J.S. Woodsworth: Pioneer in the Call for Universal Health Care

As part of the Regina Manifesto put forward by Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in 1933, J.S. Woodsworth was instrumental in forming free socialized health services for Canada. It was his belief that health care and education should both be made freely available to the citizens of a country. For J.S. Woodsworth, health care services and educational services could be considered interchangeable since both are essential tools for fighting against capitalist oppression; it takes a person who is both healthy and educated to fight back against attempts to dismantle Canada’s universal health care system. Were Woodsworth alive today he would no doubt be an outspoken and tireless activist against both the affects and intentions of health care budget slashing, as well as the promotion of privatizing health care will have a negative effect on the public health care delivery system, and questioning whether a two-tiered system can ever be more than just a system designed to offer better care to the wealthy.

As a socialist reformer with an intense distrust of the very idea of capitalist industry being capable of supplying social needs, Woodsworth would have been one of the first to question the motives behind the budget cuts and the attending disinformation regarding the stability and ability of the public health care system. Woodsworth saw first hand in Canada, and in England while attending Oxford College, how industrialist capitalists failed utterly to meet the needs of the working and lower classes. His missionary work as a Methodist minister in the slums of Winnipeg and Toronto opened his eyes to the unfair practices of the wealthy and powerful. Associating co-operative socialism with the Ideal Kingdom of Jesus, Woodsworth would have had trouble finding any good in those who would attempt to pass a camel through a needle, or who would attempt to deceive the Canadian public into buying the bill of goods that their health care system was incompetent. What else can it be called but deception when the very same politicians whose National Forum of Health in 1997 declared that the Canadian universal health care system was in good shape and would continue to be so as long as immediate action was taken to fund it almost immediately went on to reject the necessary funding.

As a committed socialist, Woodsworth would clearly have seen this as yet another example of privatization through dismantling the socialist system. Budget cuts are the quickest route to the failure of a federally funded system and the failure of a system is the quickest route to creating disillusionment in that system along with creating the desire for change, whatever the cost. Unfortunately, the cost of changing over to a private or even a two-tiered system of health care may be too high for most Canadians to afford.

Woodsworth established his belief in the mandate of free universal health care in the Regina Manifesto with the overriding concern that private health care provides the best services only for those who can afford it. Woodsworth saw that capitalism is based on one principle above all others: profit. Social needs take a back seat to increasing profit, even when the product one is delivering is vital to maintaining the consumer base that supports the product. Stripped of the brakes that governmental control puts on the cost of health care, and allowing the desire for profit at all costs to run the show, the average Canadian would soon be in the position that so many Americans find themselves in, that of being unable to afford health care. Private health care by its nature forces the onus away from delivering quality care to all who need it and toward the bottom line, creating an unfair advantage for those who can most easily afford it. Therefore, the move away from public health care is a move away from equal health care, and equality in all things was a cornerstone of Woodsworth’s social activism.

It would seem patently obvious that Woodsworth would speak out against any proposed two-tiered plan to deliver private health care opportunities side by side with universal health care. Some argue that a two-tier system is effectively in place since those who can afford it can easily go to the US, and their argument is that a tiered system is therefore the most fair. Woodsworth would be among the first to point out that their argument doubles back upon itself and proves that by its very nature the two-tiered system will favor the wealthy, proving once again that capitalism is at heart a most unequal and unfair economic system. If an economic system is unfair at its roots, then surely one must question how it can be favorable for delivering necessary social needs universally and equally. Woodsworth understood that social life is organized from the top down on a money scale and he was fond of illustrating his point in a beautifully simple yet sublime way. In his book Strangers Within Our Gates, Woodsworth wrote that any man who is interested in study the social problems inherent in a capitalist system should “study the first, second and third class decks. All classes and types are represented. You have only to go up or down a few steps to ascend or descend in the ‘social scale.’ The people have been sorted out by the money test.” Woodsworth was speaking about passengers aboard a ship, but he could have been talking about aspect of life under a capitalist system from lodging to education to health care.

As a man intensely devoted to the concept and ideals of equality who never gave up his belief in the Social Gospel movement toward correcting society’s ills, J.S. Woodsworth would no doubt view the systematic dismantling of the realization of his dream of free universal health care with dismay and outrage. As a reformer and socialist, he would have long ago seen through the political machinations leading to corruption of a system providing a solid social good through capitalist means intended merely to fill the coffers of those who are tired of seeing a profit machine wasted in the hands of those who would seek first to better the lives of human beings.

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