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Tommy: The Life and Times of Tommy Douglas

by Walter Stewart

Tommy Douglas was the one-time leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party – the precursor of today’s NDP. He has also had his fair share of coverage in the press and in a few significant biographies. So why does Canada need Tommy: The Life and Times of Tommy Douglas, another biography of a man who passed away 17 years ago last February?

In this case, the answer has just as much to do with the book’s author as with its subject. The veteran Canadian journalist Walter Stewart wrote for Maclean’s and a number of Toronto newspapers for almost 60 years and he’s written nearly 20 non-fiction books. As a writer who has been covering Canadian politics since the 1950s, Stewart is ideally placed to provide another retrospective on Douglas, drawing heavily on the earlier biographies while adding much of his own perspective on the Western political legend. Stewart spins a good yarn while always keeping the socio-historical context in the picture.

Tommy is a straight-ahead retelling of the key points of Douglas’s life and career, including his struggle to implement universal health coverage and a national pension plan and his part in the development of a wheat board to protect the interests of Western farmers. Stewart also gets top marks for the book’s timing. He admits that his desire to write about Douglas – perhaps the one Canadian most responsible for our current system of medicare – is largely fuelled by a need to add historical perspective to the current debate on our national medicare system.

Given a personality as fiery as Douglas’s, keeping things interesting should never be a challenge for a biographer. But therein lies another obstacle that Stewart has cleared nicely: by avoiding an easy descent into excessive praise of Douglas as a down-home, fire-and-brimstone, pulpit-pounding rabble-rouser, Stewart manages to describe clearly the often sophisticated and always sincere politics of the late Saskatchewan leader.