In 1944 the first social democratic government in North America was elected in the province of Saskatchewan. The new government of Premier Tommy Douglas intended to introduce plans to insure both medical and hospital services immediately following the election; however, because of financial limitations, it decided instead to establish a provincewide system of hospital insurance. The Saskatchewan Hospital Insurance Plan, established in 1947 and funded mainly from provincial tax revenue, provided free inpatient hospital care for all residents of the province.
In 1957 the federal government introduced its Canada-wide universal hospital insurance plan, based on the Saskatchewan model. The financial restrictions on the Saskatchewan government, which had delayed the implementation of Medical Care Insurance, were then significantly reduced as money was injected by the federal government into the Saskatchewan government's hospital insurance plan. The Saskatchewan government was, by the end of the 1950s, in a good financial position and, with this federal support, able to turn its attention to developing a Medical Care Insurance plan.
While most doctors in Saskatchewan were in favor of the Hospital Insurance Plan, they were strongly opposed to a Medical Care Insurance plan because they felt it was an infringement on the financial and professional relationship between themselves and their patients. The plan did not place doctors on salary but did control the fees they could charge for consultations and surgeries, which doctors felt would limit their ability to earn income in the future. The Saskatchewan doctors' resistance to the plan, although couched in the language of concern for the plan's impact on patients' well-being, was largely predicated on its impact on physicians' incomes.
Accordingly, on July 1, 1962, the date the Medical Care Insurance Plan was to go into effect, more than 90 percent of the province's doctors withdrew their services. This strike, although relatively short–it only lasted twenty-three days–was very bitter. The government used the threat of bringing doctors in from the British National Health Service as strikebreakers. At the same time, they asked a physician-mediator and peer of the British realm, Lord Taylor, to help settle the dispute. After tireless negotiations, begun on July 16, Taylor brought the two sides together, and the strike was settled on July 23.
Like the pioneering Saskatchewan Hospital Insurance Plan, the Saskatchewan government's Medical Service Plan of 1962 was the first universal, publicly funded insurance scheme to pay for doctors' services in North America. And again, as in the case of the Hospital Insurance Plan, this plan for insuring physicians' services was the model the federal government turned to when it introduced nationwide medical care insurance in 1967.
The 1962 Doctors' Strike was an important point in Canadian medical history. If the doctors had won the strike, it is not clear whether the universal, nationwide, publicly funded system of medicare, as it exists in Canada today, would have been established.
See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Douglas, Tommy.
Aleck Ostry University of British Columbia