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  • Photograph by Alex Indigo

A Legacy Worth Building On

This blog is by David White, President of the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation.

David reflects on Canadian history and how addressing the social determinants of health has been at the heart of the work of some great Canadians.

Early in Vincent Lam’s fine biography of Tommy Douglas, we hear the story of a young Tommy gathered with some friends on a rooftop in north Winnipeg watching the events of the General Strike of 1919 unfold before them. They watched as hired thugs with baseball bats and revolvers charged into the midst of what had been a peaceful protest, leaving one man dead and the strike finished. The leaders of the strike, J.S. Woodsworth, among them, arrested and thrown in jail.

It was a powerful moment for the young Tommy Douglas, one that would stay with him throughout a life spent striving to build a fairer more equitable society. Fast forward to the fall of 1970, as a statesmanlike Tommy Douglas, addresses the House of Commons during the War Measures Act debates, in what many would consider to be his bravest and most passionate speech. Meanwhile, in a common room at McGill University, a young Jack Layton watches and listens and is transformed with a passion and commitment that will lead to life dedicated to the building of a healthier, more equitable society.

For Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton, the hallmark of a healthy society would include the availability of universal Medicare for all Canadians. But Medicare was just a piece of what was required

For Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton, the hallmark of a healthy society would include the availability of universal Medicare for all Canadians. But Medicare was just a piece of what was required to build a healthy society; a huge piece, but just the beginning of what is required.

In 1920, Louise Lucas and her husband Henry were farming near Mazenod village in Saskatchewan, it had been a good year and the practice for many at that time would be to sell the land when prices were high, move to bigger centre and wait for prices to drop and then buy in a new location and start over. But Louise wanted a house, a community with schools, with doctors and nurses, a community with a Women’s Institute, a Church, she wanted a place for the kids to play and be nurtured. She was tired of the boom and bust cycle, of the constant moving and upheaval. She realized that farmers needed a consistent and fair price for their crops, so that they could plan their future, so that they could sink their roots into the community and grow and thrive.

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Photo by Flickr user Gripped

It is the middle of the 1930’s and a teacher named M.J. Coldwell, watches unemployed men march into Regina, desperate for work, for food and a warm place to sleep. He watches as they march past, and realizes that some of them could have been former students and the reluctant politician is reluctant no longer and a vital and future leader of the C.C.F. is born.

As a young United Church minister settled along the Manitoba border in eastern Saskatchewan in the mid-1980's, I heard the stories of people like Louise Lucas, who understood that healthy communities with a range of services, a fair economy, were essential for the development and sustainability of a healthy society. What a rich heritage and legacy we have been given to continue to build the foundations of health and wellness for all. We didn’t often use language like the “social determinants of health”, but that really was what we were talking about and that was an integral part of the vision of the healthy society for which Tommy Douglas strived, about which Louise Lucas dreamed, for which M.J. Coldwell planned, for which Jack Layton worked, and about which he reminded us.

Our society must continue the conversation that asks us to travel upstream, and determine what it is that we need to do to build a healthier, more equitable communities

In 1971, the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation was established to honour the work of Tommy Douglas and M.J. Coldwell. Tommy’s vision for the DCF included the desire to celebrate the legacy of folks like M.J. and Louise Lucas, Woodrow Lloyd, Clarie Gillis and so many others. But equally important, was the belief that the DCF should seek ways to continue to foster and support those individuals and organizations working to build a healthier, more equitable society for all. As such, the Foundation has supported and sponsored a wide range of initiatives ranging from a 2013 Pharmacare Conference sponsored by the Canadian Health Coalition, to support of Inter Pares’ Annual Speaker Series in April of 2014 entitled “Health and Humanity: Connecting the Philippines and Canada” to name just two examples.

What a pleasure it is in 2015 to be able to support the fine work of Upstream. Our society must continue the conversation that asks us to travel upstream, and determine what it is that we need to do to build a healthier, more equitable community where all have the opportunity to be affordably housed; where all have access to nutritious and healthy food; where all have access to educational facilities that enrich and inspire, leading to satisfying and productive work; where all have safe drinking water to brush their teeth and cook their meals; and where all have the provision of timely and compassionate health care services. Such questions are as crucial in our time as they were in the time of Tommy Douglas, M.J. Coldwell, Louise Lucas, and Jack Layton.

“Courage my friends, ‘tis not too late to build a better world” - Tommy Douglas

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David White lives just outside of Ottawa on the edge of beautiful Gatineau Park, with his partner Janine and their dog Einstein. David is a Community Organizer, Historian and activist, who has fond memories of a wonderful 9 years living in Saskatchewan.

Want to Keep Reading?

Ryan Meili and CMA President Chris Simpson sit down to talk about how social change is at the heart of medicine - read part 1 of the interview here and part 2 here.

Connect upstream.