In pursuit of human rights: Defining the legacy of Canada’s labour, co-op and healthcare movements

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Inspired by a generous grant from Heritage Canada and the support of additional sponsors, the Canadian History of Social Change is a multimedia project published by SEE Change Magazine documenting 10 social change movements in Canadian history (with a particular focus on the 20th century) that have impacted how we live today. CharityVillage is pleased to partner with SEE Change Magazine for a three-part series providing an overview of the project. Read the first and third parts in the series.

The medicare movement

If you fell ill before the 1950s, your options were very different from what they are today. Until that point private medicine defined the Canadian health care system, meaning that only Canadians who could afford a doctor or a bed at a hospital would receive care. Those who couldn’t afford to pay either relied on the goodwill of family, friends and charitable organizations or, simply, went without care. It was not uncommon, in fact, for Canadians to go into debt, giving up their homes and life savings in return for medical treatment for sick family members.

Frustrated with the system’s inequitable approach to healthcare, Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas introduced a public insurance plan for hospital services in his province in 1947, followed by a plan for physicians' services in 1962. Following Douglas’ lead, in 1966 Prime Minister Lester Pearson and his Liberals introduced federal legislation in the form of The Medical Care Act. This Act was implemented in 1968, effectively setting out a system of universal coverage for basic services, regardless of one’s ability to pay.

Forever the legacy of Douglas — often called the Father of Canadian Medicare – this revolutionary model of healthcare is, too many people, synonymous with Canada itself.

Although far from a perfect system, medicare exemplifies one of Canada’s most significant movements of social change. With the pursuit of human rights at its core, the medicare movement sought equality for Canadians when it came to their healthcare, ensuring social determinants such as income were irrelevant to whether a person could access medical services.

Over the years there have been numerous calls to take a deeper look at medicare in an attempt to reform the model. On April 4, 2001, former premier of Saskatchewan, Roy Romanow was appointed to head the Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. He traveled across the country, met with everyday Canadians to hear their concerns and then released the Romanow Report in 2002, which outlined suggestions to improve the health care system. Its recommendations included placing greater emphasis on primary health care including prevention and health promotion, and expansion of coverage to include essentials such as prescription drugs and home care.

In this digital story, Romanow brings us back to the early discussions on medicare, a movement that got its start in his home province of Saskatchewan. He shares what endeared him to Tommy Douglas, what inspired his own commitment to the system and the frustration he felt – and continues to feel – knowing many of his recommendations went unheeded.

Those who fought for change in the 1950s supported a ground-breaking paradigm shift in the role of government and the rights of Canadians. Those who continue to fight for universal healthcare believe the pioneering movement is the best option for Canada. Take Dr. Danielle Martin, family practitioner and healthcare administrator at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

Martin is also one of the founders of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, established in 2006 by a group of physicians who were concerned about the increased privatization in Canadian healthcare and the development of a two-tier health care system. Martin received much praise for having recently testified before the US Senate committee in Washington in support of Canada’s medicare system. A strong proponent of medicare’s continued relevance, Martin explains her position in our digital story: “We all continue to support that fundamental principle that access to healthcare should be based on need rather than ability to pay.”

The labour movement

Just like medicare, Canada’s labour movement was inspired by the advancement of human rights. For many, the movement can be traced back to the growing evidence of unsanitary and at-times dangerous working conditions of Canadian labourers laid out in an 1889 Royal Commission report. It was becoming increasingly apparent that employees of factories, mines and other jobs were working too hard, too long and were being treated unjustly.

Though the initial response to that report did little to change the circumstances for Canadian labourers, over the course of the 20th century, the labour movement brought human rights to the forefront of work. Thanks to the efforts of a number of changemakers, our labour vernacular now includes such terms as equitable treatment, equal pay, child labour, minimum wage, discrimination and precarious work.

Born in Dublin, Sid Ryan is one of Canada’s most renowned champions of labour rights. It was a role he became familiar with as a child upon watching his father organize fellow Irish workers in their battle for greater rights. Most recently completing a stint as the president of the Ontario Federation of Labour – Canada’s largest provincial labour federation – Ryan served two terms representing 54 unions and over one million workers. But he made his mark in the labour movement as the head of CUPE Ontario for 17 years prior to that position.

A vocal proponent of workers’ rights, human rights and social justice, Ryan’s unwavering position on these and other issues has given him a reputation as both an activist you want on your team and an at-times polarizing figure. In this digital story, Ryan speaks about his passion for labour rights, the challenges of the past and the ones that keep him fighting today and the evolution of the labour movement in Canada. The movement has changed quite a bit, he states, becoming more inclusive and holistic in its outlook and approach. And that’s just fine with him. “The kind of movement I want to lead people in is one that’s opened up...where people come together from all walks of life from all social movements.”

Patricia McDermott is a professor of women’s studies and socio-legal studies at York University in Toronto. She’s been exploring the intersection of women’s rights and the labour movement for close to 40 years. And she’s the playwright of Life on the Line: Women’s Strike at Eaton’s 1984-85, about the six-month-long picket line where workers struggled against one of Canada’s largest retailers.

During this strike, one of Canada’s most renowned, there were rallies, candlelight vigils, marches and a concert at Massey Hall. It led to a national boycott of Eaton’s, with many customers cutting up their store credit cards and inspired a call to reform contract legislation in Ontario, an issue that is still underpinning the challenges workers face today. Having played a significant role in Eaton’s strike, McDermott explains in this digital story that she is now focused on the labour movement’s other challenges, such as precarious work and the fight for a $15 minimum hourly wage.

The co-operative movement

Defined as grassroots initiatives owned by and operated for the benefit of their members, co-operatives are designed to meet a need for services such as housing, food and banking. The underlying belief at the heart of the co-op movement is that societies benefit when people work together to improve their lives, furthering the protection of their human rights in the process. As the first group in Canada to form co-ops, Canadian farmers developed over 1200 co-operative creameries and cheese factories between 1860 and 1900. Today it is estimated there are over 9,000 co-operatives and credit unions in Canada representing18 million members and employing over 150,000 people.

Co-ops have brought about social advancements and helped shape Canada’s economic and social identity, says activist Harold Chapman. Currently in his nineties, Chapman has been advancing co-operatives in Saskatchewan’s economy for many years, sustaining them through cooperative education and initiatives. Author of Sharing My Life, Building the Co-operative Movement, Chapman shares the origins of the movement in Saskatchewan and his passion for a movement that enveloped his life’s work in this digital story.

Of course, co-ops come in all shapes and sizes and can significantly impact Canada’s diverse communities. In this digital story, Louise Desmarais Champagne, president of Neechi Foods Co-Op – Winnipeg’s largest commercial employer of First Nations and Métis people — offers a unique perspective on modern day cooperatives and their potential to advance human rights and social change.

Neechi Commons is a community business complex that was designed 24 years ago to support Winnipeg’s Aboriginal community by fostering neighbourhood revitalization and providing economic opportunities for Aboriginal youth and other area residents. It includes a supermarket – Neechi Foods Co-op – as well as a restaurant, bakery, catering services, Aboriginal books, arts, crafts, music and clothing, and a seasonal farmers market. Its arts store, ‘Neechi Niche’ is supporting the livelihoods of over 40 artisans and authors.

To learn more about the history of Canada’s social movements, check out SEE Change Magazine’s digital storytelling project The History of Social Change and/or download the ebook for a more in-depth exploration.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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