it is just as easy to read sincere conviction and the courage to admit he has changed his beliefs. He says now that “the only thing wrong with socialism is that it doesn't work,” and this year he was apparently able to convince a lot of people that he was right.

In 1945. Thatcher sought and won the federal CCF nomination for Moose Jaw. In the genera! election of that year, he was the youngest of twenty-eight CCF MPs—eighteen of them from Saskatchewan—elected. In succeeding elections he built his majority in his home riding to a comfortable six thousand votes, although as the years wore on in Ottawa he sounded less and less like the fiery young socialist who had first entered

the Commons. By 1955 he was making speeches about the Liberal government’s over-generosity with welfare measures, and suggesting corporation taxes were too high. In 1956 he crossed the floor and joined the government. At once, with his big cigars and three-piece suits, he looked as if he’d found his home. His desertion shocked the CCF in his home province and, in the way converts to Catholicism are usually the best Catholics, he became one of the country’s most outspoken critics of socialism, particularly as it was practised in Saskatchewan.

Whatever opinion one might have held of Thatcher’s political history, it was impossible for an observer of his campaign in the 1957 election not to admire his guts. He was unable to get the nomination in Moose Jaw (by this time Moose Jaw-Lake Centre) and instead moved one constituency south to Assiniboia to take on his old friend and Ottawa desk-mate Hazen Argue. Wherever Thatcher went in that campaign he was followed by carloads of his former workers from Moose Jaw, who jammed the back rows of his meetings and pestered him—with all the fury that a prairie election can engender — with quotations from his old speeches. Cigar in mouth, ever smiling, Thatcher would reply, “I changed my mind,” and launch into one more counter-attack on the CCF. At one point he appeared to go too far, and Tommy Douglas, then the premier of Saskatchewan, and a man whose platform appeal reached beyond his own party, offered to take

Thatcher on head-to-head. Thatcher agreed to debate with Douglas on the subject of the provincial government’s crown corporations, and they arranged a meeting at the community hall in Mossbank, half way between Moose Jaw and Douglas's home territory of Weyburn. To the surprise of nearly everyone who was present, Thatcher emerged the winner. Douglas lunged bitterly and personally at Thatcher, while Thatcher stuck to facts and reasoned arguments. Thatcher's triumph — against Douglas it would have been a triumph just to come out whole—wasn't dimmed by his defeat by Argue in Assiniboia. and by 1959. having switched to provincial politics, he was the new leader of his party in Saskatchewan.

As much as it was the result of any single factor, the end of the CCF regime w'as Ross Thatcher's personal victory. He injected his flamboyant, driving personality into every aspect of the campaign and his own energy inspired the wheat-roots organization he had built throughout the province after the 1960 election. So energetic did he appear, in fact, that w'hen some advisers from MacLaren Advertising arrived in mid-campaign to help the Saskatchewan Liberals, their first and most important decision was to edit Thatcher’s speeches and supervise his performance so he would appear dignified enough to lead a government, as well as dynamic enough to lead an opposition or conduct a whirlwind campaign.

The CC F had nothing to match Thatcher’s chutzpah. By the admission of even their own cabinet ministers they had grown old in office. Douglas’s successor. Woodrow Lloyd, a reflective, even philosophical former schoolteacher, suffers from what Canadian political historians may someday call the Pearson Problem: he is as lacklustre in public as he is witty and disarming in private. The CCF had fought to exhaustion in the medical care insurance battle of onlytwo summers before. A whole new generation — eighteen-year-olds can vote in Saskatchewan elections—had grown up untouched by the 1930s. The young people were uninspired by the memory of the C'CF's early goals, and the older leaders had been unable to set new ones to excite them. Although the party signed enough new members to top its 1944 figure for the first time, the organizers were unable to attract the uncommitted. Thatcher's organizers had weakened the C'C'F's farm support. The CCF held on to enough votes in the cities to keep its vote within one percentage point of their I960 victory, but people who had voted Social Credit or Conservative before flocked to Thatcher. The end w'as a whimper instead of a bang, but the era that had begun in 1944 drew to a close in 1964.

IN A PAMPHLET he called Social Democracy in Canada, George Williams, a tinsmith's son who during the 1920s and early ’30s walked and hitchhiked through the farming area east ot Saskatoon preaching the new gospel of prairie protest, wrote: “This is not a treatise on socialism according to Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Bellamy or Engels . . . The people of Canada are not interested in ascertaining

whether a proposed economic system agrees with Marxism or any other ism; they want to be reasonably sure that it will work.”

Williams was elected to the legislature in 1934—one of the original CCF “quints" who won seats against a Liberal landslide—and went on to become the first CCF minister of agriculture. He died in 1945, a few months after assuming his portfolio, but the words of his pamphlet, written in 1936. are as valid as if he’d lived

to see the whole history of the movement he'd helped to launch. A fewdoctrinaire socialists provided a sort of focal point for the protest movements out of which the CCF grew, perhaps, but at every step on the road to power and after, their ideas were tempered by the realities of the prairie. At first, for instance, the CCF talked of nationalizing the land: the system would be known as “uselease.” and a farmer would have life tenure on land the state owned. But

cooler heads soon realized how the proud, independent settlers of Saskatchewan would react to that particular outrage, and “use - lease” disappeared in 1936. Even The Commonwealth, the party’s Saskatchewan newspaper, which might have been expected to be brimming with attacks on the “bloated capitalists of Bay Street" in the 1930s. contained scarcely more invective than a Toronto Star editorial of the 1960s.

The division between the CCF and

the old-line parties never was one of class, partly because Saskatchewan, from its outset, was nearly a classless world. One member who entered the legislature with the CCF’s second small wave (the “quints” were joined by six more CCF MLAs in the 1938 election) recalls losing every one of the ten polls in his riding where all the families were on relief.

By 1944 the CCF’s triumph was inevitable—as inevitable, perhaps, as their 1964 defeat. The Liberals, grown fat in power, had postponed the election to extend their term to six years. The war to preserve the old order that many people had found wanting was nearly over. The CCF’s bright promises were attracting new followers everywhere in Canada; it was to form the official opposition in Ontario the next year. Tommy Douglas had returned from Ottawa to lead the provincial party, and the bantam Baptist's magnetic oratory was the most popular show in the province.

Thirty of the fifty-two CCF candidates in 1944—of whom forty-seven were elected — were farmers, but Douglas named only five to his first cabinet. The ministry of health, where much of the government’s first precedent-setting work was to be done, he kept for himself—he was, of course, a clergyman, with a master’s degree in sociology. Three of the remaining portfolios, including the important one of provincial treasurer, he gave to school teachers, and this particular choice was the first evidence of a pattern that was to dominate the years of CCF rule: a trust in the intellectual. In the depression years of the west, many men who in more prosperous times might have gone on to postgraduate degrees and academic careers, turned instead to the security of the prairie classroom. M. J. Coldwell. who was to become the national leader of the CCF, was one. Woodrow Lloyd, the CCF’s first minister of education, and Clarence Fines, the provincial treasurer, were others.

The Douglas cabinet ministers brought with them implicit instructions from the party, if not from the electorate as a whole. Their platform, which had been drafted in open convention. pledged them to a score of general and. for the time, revolutionary, proposals, nearly all of which had been thrashed out by some of the party's thirty-five thousand dues-paying, vitally involved members. The question that the government now faced—exactly how all these measures were to be instituted—must have looked overwhelming. To help the cabinet translate these plans into concrete programs, the government began seeking out the first of the number of bright young men from all over Canada — and beyond — who came to Saskatchewan in the 1940s. These men. most of whom came out of the graduate schools of universities, became the machinery of CCF accomplishment for the next twenty years, and there is scarcely any area of provincial life that their trained minds have not touched. Saskatchewan was able to attract them in the 1940s by its atmosphere of hope and willingness to experiment. The province became, in a sense, a social and governmental laboratory. Many ideas and theories that almost certainly

would have remained only ideological and theoretical were tested out among the rational, Christian, Canadian people of the prairie. The CCF was able to retain these men partly by giving them the freedom and co-operation they could scarcely expect from other governments, and partly by encouraging them—even assisting them financially—to go back to university and pursue further studies in the light of the practical experience they had attained in the meantime. The key men in the Saskatchewan civil service were a small group— perhaps no more than a dozen played truly important roles—but the effect they had on the province was enormous.

Even before these experts had arrived, though, the CC F set out on one of the most frenzied periods of action any government in Canada has ever undertaken. In the first eighteen months they passed 196 Acts, established four new departments or agencies of the civil service, set up and heard reports from half a dozen royal commissions, and opened eleven new government corporations.

The plunge into health insurance was typical of both the turmoil of the time, and the government’s eagerness to seek the advice of experts and to follow it. On September 8, 1944,

Douglas, in his role as minister of health, appointed Dr. Henry Sigerist, a professor of medical history at Johns Hopkins University in the U. S., to head a survey commission. Dr. Sigerist immediately chose two other doctors, a dentist, a nurse and a hospital administrator to assist him, and began his hearings. The commission,

in a burst of activity that seems incredible in view of what we have come to expect of all government commissions, reported less than thirty days later, on October 4. It recommended broad and fundamental changes in the province’s health structure, among them the establishment of “health districts” — a program of regional preventive medicine in which Saskatchewan pioneered—as well as free treatment of cancer, free health services to all pensioners and an air ambulance system to serve the scattered farm communities. Here was the explicit rendering of the general policies of the CCF. Immediately, the government announced it would fulfill “the spirit of the report,” and in November Douglas established a Health Services Planning Commission. Again, the pattern that became the hallmark of the CCF was clear. To take just one example, the new commission—which was to play a major role in Saskatchewan's remarkable record of health and welfare legislation — included in its membership T. H. McLeod, an economist, who was among the first of the bright young men to assume government jobs. McLeod, unlike many of the men who came after him, had known Douglas earlier, in Weyburn, their common home town. Douglas had invited him to join the government as his economic adviser, and McLeod decided to stay in Saskatchewan. His role over the next decade was a varied and important one and at the same time typical of the men who have extended the influence of Saskatchewan's enlightened government into other fields or other parts of the world.

Among other things, McLeod was an architect of the province's successful automobile insurance plan. In the course of his government career he picked up a PhD. and is now dean of arts and science at the Regina campus of the University of Saskatchewan.

The Health Services Planning Commission went to work eagerly in the fall of 1944, and by February of 1945 it was able to make specific proposals. But the impatient government had been unable to wait even that long. It had already passed legislation, along some of the lines Sigerist had set down, for such measures as medical and hospital care for the province’s twenty-nine thousand pensioners. The committee, undaunted at being anticipated, settled into the role of long-range planning it followed in the future.

At the same time Woodrow Lloyd, who was thirty years old when he assumed the ministry of education, had been ramming through a school-reorganization plan that was as revolutionary as Douglas's measures in health. And Joe Phelps, a furiously energetic farmer from Saltcoats who had taken over natural resources and industrial development (and who was one of the exceptions, perhaps not incidentally, to the CCF’s willingness to seek expert advice), was establishing some of the crown corporations that led to so much controversy in later years. Inevitably, the pace slowed down after 1945. In the 1948 election, running on their record, the CCF very nearly went, as they say in Saskatchewan, belly up. But through the late '40s and ’50s, the new programs continued to emerge. Power and gas, distributed by a crown corporation, were pushed to the outermost farms. A vast program of highway construction and paving was launched by government construction crews—to the consternation of private contractors. The government, with results varying from mildly successful to catastrophic, went into such businesses as insurance, shoes, fish, lumber, wool, transportation, paper boxes, tanning and potash. And the co-operative movement, which had begun to grow under the Liberals, flourished with the encouragement — and the custom—of the CCF government.

Over the years, the bureaucracy grew in stature, if not in wisdom. Occasionally it must have seemed to the voters of Saskatchewan that the government and the civil service were determined to do the right thing for them whether they liked it or not. Medicare, of course, was the most noticeable exhibition of what the CCF’s opponents have described as contempt for the electorate; even now in Saskatchewan it seems impossible to find anyone from Ross Thatcher down who says medicare was a bad idea—only the way it was brought in was bad. But the signs of the same attitude were evident earlier. In 1959 Saskatchewan faced an invasion of trading stamps. To the C'CF, the stamps were an instrument not only of capitalism, but of the devil. But simply prohibiting them would have raised delicate legal and constitutional questions. So. instead, the government passed a Retail Merchants Bill, which included several large cudgels

—in the form of controlled financing and even controlled inventory — to hold over the merchants’ heads. The hill, which infuriated every storekeeper in the province, was never proclaimed. But the implied threat was clear: if the stamps come into the province, the bill goes into effect. The end, it seemed to some observers, had justified a pretty frightful means.

Yet in many cases it was exactly the CCF's willingness to go beyond vhat the electorate might demand that took it into new and valuable fields of government participation. A case in point is the Centre for Community Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. In 1956 the government launched a royal commission on agriculture and rural life, under the chairmanship of W. B. Baker, a rural sociologist. (It was this royal commission, incidentally, that worked out, under Baker's direction, the system of open discussion that became the basis of the federal inquiry into biculturalism and bilingualism in 1963.) One off the commission’s recommendations was for some sort of academic body that could examine what is happening te the small communities—principally in Saskatchewan of course, but with meaning for many other parts of the world too—in our quickly changing age. The government agreed, and Baker was appointed to head the Centre in Saskatoon, working with $035,000 a year in public funds and whatever it could get from other groups and organizations for freelance research. On the surface this was not an earth-shattering piece of progress, but in its own quiet way the Centre became a remarkably important institution. Scholars from all over Canada and the United States were attracted to it by the opportunities for research, and their work cast light on Saskatchewan — and Canada — that would otherwise have shone elsewhere. Similar centres in Australia and Africa were modelled on it, with the co-operation of people from Saskatchewan — and Canada's reputation, however slightly, was increased abroad. And, too, the Centre had some real effects on Saskatchewan, supervising among other things a settlement between the town of Esterhazy and the management of a nearby potash mine when hostility had broken out.

The work of the Centre, it has always seemed to me, summed up a great deal of what was good for Saskatchewan about the CCF: the willingness, in the prairie tradition, to learn, and to try things. The people of the CCF changed many aspects of their social environment, and, with the gas and power-lines and roads, they even made efforts at controlling their physical one. Their federal colleagues, ol course, have won a great deal of praise for their prodding of other parties into social measures that we all now take for granted. In the same way, there are measures now in effect everywhere in Canada that can be traced directly to the experiments on the prairie.

i WHNT BACK to Saskatchewan just after the government fell. Before I even began calling on the people I had gone out to see I could sense some differences between 1964 and

the time I lived there. With the coming of cocktail bars the restaurant food has improved enormously; there are a couple of places in Saskatoon and at least one in Regina that nowrank, in my opinion, with the best in Toronto, if not Montreal. The relaxed liquor laws somehow seem to spell the end of the great Christian tradition, with its overtones of puritanism. Fanny Hill is on sale in the drugstores, and I bought a couple of copies to take back to Toronto where it has been banned.

Some of the most important changes in the province show up statistically. Although its total population hasn't increased since the 1920s. Saskatchewan now has one of the highest urban rates of increase in the country; the people are moving off the farms and into the cities. The province now seems more typically North American and less distinctly Canadian.

Regina is now dominated by the Saskatchewan Power Corporation building — as handsome a piece of public architecture as I have seen in Canada. The Wascana project, thirteen hundred acres of parkland, university and government buildings, is well under way. Wascana is, to me, the most exciting piece of civic planning in Canada, and although some similar plans were sketched out under a Liberal government in 1908, Wascana seems a monument to the CCF. The planners hired the best architect they could find. Minoru Yamasaki, and they gave him his head, and in future the heart of Regina— which is almost an arbitrarily situated city—will be an international showplace.

1 spent most of a day touring Wascana, for in a way it is a symbol of the new Saskatchewan. Although many of the men who helped to see

its plans through were among that hard core of bright young academics who arrived in the 1940s and are now making plans to leave, there is no atmosphere of defeat among the Wascana staff. The Wascana Authority is a “statutory corporation”—the government cannot cut its finances out from under it, the way it cut away those of the Centre for Community Studies. The foundation has been laid. Wascana will, in a sense, now run itself.

Later on 1 made my way to the office of the leader of the opposition, and found Woodrow Lloyd looking as if he hadn’t quite enough to do. We chatted for most of an hour about what the government had accomplished, and about how it had come to be defeated. At one point he said, lighting his pipe: “Sometimes we got so involved in the plumbing and the practicalities that we forgot we were a party of dreams and revolutions.” ★