America's battle over health care reform started in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Feb. 18 2010 6:51 AM

Tea Party, Canada-Style!

America's battle over health care reform started in Saskatchewan.

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"The city's residents had been whipped into a near-hysteria by the doctors' anti-medicare campaign," Margoshes writes, adding, "There were graffiti threats on city walls and calls in the middle of the night to Tommy's house. His campaign manager, Ed Whelan, got frequent calls from a man threatening to 'shoot you, you Red bastard!' A few homeowners placed symbolic coffins on their front lawns."

As in the United States today, opponents of the health reform plan weren't sure whether to denounce the CCF as Communists or Nazis, so they did both. Protesters greeted Douglas' motorcade with Nazi salutes—when they weren't throwing stones at it. Other opponents painted the hammer and sickle on the homes of people thought to be associated with the party.

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The doctors made good on their threats: When the new health care plan was introduced on July 1, doctors across the province walked off the job. But the government was ready, flying in replacement doctors, mostly from Britain. The strike ended after three weeks, the health care plan stayed in place, and four years later, the Canadian government passed the Medical Care Act, which provided funding for every province to create a similar plan.

Douglas and his party were vindicated. Once their plan took effect, Shackleton writes, it "was soon so well accepted that no political party had the temerity to suggest its abolition."

But that vindication came too late. Douglas, who had led the CCF to five straight provincial victories, lost his federal campaign that June, receiving barely half as many votes as his opponent. Two years later, the Liberals defeated the CCF for the first time in 20 years. The party that passed health care reform would spend the next seven years out of power.

The events leading up to the 1962 doctors' strike in Saskatchewan are different from today's Tea Party movement in important ways, of course. Saskatchewan wasn't seized by the same level of broad distrust for government that U.S. opinion polls show today. The idea of a government role in health care was already accepted, to a degree: Saskatchewan had already passed the Hospital Insurance Act in 1947, which paid for hospital care. And the changes Democrats have called for stop well short of single-payer health care, notwithstanding the charges of their critics. Even the AMA supported Obama's plan.

But the anger of those months in Saskatchewan undermines a key belief in the debate over health care reform. When confronted with the overall success of Canada's brand of government-funded health care—better health outcomes at much lower cost—Americans tend to respond that such a broad government role is anathema to American culture. This has the ring of an excuse—after all, the idea was apparently somewhat anathema to Canadian culture in 1962. As Douglas said then, "We've become convinced that these things, which were once thought to be radical, aren't radical at all; they're just plain common sense applied to the economic and social problems of our times."

The point isn't that U.S. and Canadian cultures aren't different. Rather, it's that cultural attitudes aren't static. However much some segments of U.S. culture may resist Obama's proposals, the Saskatchewan experience suggests that resistance will dissipate if the plan produces a system that works better than the status quo—especially since, as in Saskatchewan, the government was elected on a promise to make that change.

The other lesson of Saskatchewan is less exciting for Democrats: Even if people come around to the reform itself, they may not come around to the party that pushed it through. If they want to achieve health care reform, that may be a chance that Democrats have to take. But re-election qualms shouldn't be dressed up with bromides about the limits of what's possible. As Canadians can attest, health care reform takes a little more backbone than that.

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