By Doreen Nicoll
Published July 26, 2017
Don't worry, Medicare as we know it is about to be revived because Tommy Douglas is very much alive and well and boxing up a storm at Mills Hardware in Hamilton. *In This Corner: Eight Rounds with Tommy Douglas*, written and performed by Dan Ebbs, is a must see at the 14th annual Hamilton Fringe Festival.
A sure fire clone of Tommy's, Ebbs situates the play during the last party Tommy is hosting before leaving Parliament Hill. The year is 1979 and Tommy is about to retire from politics - but not life.
The one-hour, one-man play uses humour to reveal just how relevant Tommy's life, politics and wisdom remain today. Ebbs undertakes this feat by providing Tommy with an eager young politician willing to listen to the great man use boxing as a metaphor for politics and life. Truth is, not many people know that in 1922 and 1923, Tommy was the Lightweight Champion of Manitoba.
The play successfully navigates between 1979 and the past. Born in 1904 in Falkirk, Scotland, the son of Annie and Thomas Douglas, his family immigrated to Canada, in 1910. They settled in Winnipeg, where his mother worked for a sewing machine company and his father was an iron worker.
The audience then travels with Tommy on his journey from Winnipeg to Saskatchewan and from radical Baptist minister to member of the newly formed Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) political party elected to the House of Commons in the 1935, then to Premier of Saskatchewan in 1944, and finally, to leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada.
We learn about the events that influenced his understanding of human rights, like witnessing the Winnipeg General Strike at 14 years of age.
Or the time Tommy tried unsuccessfully to enlist in the Canadian Army during WWII. It all began when as a child, Tommy had osteomyelitis, an infection in his leg bone. The necessary medical care was beyond his parents' means and the path was set for amputation.
Fortunately, a famous surgeon took an interest in Tommy's case and saved his leg. But the damage that was done prevented Tommy from enlisting. That lived experience of inequality planted the seed that would eventually grow and blossom into medicare.
But this is not a sit-on-your-bum-for-an-hour play. To illustrate Tommy's ability to move people to action and why the people of Saskatchewan voted Tommy leader of the provincial CCF while still holding his seat in the House of Commons, Ebbs gets the audience up on their feet and actively involved.
Audience members role-play the mice and cats from Tommy's famous story of Mouseland. Tommy led the CCF to power in the 1944 provincial election, winning 47 of 53 seats. The Saskatchewan CCF the went on to win five straight majority governments right up to 1960.
During their time in provincial office, the CCF created the Regina Manifesto, which planned to replace capitalism with socialism. To that end, the CCF created Employment Insurance, a pension plan, the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights, and universal health care for the province.
While in federal office, Tommy ushered in Canada's original Medicare program with the help of John Diefenbaker and Lester B. Pearson. He also opposed implementation of the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis in 1970.
Though the fights were long and difficult, the former boxer and Baptist minister turned politician was up for the challenge, especially with his wife Irma at his side. Tommy's love and admiration for Irma is ever present in the play. His love and respect for his daughter, actress Shirley Douglas, is evident too.
In 1977, Shirley tumultuously returned to Canada from Los Angeles, but the truth behind the story wasn't reported by the media. Using humour, Ebbs explains that Shirley was detained by American officials because of her involvement with a local breakfast program feeding children from low income families. It seems the American government had a problem with the fact that the group Shirley belonged to was called Friends of the Black Panthers.
Even Tommy has to admit that maybe, just maybe, the fact her father was a socialist might have had a little something to do with it as well.
The play could not be balanced if it didn't include at least a fleeting glimpse of one Tommy's lesser known shortcomings. Ebbs handles this well.
It's amazing that a solitary man armed with only a water bottle, a pair of boxing gloves, a canvas with a map of Canada painted on it and an unending stream of energy, dialogue and wit can keep a room of people laughing, clapping, role playing and on the verge of choking up at the antics of our greatest Canadian.
If you have children or if you are just nostalgic for a good old history lesson that's full of laughs, go to see Dan Ebbs' amazing play.
In This Corner
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