It is clear to all that Canadians view their healthcare system as one of their greatest accomplishments, and rightly so. Before the public healthcare system was built, the rich got treated while the poor went without. The battle for public healthcare in Canada was long and hard fought. The struggle spanned decades. But today, healthcare is once again under attack. The politicians have deliberately starved our healthcare system of funds. They have created a crisis in order to gain public support for private healthcare, but so far it hasn’t worked. The vast majority of Canadians are still strongly opposed to for-profit healthcare. Now, a private clinic has opened its doors in Vancouver in blatant violation of the law, but the governments will not shut it down.
As early as the 1920’s public pressure forced William Lyon Mackenzie King to promise a public healthcare system. Of course once in office, he never implemented it. He instead created the department of health, which in those days was a relatively useless body. Out west the pressure grew for a healthcare program that would allow for everyone to get medical treatment, regardless of their financial situation. In 1935, the United Farmers of Alberta brought in a bill to create a health insurance program. Though the bill was passed, it was quickly overturned when they left office later that year. In British Columbia a similar piece of legislation was passed in 1936. But the government backed down after facing massive opposition from the doctors.
Doctors actually played a terrible role in the building of the healthcare system. They were strongly opposed to any government plan. They were perfectly happy with their unregulated, user-pay system. A doctor could charge whatever he wanted for a procedure. They were lining their pockets, and they weren’t about to give up their privilege.
It wasn’t until 1946 that the first steps in actually building public healthcare would take place. The CCF government of Saskatchewan passed the Saskatchewan Hospitalization Act. This plan granted free hospital access to everyone in the province, but stopped there. It was not universal coverage. It didn’t cover routine trips to the doctor or anything outside of an absolute emergency, but this was an important reform that inspired the working class to fight for more. Over a decade later in 1959, CCF Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas announced a plan to build a universal healthcare system. This announcement would shake Canadian capitalism.
It is important to emphasize that the decisive force in all of these struggles was not the governments, but the masses of people. In Saskatchewan in 1959 the people began to mobilize. The great battle for public healthcare had begun. The CCF fought the 1960 election almost exclusively on the issue of public healthcare. The doctors mobilized against this. Public meetings and demonstrations were organized by all sides. When the campaign was over, the CCF had won a stunning victory, capturing 37 of the 54 seats in the legislature. But this was only an election. There biggest struggles still lay ahead.
After much delay, the CCF’s Medical Care Insurance Bill came into effect on July 1st, 1962. The doctors who had continued to campaign hard against the plan walked off the job. These doctors who had sworn to preserve life, refused to treat their patients. They formed KOD (keep our doctors) committees across the province. The reactionary KOD launched a campaign of demonstrations across the province that received the full support of business and the mass media. But despite the best efforts of big business, the population remained steadfast in their support for public healthcare. After 23 days, the strike petered out. The Saskatchewan doctors strike ended not with a bang, but a whimper.
The success of Saskatchewan’s healthcare plan led to a groundswell of support for public healthcare across the country. In 1966 under pressure from the newly formed New Democratic Party, the Federal government implemented the Medical Care Act resulting in universal healthcare in every province and territory in the country. In 1984 the Canada Health Act was passed banning user-fees and reinforcing the public healthcare system as a whole.
Today it is taken for granted by the working class that private healthcare is bad news. The very idea of corporations making a profit off of the injuries and illnesses of the population is disgusting. Yet today, the right-wing is doing everything in their power to unravel the healthcare system. The latest and perhaps the most important example is the False Creek Urgent Care Centre in Vancouver.
Earlier this year the False Creek Urgent Care Center opened it’s doors. They announced that they would offer a variety of treatments including emergency room service and they would do it outside of the healthcare system. At this clinic, your care-card is no good, but your credit card will get you treatment. This was in violation of both federal and provincial law. After a short time in operation, the clinic shut it’s doors under pressure from the public and legal threats.
But now the private medical clinic is once again open for business. After bringing in doctors from out-or-province, they claim they are on a more solid legal ground. In reality, they are in blatant violation of the Canada Health Act, but neither the federal nor the provincial government seem to care. The truth is, they both secretly want to privatize the healthcare system, but cannot face the public with that agenda. The working class is fiercely defensive of public healthcare and any attempt to dismantle it would guarantee electoral defeat for the government. Since they cannot scrap the laws, they simply ignore them.
Unfortunately the labour movement has been relatively quiet on the issue since the clinic re-opened. With such massive public opposition to private healthcare, this clinic could be shut down with relatively little effort from labour. If the Hospital Employees Union, the BC Nurses Union and other trade unions involved in healthcare would simply say the words, they could mobilize thousands against this. But the demand should not be to simply shut the clinic down. Our healthcare system has been severely starved of funds. This clinic should be taken into public ownership and run as part of the public healthcare system.
The next few years will decide the future of Canada’s healthcare system. Like every other gain made by the working class in the past, public healthcare is under attack. Only the labour movement can stop the privatization of healthcare. Committees in defense of public healthcare should be set up to mobilize and coordinate the people against this attack. A series of demonstrations and even occupations of private clinics would send a strong message to the powers that be. We fought to get public healthcare and we’ll fight to keep it!
- NDP MP Olivia Chow proposes National Food Programme by Cora James (12 March 2007)
- The Queen of the North: The cost of privitization by John Haggerty (7 July 2006)
- BC Liberals buy class peace… for now by Mike Palecek (6 July 2006)
- Re-nationalize BC Rail now! by Mike Palecek (5 July 2006)