Bernie Sanders takes his Medicare-for-All campaign to Canada

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd at the University of Toronto during his visit to Toronto. Photo from CP Images

U.S. senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders came to Toronto with a broad message on the need for true universal healthcare, social justice and the need to learn from each other. The speech was delivered to a packed audience at the University of Toronto that included Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and Women’s College Hospital vice president Dr. Danielle Martin.

“What is very interesting when we think about the debate going on all over the world about austerity efforts is that the National Health System in the U.K., your Canadian health care system, our Medicare system remain extremely popular today,” he said. “People understand a good thing when they have it.”

While billed as a talk about what the U.S. can learn from the Canadian healthcare system, his speech was a comprehensive telling of history of socioeconomic justice and positive social change in Canada, the UK and the U.S. Sanders framed his current campaign for universal healthcare in the U.S. as being part of that same legacy, of the grassroots struggle to achieve a more equal society against the wishes of wealthy, vested interests.

“It never happens from the top on down. Real change always happens from the bottom on up,” said Sanders to enormous applause. “As all of you know, that change never takes place easily.”

Playing to the sensibilities of his audience, Sanders mentioned Tommy Douglas’ NDP and the provincial Medicare bill it passed in 1947, called the Saskatchewan Hospital Services Plan. The legislation paved the way for a revolution to the administration of healthcare across the country, leading to the passage of Medicare in Saskatchewan in 1962 and federally in 1966.

Even the concept of “freedom”, a favoured talking point of many conservative politicians on both sides of the border, was taken to task by the senator from Vermont. “That is an important debate that we need to have—what does freedom mean?” he said. “It’s not just the right to vote.” The right to health care, a good education and a clean environment were among the freedoms he listed as being the most important.

“Freedom is never given to you,” said the senator, invoking the words of former American slave and fierce abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “You gotta take it. And that is the history for all real change in this world.”

Sanders also took some jabs that were well received by the audience. Speaking of Donald Trump, he said that “we are trying to get Donald Trump to read the Constitution of the United States.” When he asked if the crowd had heard of the Koch Brothers, a pair of powerful industrialists who have set up a network of rightwing think tanks and advocacy groups to influence American legislation, large parts of the crowd booed.

“They have taken the Republican Party from what used to be a centre right party to a right wing extremist party,” he said. “That is what happens when billionaires are allowed to buy a political party. Don’t let it happen in Canada.”

The crowd clapped numerous times as Sanders criticized the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, the need for true universal healthcare and the need to work with each other to improve the planet. But Sanders warned that they would be up against powerful adversaries.

“They are prepared to step on anybody and everybody to get their way,” he said.

Sanders reserved a special thank you for Dr. Danielle Martin, who became widely known to millions during a U.S. Senate committee hearing in which she defended the Canadian healthcare system from leading questions asked by a Republican senator. She has been a persistent and public supporter of the Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill, and was present at the introduction of the legislation in Washington, D.C.

Sanders’ speech may have ignited a sense of urgency in Canada’s own health care woes. While Canadians are almost all covered by their provincial health care programs, Canadians are not insured for prescription drugs or dental care, two areas that health care specialists have said need require increased government attention.

“The Canadian healthcare system is not perfect and there’s a lot more work that can be done to improve the system here,” said Raina Loxley, another University of Toronto student. “I think there has to be a concerted effort to shift economic priorities in terms of gaining mass support from the public to make those tough decisions.”

The political will, however, is currently lacking. An NDP motion calling for a national pharmacare plan was voted down in the House of Commons on October 17th, much to the chagrin of Canadians wanting healthcare coverage expanded to cover pharmaceutical drugs. A report by the Parliamentary Budget Office said that Canadians could save around $4 billion under such a plan.

“Without dental care, without pharmacare, we haven’t finished the work that Tommy Douglas started in Saskatchewan with the CCF,” said Alejandra Bravo, a director at the Broadbent Institute. “It’s absolutely critical for Canadians to protect what we have by being more bold and more progressive and demanding better.”

“It has been over 50 years since it started, and there’s a lot of reform to be done,” said Grace Kapustianyk, a student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health who attended the talk. “We absolutely need to be more vocal. If you don’t speak out for what you believe in and what you need, then there are enough people countering those arguments that it will never come through.”