Lake actor brings man of the people to the people

Arrows of Desire: Local resident continues to bring the life story of Tommy Douglas to the stage

“I cannot imagine Canada without Tommy Douglas,” says Lake Cowichan actor and playwright John Nolan.

When Nolan was searching for an inspirational Canadian subject to write about in the early 1980s, it didn’t take him long to settle on Douglas, known as the father of medicare. When he thought of somebody who just couldn’t be taken out of the equation of what Canada has become, it was Douglas who came to his mind.

After researching Douglas for 20 years, Nolan wrote Tommy Douglas: The Arrows of Desire, using Douglas’s own words to convey his story.

Nolan, who lives in Lake Cowichan, has been acting for some 30 years, and he worked in journalism for many years on the Island, developing research, interview and writing skills.

He began researching his Tommy Douglas play in the early 1980s and started writing it in 2002.

“I researched the play for 20 years and was disappointed when I didn’t find a script because I thought ‘someone’s written about the life of Tommy Douglas for sure’ but they hadn’t; they had written pieces of it, but there was no definitive thing,” said Nolan.

At the time, Nolan was performing the one-man David Rintels play about American lawyer Clarence Darrow, and he found a lot of similarities between the two powerful men.

Douglas was elected to the House of Commons in 1935 as a member of the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — which evolved into the New Democratic Party. By the middle of the Second World War, he had become the leader of the Saskatchewan CCF and made history on June 15, 1944, when the first socialist government in North America was elected.

One of Douglas’s first acts as premier was to bring in free medical and hospital care for pensioners, those on government support and for cancer patients. By 1962, Saskatchewan, which was still under Douglas’s leadership, enacted the first medicare plan in North America.

Douglas moved to federal politics in the early 1960s and served as leader of the NDP until 1971. Nanaimo-Cowichan-The Islands was the last constituency in which Douglas was an MP, before retiring from politics in 1979. Douglas died in Ottawa in 1986.

Nolan feels it’s more important to share Douglas’s story now than ever.

“He believed in the social gospel of Jesus, which is you do something … he thought the social gospel of Jesus was to do what Jesus did, help people,” said Nolan. “For me, I think that is what is desperately needed probably more today than it was at that time when Douglas was doing that very necessary work.

“What is truly tragic is that Douglas did all these incredible things, but he died 27 years ago, and his speeches about what was necessary 60 years ago have not been looked at by politicians today.

“You kind of wonder why things haven’t improved a great deal, and it’s because they haven’t addressed the fundamental ideal Douglas brought up 70 years ago just before the Second World War — he basically said it’s not enough to get rid of Hitler; we have to figure out how those people came to be where they are. We have to study the fundamental question of society itself — how was it formed, why is this happening, why is history repeating itself?”

Nolan premiered his play Oct. 20, 2004, on Douglas’s 100th birthday in his hometown of Weyburn, Sask., and he hasn’t stopped sharing it.

“Five weeks later, he was named Greatest Canadian [in the CBC contest], and it exploded, and  went all over the world,” said Nolan. “In a small way, Douglas did amazing things. And he’s still saving lives today. If Tommy Douglas does not exist in Canada, we do not have universal health care. He’s still saving lives today because people are not going into debt because someone in their family gets sick.”

Tommy Douglas: The Arrows of Desire will run Jan. 24, 25, 26 and 31 and Feb. 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 at Ladysmith Little Theatre.

Tickets are $20 and are available by calling 250-924-0658.