If I had to choose my favourite Canadian, I would without hesitation choose Tommy Douglas, the man most responsible for Medicare, one of Canadians’ two most popular institutions. I’m not alone. In 2004, CBC audience members voted him the “greatest Canadian” in a network competition.
He was indeed a great man. But not a perfect one. At least not by the self-righteous standards that too often permeate discussion today. For example, in his master’s thesis from McMaster, “The Problems of the Subnormal Family,” he endorsed eugenics, a set of beliefs and practices aimed at improving the human population through controlled breeding. He also believed that homosexuality was “a mental illness” and should be treated by psychiatrists and social workers.
Today, these views would have him “cancelled,” his bad behaviour called out and his reputation discredited. So, in keeping with the current fashion, should we cancel him? Should we strike him from the historical record? Topple a statue perhaps?
I think not.
Douglas held views which were in fact progressive at the time. Eugenics, for instance, was in vogue with both left and right, from ardent feminists such as Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung to conservative politicians such as William Aberhart and Winston Churchill. Douglas, like other progressives, supported it as a way of reducing the widespread poverty of the 1920s and 1930s.
And then Hitler happened. Eugenics was twisted into one of the greatest atrocities in history. By the end of WWII, Douglas had abandoned his support for the idea.
As for homosexuality, his belief in treating it as a mental illness was quite progressive considering the alternative was prison. Whether or not he changed his mind, I do not know. In any case, two years before he died in 1971, Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal government passed legislation banning the state from the bedrooms of the nation.
It is intriguing to ponder how many historical figures would have quite different opinions from those they are harshly judged for if they had lived long enough to experience new knowledge and new attitudes.
Morality is, after all, mostly arbitrary. A hundred years ago, eugenics was moral, now it isn’t; homosexuality wasn’t, now it is. In another hundred years, the morality of these issues may switch back again.
I said at the start of this piece that Douglas wasn’t perfect, but I have provided little evidence. I have only shown that, like all of us, he was constrained by the mores and knowledge of his time. He was a a deeply compassionate man. He supported eugenics because he believed it would reduce poverty, and he supported treating homosexuality with psychiatry because it was preferable to imprisonment. His beliefs were simply those of a compassionate man in the early half of the 20th century.