THANKS to regular reader Pam McKinnon I have been given a fine subject for another column in my occasional series on Scots émigrés who had a significant influence on their adopted country.

In 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) launched a series aimed at finding the Greatest Ever Canadian, similar to the BBC’s Great Britons series.

It is an astonishing fact that of the ten people on the short list, no fewer than three were Scots – in reverse order of how the trio finished, they were telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell (born Edinburgh, 1847); Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John Alexander MacDonald (born Glasgow, 1815); and Tommy Douglas, born Camelon by Falkirk, 1904. More than a million Canadians took part in that 2004 vote which lent the outcome considerable authority. The choice of Douglas surprised few people, for the man they called the Prairie Giant is revered across Canada for one of the greatest social advances that country has ever enjoyed. If you know that his nickname was the Father of Medicare, you can guess why so many Canadians love him so. Though I knew his name and the reason for his fame, I did not know just what an extraordinary human being this Scots-born Canadian was.

Since he lived for most of the 20th century, we have terrific detail on his life, and I can only implore you to spend some time on YouTube or the CBC archives to hear a brilliant orator who was also a genuinely funny man – he’d often spend the first part of a speech telling jokes to get people’s attention and then hit them with one liners that were both snappy and serious.

Regular readers know that, whenever possible, I always like to use the words spoken or written by my subjects, and I make no apology for sprinkling this column with many words written or said by Tommy Douglas, for his wisdom can still speak to us more than 33 years after his death. Though he emigrated to Canada at the age of five, it is very important to note that Thomas Clement Douglas was Scottish and proud of it. For instance, he was an avid admirer of Robert Burns and was in great demand as a speaker at Burns Nights well into his seventies. Even late in life his accent had a distinct Scottish burr to it and when you know that he spent four of his teenaged years in Glasgow at the time when the city was turning into Red Clydeside, you can guess where he learned his politics that are best summed up as somewhere between outright socialist and what we would now call social democratic, though he was always definitely a man of the left and led the first provincial socialist government in all of North America. He was born in Sunnybrae House – owned by the family of television inventor John Logie Baird – in Camelon on October 20, 1904. His father Thomas was a former soldier with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who have become an iron moulder at the nearby Carron Ironworks, as his seven brothers had all been. Douglas’s mother, Annie Clement, was from a Perthshire Baptist family, and her father had been a lay minister.

With two younger sisters, Isabel and Anne, known as Nan, and inspired by the success of his émigré uncle Willie, the family of five emigrated to Winnipeg in 1910, where Douglas senior work in the Vulcan Ironworks. On the outbreak of war in 1914, the Douglases returned to Scotland and lived in Glasgow for the next four years while Thomas Douglas returned to his old regiment.

By the time they left Canada, Tommy Douglas had suffered a life-changing experience. He fell and cut his knee and in the pre-antibiotic era he was afflicted with osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone and marrow caused by infection. Surgeons wanted to amputate, but a Dr JR Smith, a famous orthopaedic consultant, said he would try and save it if the family would allow students to observe the treatment. He operated successfully and this incident made a huge impression on nine-year-old Tommy Douglas.

He would later say: “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside. And I think it was out of this experience, not at the moment consciously, but through the years, I came to believe that health services ought not to have a price tag on them, and that people should be able to get whatever health services they require irrespective of their individual capacity to pay.”

While at the same time conforming to his mother’s Baptist faith, in Glasgow he drank in the revolutionary politics that was all around him, though it was on his return to Winnipeg after the war that his leanings toward socialism were confirmed when he watched police fire on strikers in his home city.

Douglas became an apprentice printer as well as a boxer – he won the lightweight championship of Manitoba in 1922 and 1923 – but at the age of 19 he told his family he had a vocation to be a Baptist minister.

SIX years at Brandon College followed before Douglas was ordained a minister at Calvary Baptist Church in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, in 1930. He also married a fellow Brandon student, music teacher Irma Dempsey. In 1931, Douglas completed his studies at the University of Chicago just as the Great Depression really began to bite. Returning to Weyburn, Douglas organised relief for the unemployed and education for children whose parents could not afford to send them to school. He concluded that practical Christianity and practical politics were needed and in 1932 he helped form the Farmer-Labour Party which later merged into the Commonwealth Cooperative Federation (CCF).

Douglas decided to run and won his seat in Weyburn, resigning from the ministry and going to the Canadian Parliament where he made an astonishing 60 speeches in his first session.

He would later sum up his political philosophy quite simply: “Man can now fly in the air like a bird, swim under the ocean like a fish, he can burrow into the ground like a mole. Now if only he could walk the earth like a man, this would be paradise.”

An avowed anti-fascist, he warned in 1937 that war was coming in Europe and later said: “Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.” A warning for our times, perhaps.

On the outbreak of war Douglas enlisted in the South Saskatchewan Regiment but his previous leg problem stopped him seeing service.

Instead he returned to Weyburn and in 1944, led the CCF to a famous local victory in the provincial elections, standing on the slogan Humanity First. They won 47 of the 52 seats and Douglas was duly sworn in as Premier of the continent’s first socialist administration.

He would serve as Premier until 1961, and in that time Saskatchewan led Canada in bringing in such matters as human rights legislation, a trade union act for bargaining rights, and eventually a form of universal health care.

He was seen as a troublesome socialist and a few years ago it was revealed that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had spied on him as a result of a tip off from the FBI that Douglas had links with Communists.

Douglas probably had a hint of this surveillance at the time. He once said: “Setting people to spy on one another is not the way to protect freedom.”

It was insurance that he saw as the way to providing free health care. For just five dollars a year, citizens bought into the province’s health insurance system. The medical profession hated it at first, but came round to the idea.

To justify the new health set-up, Douglas recalled his time as a minister: “I remember burying a girl fourteen years of age who had died with a ruptured appendix ... I buried a good many people that I knew.”

It’s important to note that Douglas did not neglect the economy. Far from it – his Government encouraged private companies to develop manufacturing facilities to reduce Saskatchewan’s dependence on agriculture, but whenever the private sector wasn’t up to scratch, the Government set up Crown Corporations who devised and managed services like telephones, transport and even insurance. In the 1950s, Saskatchewan boomed, and Douglas’s Government was in such good health financially that he was able to bring forward a workable province-wide universal and comprehensive medical care insurance programme – Medicare, which he announced in a speech in 1959 and which came into effect in 1962, after a doctors’ strike against it failed dismally after three weeks.

Sat the start of the 60s, there were political developments at national level as the CFC merged with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party or NDP. The Prairie Giant – his nickname though he was of average height – was the only contender for the leadership and he returned to the Ottawa Parliament in 1961, full of ideas as to how the new party could transform the whole of Canada.

He would say: “My dream is for people around the world to look up and to see Canada like a little jewel sitting at the top of the continent.”

Yet apart from Saskatchewan’s Medicare, which was adopted for the whole of Canada by the end of the decade. the NDP was not able to exert the influence it perhaps should have done. Medicare was a great enough achievement, and Douglas revelled in the fact that his principled stance in Saskatchewan had transformed the national health: “I’m sure that the standard of public morality we’ve helped build will force government in Canada to approve complete health insurance.”

He was wary of acclaim, however: “I don’t mind being a symbol but I don’t want to become a monument. There are monuments all over the Parliament Buildings and I’ve seen what the pigeons do to them.”

Well into his sixties, Douglas fought the Government of Pierre Trudeau after hundreds of suspected Front de Liberation du Quebec members and sympathisers were taken into custody and detained without warrants. Douglas saw it as a human rights issue, and unpopular though his stance was, he refused to back down. He continued in Parliament until retiring in 1978, and he was still a respected figure when he died of cancer in 1986. All Canada mourned him.

The wisdom of Douglas is perhaps best summed up in these sentences: “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.”

As well as his contribution to political life, Douglas left a great legacy in the shape of his family. His actress daughter Shirley married that very fine actor and lover of Scotland Donald Sutherland, and his grandson is 24 star Kiefer Sutherland. Both daughter and grandson have fought for his causes.

The final word goes to Tommy Douglas and a phrase of his that could be adopted as an ideal slogan for all believers in Scottish independence: “Courage my friends, ‘tis not too late to build a better world.”