#Healthcare4All – Medicare: History in the Making

Post by #Healthcare4All team member Megan.

Editor’s note: If the video below isn’t working, you can also view it on YouTube by clicking here.


Premier Tommy Douglas, known as the father of Medicare.

Premier Tommy Douglas, known as the father of Medicare. (Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

It may seem like Canada has always had its universal healthcare system (Medicare) to ensure that everyone has access to basic medical services. In fact, there wasn’t a national healthcare plan until 1966 and some provinces didn’t sign on until 1972 (CBC.ca). Our healthcare system is based on laws, which took years of work to put in place. Protests, strikes, and votes ended in legislation that made specific rules for how healthcare would be delivered to all Canadians.

At 43 years old, national Medicare is hardly older than the average Canadian, which means that many citizens did not grow up with this system. Still, many people take it for granted that Canada will always care for its citizen’s basic needs.

Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case. Canadians needed to fight for Medicare to be started, and we will have to fight to ensure that it stays, and improves as we learn and grow as a country. What worked in 1970 may not work forever and the system can be improved, but the goal of improvements has to be the same as the original Medicare’s goals: universal healthcare for all Canadians, no matter who they are or what they make. It’s a goal that everyone can get behind.

Medicare started in Saskatchewan in 1962. At the same time that Saskatchewan’s government chose to give everyone health coverage, the Alberta government was trying to resist bringing in any plan at all. Medicare was a huge controversy! Watch an old broadcast from the time here to imagine what it was like. While Alberta came around eventually, it shows how important it is to hold governments responsible for defending Medicare. If you don’t demand it, they won’t fund it.

Doctors have also attempted to reject Medicare in its history. When Saskatchewan brought in its plan, doctors went on strike for almost a month and when Ontario started their own plan, some doctors rejected government payments out of spite. Imagine your doctor fighting as hard as they could to stop universal healthcare! These efforts weren’t enough to stop Medicare because citizens understood how vital this service would be and the Saskatchewan’s government didn’t back down, despite the strike. Alternative clinics were created to survive the strike and community organizations fought the bad press Medicare was receiving. It wasn’t easy, but it worked (more history here).

Universal healthcare required public pressure, governments, unions, community organizers, and medical professionals willing to help. They were up against a medical system based only on profit and all of the resources of this industry to discredit Medicare as a dangerous, expensive, socialist plot that would lead to substandard care. The good news is that Medicare remained when it was started in Saskatchewan and then spread to cover all Canadians in the next decade.

If doctors protesting the system was going to determine our healthcare system, Medicare would have been abandoned before it was even begun. The reality is that Medicare isn’t for doctors. It isn’t about making sure that doctors have a pay cheque. It’s about making sure that patients have a check up. Today, many doctors will defend Medicare, as they understand the benefits that it offers to Canadians across the country.

It’s easy to imagine that laws will stay laws, but policy can change. It can change because of politicians—i.e. people putting pressure on politicians to make changes–but it can change because the courts interpret the laws in different ways, or strike down laws as unconstitutional.

All of the laws in Canada have to align with the Constitution of the country. This is a great part of having these documents like the Constitution Act, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These are documents that we can compare laws to, so that we keep the same high standards throughout time. It’s a pulse check. It is important to be able to challenge Canadian laws on the basis of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as you can challenge unfair laws in courts and get them struck down or re-interpreted. This process sometimes helps minority groups protect their rights if politicians, who are elected by the majority, aren’t considering their needs.

Currently, a group led by Dr. Brian Day is challenging the BC healthcare laws based on the argument that it is unconstitutional. Dr. Brian Day says that limiting for-profit delivery of medically necessary services is against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He wants to bring in private healthcare so that doctors can charge whatever they would like for basic services. Because healthcare is important, patients are willing to pay a lot. Right now, the public system regulates how much can be charged for basic services.

The government and other interveners like the BC Health Coalition believe that universal healthcare is constitutional and that protecting it is vital to keeping Medicare strong in all of Canada. The BC government has been trying to work with Brian Day to settle this issue out of court, but it looks like the issue may have to go to court to be decided. If you look at history, this new court challenge is another version of the protests of some doctors who prefer a for-profit system. Public pressure and government defense of Medicare will again be necessary to ensure that Medicare remains.

Laws can and do change, but our healthcare system shouldn’t be determined by private health clinics; it should be shaped by the needs of all Canadians. The journey towards a better healthcare system isn’t over. There are more battles to fight to improve how Medicare works and who is best served. Protests, petitions and politics will stay important to keep the focus on providing the highest quality care for the most people, regardless of who you are. We’re still making the history of Medicare every day.