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

Many Canadians consider Medicare central to our national identity, and Tommy Douglas was voted “Greatest 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 | Midtown Press

$19.99, 32 pages


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

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

As prime minister, Douglas led the fight to establish a state-funded health insurance program, which was bitterly opposed by business interests and many of the province’s doctors. The program, the template for Canada’s health insurance system, was introduced in Saskatchewan in 1961 and the Pearson Liberals expanded it nationwide in 1966.

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Many Canadians consider Medicare central to our national identity, and Douglas was voted “Greatest Canadian” in a 2004 CBC poll. He is widely regarded as a national icon, although some critics suggest that his image, like that of Martin Luther King Jr. in the US, has been purged of his true anti-capitalist radicalism in order to create an acceptable meek symbol.

A Boy Named Tommy Douglas from Vancouver’s Midtown Press, an illustrated children’s book for children ages five to eight, tells the origin story of Douglas 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 faced the specter of amputation when a philanthropic surgeon offered to perform the leg-saving surgery for free.

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The trial was a success and Douglas continued to play hockey and box lacrosse, maintaining two sturdy legs in his arduous political career. But his experience left him with a lifelong commitment to justice, a commitment that shaped his distinguished career as one of the nation’s leading Social Democrats.

This is a charming, if somewhat overly hagiographic, little book that introduces children to an important moment in Canadian history. Joan Steacy’s illustrations are bold and colorful 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 for your cranky anti-vaccination relative to remind them what real Canadian radicalism looks like.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver and has recently had an opportunity to be grateful for Canadian health care. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos656@telus.net.

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