Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and a former member of Parliament from Saskatchewan.
Universal health care is seen as a core value of Canadians today, but it wasn’t always the case. In fact, a secret RCMP file that I obtained through an Access to Information request reveals the force’s deep suspicion of those who championed medicare in the 1960s, with police spying on its leading proponents. It’s all laid out in a previously undisclosed file called “Medicare Plan Sask – Communist Activities Within.”
The RCMP and its political masters in Ottawa had an abiding fear of communism that began with the Russian Revolution in 1917. That obsession was magnified during the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919. It continued into the Great Depression, during the Second World War, and throughout the Cold War. During those years, the RCMP infiltrated the Communist Party, but also extended its scrutiny to progressives of any description. That explains but does not justify the surveillance placed upon the supporters of medicare in 1962.
It is remarkable that the RCMP perceived medicare as suspicious, even communistic. The genesis and introduction of the plan were a testament to the democratic process. In 1944, Tommy Douglas and his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party promised that, if elected, they would introduce a program in which visits to the doctor would be tax-financed rather than having individuals take out their wallets. But the province they inherited was so deeply in debt that it took years to fulfill the pledge. The 1960 provincial election became a plebiscite on the issue, and the CCF won handily. In 1961, the government tabled medicare legislation and it was debated in the legislature.
I was 14 years old in 1962, and lived in a Saskatchewan farming village. My parents were poor, and my mother was ill, but it took a long time for her to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That meant many visits to doctors, and we could barely pay the bills. I have never forgotten that time and how important the newly implemented medicare program became for my parents.
The organized medical profession of the day was opposed to medicare and threatened to strike. People who supported the plan began to organize citizen-led community clinics and recruit sympathetic doctors to staff them. During a flurry of meetings in late June and early July to set up clinics, the RCMP had informants in the room.
The Saskatoon subdivision prepared a 10-page report, much of it now blacked out by censors for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. On June 27, 1962, the report described “surveillance of a very discreet nature” at an organizing meeting at the Union Centre in Saskatoon. The document listed the names of many who attended, including Ed and Margaret Mahood. He was a university professor, and she one of two medical doctors who volunteered to staff the Saskatoon clinic in its first days. An RCMP corporal named R. L. Firby added an observation to the secret report. He wrote: “A very close watch is being kept on this group’s activities.” His report was forwarded to the RCMP commissioner in Ottawa.
The Saskatchewan government, when confronted with a looming doctors’ strike, began to recruit supportive physicians from Britain. The RCMP kept close tabs on them too. The first to arrive was Ida Fisher. The RCMP reported that she was “sent to Saskatchewan to lay the groundwork for socialized medicine in that province.” The commissioner’s office in Ottawa instructed the force’s liaison officer in Britain to gather further information on her.
The strike ended on July 23 after protracted negotiations between doctors and the government. But the RCMP kept community clinic proponents under surveillance for at least another six months. In January, 1963, two teams of officers staked out a Regina home during an evening meeting of individuals, including Ed Mahood, who were organizing a provincial network of clinics. There was also surveillance on clinic organizers in Swift Current, Estevan, the Battlefords and other centres.
The Mahoods’ daughter, Sally Mahood, is a family physician in Regina and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. She was in her early teens during the medicare dispute in 1962. She remembers it as a tense time.
I asked whether her parents knew they were under surveillance. “I don’t think so,” she said. “They were involved in an all-consuming political struggle at the time. But they would not have been surprised. What distresses me is that the RCMP never has to account for why it harasses ordinary citizens engaged in political activity for good ends.”
It is the duty of every government to protect the health and safety of its citizens. At times, that involves gathering intelligence on threats to the public. The crucial questions that arise relate to the intent, the scope and the nature of those efforts. In their book Secret Service, academics Reginald Whitaker, Gregory Kealey and Andrew Parnaby described the RCMP security services as “always on the side of the political/economic status quo, suspicious of those who would challenge the powerful and the wealthy.”
Often, yesterday’s heresy becomes today’s best practice. It is almost impossible today to find anyone who would admit to opposing medicare in 1962. What the RCMP deemed a threat in Saskatchewan soon gained all-party support. John Diefenbaker appointed Emmett Hall to lead a royal commission into health care, which in 1964 recommended the Saskatchewan model for Canada. Lester Pearson passed the enabling legislation in 1966 and made deals with the provinces and territories to implement a national plan by 1972. Community clinics in Saskatchewan were at first met with hostility by the medical profession, but those clinics that survived have come to fit comfortably into the medical landscape.
Who are the heretics under police surveillance today? Environmentalists trying to awaken us from our sleepwalk to climate disaster. Indigenous defenders protecting their lands against development without consent. Before you dismiss them, think of medicare’s pioneers. They were once the objects of suspicion. Today, they are revered.
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