The Birthplace of North American Medicare

On July 1, 1946, Swift Current and district areas, including Leader, Maple Creek, Shaunavon, and Swift Current, under the auspices of the Saskatchewan Health Services Act of 1945, and with support of the co-operative spirit of the people of the southwest, created the first universal medicare in North America. It was the first region in Canada to combine public health with medical care. Southwest Saskatchewan has since rightfully been known as the birthplace of medicare, a history worth the appreciation of those living in the area and all Canadians that enjoy free medical care to this very day.

What is now known as the Cypress Health Region, Swift Current Health Region No. 1 included the districts of Leader, Maple Creek, Shaunavon, and Swift Current.  Working together these four brought about much change to the medical needs of local residents. From the depths of the Great Depression of 1929-1939, the delivery of medicine, with its antiquated 1917 Municipal Hospitals Act, failed to meet the ever-increasing medical needs of its communities which were now facing drought, crop failures, unemployment, and the inability to pay doctor fees.  Southwest Saskatchewan was the hardest hit area in Canada by drought during the thirties.

In the 1920’s, Saskatchewan’s rural population exceeded urban population 10 to 1. The southwest had a population of 50,000 with 120 doctors – a ratio of 416 people per doctor. Times were good then, enabling people to afford their medical care needs.

In the early 1920’s a contract was made with doctors in Gull Lake and one in Webb where general practitioner services to residents of the Rural Municipality (RM) of Webb were paid out of general funds, however this agreement was soon phased out.

The Great Depression brought hard times, testing the will and determination of the people. Change came to the economic and political landscape, wiping out Saskatchewan’s number one export, wheat. By 1933, the depth of the depression saw 66% of farming families in relief with consumer spending at just 30%, according to a 1929 consumer report.

During the ‘dirty thirties’  many residents of the RM of Webb incurred medical bills that they could not afford to pay and, as the RM was being held responsible for their accounts, council decided that it would be logical to provide medical services for everyone rather than paying only some individual’s bills.

At this time many doctors accepted chickens, vegetables, and slabs of pork in lieu of money from farmers. Since many doctors left the area during World War 2, by 1945 there were only 19 of the 120 doctors remaining who were responsible to service the entire southwest, a ratio of one doctor for every 2,000 residents. Of those doctors, many were still salaried ‘municipal doctors’. Three of these, O. M. Irwin of Swift Current, John Matheson of Gull Lake, and F. H. Dawson of Maple Creek, who were senior members of the District Medical Society, were willing to work within the structure of a regional medicare plan.

In the fall of 1945, W.J. Burak of Hazlet (Chair), Carl Kjorven of Cabri, and Walter Melrose of Maple Creek petitioned for a health region. Burak wrote to all municipalities in the region with a proposal to form a health region that covered all aspects of medical care. He sent numerous letters to 31 municipalities, 36 villages, 6 towns, and the City of Swift Current, proposing the formation of a region that would offer ‘complete medical, surgical, and hospital services’. He a called a meeting for September 15, 1945 in which 48 municipalities attended.

On November 26, 1945, a vote was taken.  The ballot read ‘Do you want a comprehensive system of health insurance, hospital, and medical care and preventative services?’ and passed with 71% support to establish Health Region No. 1. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation government accepted the wishes of the region and passed an Order-in-Council on December 11, 1945, authorizing the formation of Health Region No. 1.

The founding meeting was held in Gull Lake on January 17, 1946 and a board was chosen from four districts of the health region:

Leader: Carl Kjorven (Cabri, Chairman), Sam Gill (Leader), C. Haydon (Cabri)
Maple Creek: H. Allison (Gull Lake), W. Melrose (Maple Creek)
Shaunavon: G. Gilbertson, J. McNabb
Swift Current: J. MacLeod, E. Mitchell, K. Rutherford

Experienced municipality secretary Stewart Robertson was chosen Secretary-Treasurer. The board was instructed by attendees of the first meeting to provide hospital, medical, and limited children’s dental care as soon as possible. The board deliberately worked without political preferences coming in the way of action. Funding would be raised by 25% property tax and 75% personal tax. It was visionary people like Cabri area farmer and first board chair, Carl Kjorven, who during the Great Depression watched helplessly as his daughters died from inadequate medical services, saw to it that publicly funded medicare become a reality.

The Swift Current health plan began on July 1, 1946, providing universal medicare to all of those living within the region.

Although the government at that time had in mind a gradual approach, the committee which set up Swift Current Health Region No. 1 decided to provide a full range of services from the start. Swift Current Health Region No. 1 included doctor services, hospitalizations, maternal and child health, communicable disease control, school hygiene, sanitation, mental health, nutrition services, health education, and dental health.

Tax rates for the health region ranged from $18 to $44 per year, depending on the size of each family, in addition to a 2.2 mills property tax.

Those moving into Health Region No. 1 for permanent residence were required to register at the local municipal office within 15 days from the date of their arrival and they would become eligible for services of the region three months later. When moving out of the region people were offered a refund on a portion of their personal taxes.

Swift Current Health Region No. 1 had already been in existence for 16 years before the rest of the Province of Saskatchewan adopted Universal Health Care on July 1, 1962.

Sources:

  • Swift Current Health Region, The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, Maureen Mathews
  • Swift Current Medicare, Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists, 2004, scaa.sk.ca.
  • Swift Current Museum
  • John Chisholm, RT(R)
  • Pat Cammer – secretary to the first CEO, Mr. Stuart Robertson