October 20, 2016

My evening with Tommy Douglas

Years ago I spent the better part of an evening with Tommy Douglas.

At the time I was President of the Young Fellows Club of Weyburn and it was our 60th anniversary. The Club began as a service organisation formed in 1922 and it was a place of fellowship and community action for young guys mainly in their 20s and 30s. My father had been a member and so had Tommy Douglas, and they knew each other well apparently, though my dad was never a member of the NDP.

To highlight our Club's 60th Anniversary, and thinking big, we decided to write a letter to our most famous member, and invite Tommy Douglas to be the keynote speaker at our gala evening celebration. Tommy had retired from politics by this time and was living on Vancouver Island, and he surprised more than just a few of us by saying: yes.

Sitting at the head table I had Tommy Douglas on one side of me, and our local MLA, a Conservative, on the other. I kept calling our special guest Mr. Douglas and he kept telling me to call him Tommy. "Your dad called me Tommy, so should you." "But you two were about the same age Mr. Douglas." And we both laughed.

The Young Fellows Club is a group of young men dedicated to making a difference in their community, through service and by creating better citizens of themselves. It's not hard to see why Tommy Douglas was a member.

We had invited Tommy to tell us stories, and he didn't disappoint. He was a master storyteller, spinning yarns that softened hearts and fired up the belly. The message was always constant, his beliefs rooted in an earlier version of Liberation Theology.

Twelve years earlier, Tommy Douglas spoke out against the War Measures Act invoked by Pierre Trudeau during the October Crisis of 1970. At the time it was a courageous stand; few Canadians were willing to go against the draconian measures Trudeau and the Liberals unleashed upon the people of Quebec. I was a teenager in 1970 and Tommy's stand influenced me greatly in ways I only began to appreciate much later.

That night in Weyburn, I thanked him for his stand twelve years earlier, and we talked, however briefly, about the loneliness of standing for what is right when everyone says you're wrong.

A few years after his brief return to Weyburn, Tommy passed away. Today, October 20th, is his birthday.

"We are all in this world together, and the only test of our character that matters is how we look after the least fortunate among us. How we look after each other, not how we look after ourselves. That's all that really matters, I think."     
Tommy Douglas

Copyright 2016 by Jim Murray. 

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