Our Great Canadians

by Beverly Fast

CBC's The Greatest Canadian contest was a chance for the U of S to celebrate several of its own - John Diefenbaker and Sandra Schmirler both made it to the top 100. But it was the "little fellow with an idea" who claimed the ultimate honour.

The Father of Universal Medicare
Tommy Douglas, Hon. LLD'62

Tommy Douglas

Douglas speaking at the 1955 opening of University Hospital (Photo: U of S Archives, A-2161)

We've all heard Tommy Douglas called the 'father of universal Medicare.' Now, after being named The Greatest Canadian in a nation-wide ballot, the epithet is firmly entrenched in the Canadian mindset.

Is it a fair summation of the man's life? Yes � and no. Douglas did establish universal health care, but he also formed the first socialist government in North America, endured well-orchestrated and long-term negative publicity campaigns for his beliefs, and even went against the tide of public opinion by refusing to support the War Measures Act of 1970, saying it was "using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut."

Nevertheless, people from Saskatchewan are proud. Premier Lorne Calvert perhaps summed it up best when he said, "Tommy's win as The Greatest Canadian supports that notion that Canada, and indeed the world, could use a little more Saskatchewan."

Tommy Douglas

L to R: University Registrar N.K. Cram, T.C. Douglas, Chancellor F. H. Auld (Photo: U of S Archives, A-8633)

Though born in Scotland and raised in Manitoba, Thomas Clement Douglas is as indelibly linked with our province as wheat fields and potash. His family immigrated to Winnipeg when Tommy was 6. At ten, a bone infection nearly cost him a leg because his family couldn't afford proper treatment. He was spared amputation when a visiting surgeon offered to do the surgery for free as a teaching demonstration for his pupils - an incident Douglas later called the inspiration for his universal Medicare.

At age 20, Douglas enrolled at Brandon College to train for the Baptist ministry. He earned a Bachelor of Arts and went on to complete his MA in Sociology at McMaster University and his doctorate at the University of Chicago.

On his arrival in Saskatchewan as a Baptist minister in 1931, Douglas got a first-hand look at the devastating impact of the Great Depression. His vision of socialism seemed to coalesce in the years that followed, and in 1935 he made a leap of faith by moving from the ministry to politics. He served nine years as the federal MP for Weyburn before leading the provincial Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to victory in the 1944 election.

His democratic socialism, which is accepted today in mainstream Canadian politics, was radical for its time. During a 17-year tenure as premier, Douglas introduced programs such as car insurance, crown utilities and, of course, universal Medicare. Of his many accomplishments, Premier Calvert says "it was his government's work on rural electrification in Saskatchewan that Tommy was most proud of."

In May 1962, Douglas became a member of the U of S community when he was the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Laws. In presenting Douglas with the degree, Dr. H.M. Ward, Professor of Political Science, said, "He is, in the Canadian political mosaic, one of a handful of energetic men who have profoundly influenced not only their own parties, but all other major parties as well; and while doing so, has won and kept the affection and respect of friends and foes alike."

Douglas left provincial politics to lead the newly formed New Democratic Party. He retired from public life in 1979 and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1980. He died in 1986.

The Man from Prince Albert
John G. Diefenbaker, LLB'19

John G. Diefenbaker

(Photo: Diefenbaker Canada Centre Archives)

The Great War was much on the minds of students in April 1915 when John George Diefenbaker - number 47 on the list of Great Canadians - graduated from the U of S with a Bachelor of Arts. In an archival copy of The Sheaf, the University's student paper, he stares out at the world with that trademark look of supreme self-confidence. He's just 19 years old.

Four years later, he is again in the pages of The Sheaf, this time as a law graduate. He's 23 years old and already his accomplishments are beginning to add up. His academic credentials now include a BA, MA, and LLB, he has served overseas in the war, been Vice-President and Associate Editor of The Sheaf, and the Alumni Representative on the Student Representative Council.

His passion for the law inspires The Sheaf to write in his graduating biography, "[H]e has occupied a place that will be difficult to fill, and hereafter all transgressors of the Students' Code will breathe more freely when he relinquishes his position as custodian of justice."

From university, Diefenbaker moves on to practise law in Prince Albert, where he quickly becomes a respected defence lawyer. But he has another passion - politics. It is during his many attempts to launch himself into the political arena that Diefenbaker's mettle, and perhaps his greatness, is really tested.

John G. Diefenbaker

Nineteen-year old Diefenbaker at his 1915 graduation ceremonies. (U of S Archives, A-955)

He runs twice federally, twice provincially and once municipally, losing every contest. In 1936, he finally wins an election as leader of the provincial Conservative party, only to be shut out of the 1938 provincial election. In 1940, his luck - or persistence - pays off with his election as the Member of Parliament for Lake Centre. So begins his 39-year run in federal politics.

Diefenbaker built a reputation as a vocal backbencher in the Opposition, first for Lake Centre and then for Prince Albert. In 1956, he surprises many by winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, and then goes on to surprise many more by winning an upset election over the Liberal government in 1957.

A man of strong principles and equally strong opinions, Diefenbaker was a lightning rod for controversy. By Canadian standards, his time in office was short: he was Primer Minister from 1957 to 1963.

It is fitting, though, that he is best remembered for two high-profile issues: passing the Canadian Bill of Rights and cancelling the Avro Arrow project. Few remember him as the man who opened wheat sales to China or granted the federal franchise to Canada's native peoples or played a lead role in the 1961 anti-apartheid statement that led to South Africa leaving the British Commonwealth.

Diefenbaker served the riding of Prince Albert until his death in 1979. A showman till the end, he planned his own state funeral and burial at the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Centre on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

Queen of Hearts
Sandra Schmirler, BSPE'85

Sandra Schmirler

(Photo: Sandra Schmirler Foundation)

Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker both had over 80 years to make their mark on the world, while Sandra Schmirler had only 36. Schmirler ranked 81st on the top 100 list of Great Canadians - a remarkable feat for a straight-talking mother of two from Biggar. It was, of course, curling that brought her to the world stage and courage that gave her a lasting place in Canadian culture.

Born in 1963, Schmirler grew up a regular kid in a regular town. She started curling in grade 7 and by the time she graduated Biggar Composite High School, she had played on two provincial championship teams.

After earning her Bachelor of Science Degree in Physical Education in 1985 from the U of S, Schmirler moved to Regina. In 1990, she and Jan Betker formed their own curling team with Sandra as skip, Jan as third, Joan McCusker as second, and Marcia Gudereit as lead.

Sandra Schmirler

(Photo: Sandra Schmirler Foundation)

The 90s belonged to Team Schmirler. The foursome won six provincial championships, three national titles and three world titles in 1993, 1994, and 1997. At the Canadian Olympic Trials in 1997, the Schmirler rink won the right to represent Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Cool under intense pressure, Team Schmirler went on to win Olympic Gold - the first women's curling team in history to claim the honour.

Schmirler's athletic skill and leadership won her gold, but it was her likeable, down-to-earth personality in the days following the win that secured her a place in people's hearts. Schmirler seemed to be living a blessed life. And then everything changed.

In August of 1999, Schmirler was diagnosed with cancer. Her illness was more serious than many knew. In October, it prevented her from attended a fundraiser in Biggar for a new children's playground named in her honour. True to form, she sent along a feisty message: "[I]f this event received more publicity and more donations because of my disease, I say keep it coming and exploit it for all it's worth."

Schmirler's Olympic victory ensured her a place in athletic history, but her true claim to greatness stems more from her fighting spirit and determination to live every day the best she could. She said it best herself at a news conference in March of 2000 just weeks before she died: "It's been a hell of a fight."