Nearly 60 years ago to the day, Saskatchewan doctors went on strike in protest against what would become Canada’s universal health care system.
Now, documents obtained through an access to information request show that in the 1960s, activists in the province in favour of the idea that would become medicare were being surveilled by RCMP, amid fears they may be communist sympathizers.
The Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act came into force on July 1, 1962. Years later, it would become the template for the nation’s universal health care.
But documents obtained by Dennis Gruending, a former CBC journalist and member of Parliament who is now an Ottawa-based author, show the RCMP considered the bill’s supporters communists.
“The RCMP was very fixated upon what it considered to be a threat from communism,” Gruending told Shauna Powers, host of CBC’s Saskatchewan Weekend, in an interview Saturday.
The surveillance happened during the Cold War, when tensions were high, he noted — and many people were under suspicion.
“The RCMP throughout that time spied on members of the Communist Party, but the police also cast a much wider net to basically spy on pretty well anybody with progressive tendencies.
“So the RCMP chose in 1962 to confuse support for medicare with support for the Communist Party.”
In 1962, the RCMP opened a file into the supporters of the Saskatchewan bill, calling it “Medicare Plan Saskatchewan — Communist Activities Within,” the documents Gruending obtained say.
RCMP kept tabs on local and international doctors, according to the files.
LISTEN | Dennis Gruending on his discoveries from an access to information request:
Saskatchewan Weekend12:3560 Years of Medicare in Saskatchewan
Gruending said that included physicians who travelled from Britain to fill the gaps left by doctors who walked out in response to the introduction of the bill, as well as local people establishing clinics with doctors who were sympathetic.
Sally Mahood’s mother — Margaret Mahood — was among those local doctors.
Sally Mahood, now a doctor in Saskatchewan herself, described her parents as advocates and activists for progressive ideas at that time.
She remembers the time as one marked by an important social struggle in the province, with the organized medical profession opposed to medicare, and others — like her parents — fighting in support of it.
Her mother was one of the two physicians who didn’t go on strike in Saskatoon.
“It was a very tense time in the province,” she said, adding she has “memories of my dad having to ride shotgun with my mother when she would go out on house calls.”
Mahood said while some might find the RCMP’s surveillance surprising, it doesn’t come as a shock to her.
While her parents may not have known about it, she doesn’t believe they’d be surprised either.
CBC ARCHIVES | Sask. doctors walk off the job to protest the universal health plan:
Mahood said she hopes that people learn from the recent revelations, and think about who police might have under surveillance now and what social values those people may be fighting for, like racial issues.
“What distresses me is that there’s no accountability for the RCMP to justify why they’re following ordinary citizens, who are members of legitimate political parties doing legitimate political activism, and they never have to answer for this behaviour,” she said.
After sifting through the more than 200 documents, Gruending came away thinking “the RCMP was out of control at the time. It went way too far.”
“There’s an irony here as well — the RCMP thought it was protecting democracy, but when I look at the documents and compare [them] to what happened, I just don’t see it that way,” he said.
“The introduction of medicare was actually a textbook case in democracy.”
Tommy Douglas, Saskatchewan’s premier at the time, had been promoting his plan for medicare during the election, explained Gruending, who wrote a book on the introduction of medicare.
Douglas won that election, and the bill was then debated in the legislature before it passed.
“So I don’t know how the RCMP could have believed they were protecting democracy by spying on people promoting medicare,” said Gruending.