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Bernie Sanders speaks at Con Hall

Former Presidential candidate talks health care, human rights, Tommy Douglas
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Convocation Hall buzzed with energy the morning of October 29. Senator from Vermont and former Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders was in town to give a talk titled “What the U.S. Can Learn from Canadian Health Care” to a packed house at the University of Toronto. The talk came a day after he toured Toronto hospitals as part of his broader efforts for American health care reform.

“We had a wonderful trip,” said Sanders. “We learned a lot about your system and the extraordinary things your system is doing.”

Canadian and American health care

Sanders’ talk centred on the successes of the Canadian health care system in comparison with its American counterpart, and it reflected Sanders’ prescription of struggle, grassroots action, and human rights in light of an unequal society.

“We in the United States have got to ask a simple question,” posited Sanders. “How is it that here in Canada, you provide healthcare to man, woman, and child, and you do it for 50 per cent of the cost that we spend on health care in the United States?”

In her introduction of Sanders, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she hoped Canada’s system would serve “as a beacon for Americans as they consider health care options.”

Sanders is pushing a new bill in the US called Medicare for All. The bill would, in essence, bring a form of universal health care to the US, but it would go further than the Canadian system to cover dental care and prescription drugs.

Sanders identified prescription drugs and dental care as a shared gap in Canadian and American health care. “Our job is to tell the pharma industry that they cannot continue to rip off the people of the United States, Canada, or anywhere else while they are making unbelievably excessive profits,” he said. “Dental care is a part of health care and cannot be ignored.”

Dr. Danielle Martin of Women’s College Hospital and the University of Toronto joined Sanders on stage for a discussion after his remarks. Speaking to the media after the event, she addressed salient issues in Canadian health care head on. “We’ve been doing an excellent job in many Canadian jurisdictions in addressing wait times, but there’s a lot more work that has to be done,” she said. “There’s also a lot more work that we need to do in ensuring access to prescription medicines.”

Health care and “struggle”

Much of Sanders’ rise to mainstream fame came with his popularization of a new social democratic wave in the United States, and he played to the key themes of that in his talk.

He mentioned the work of Tommy Douglas, leader of the first social democratic government in North America, and its role in bringing public health care to Saskatchewan. Douglas’ political party was able to win 47 of the 52 seats in Saskatchewan’s legislature; Sanders praised this example of voter mobilization.

“It never happens from the top down. Real change happens from the bottom on up. All of you know that change never takes place easily,” he said.

Recalling the philosophy of Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure of the American abolitionist movement, Sanders said, “Freedom is never given to you — if it’s given to you, it’s not real freedom. You’ve got to struggle for it, you’ve got to fight for it, you’ve got to take it. And that is the history of all real change in this world.”

Sanders stressed the importance of asking questions in the face of injustice. “Our mission is to have the courage to ask the questions that may not be appearing on television tonight, or on the front pages of the paper,” he said, noting that many are “uncomfortable about asking those questions” because it involves taking on “very powerful special interests” like campaign donors and large conglomerates like the fossil fuel industry.

“I will tell you with 100 per cent certainty: there are people who are enormously powerful, who have more wealth than you can dream of, who couldn’t care less about your lives, about your children, about your parents,” he continued. “They want it all economically, they want it all politically… We’ve got to stand together and tell these oligarchs that this planet belongs to all of us.”

Ed Broadbent, former leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and founder of the Broadbent Institute — one of the event partners — said that when social democrats brought universal healthcare to Saskatchewan in 1962, it was widely expected to fail. “Instead, it spread across the country.”

Broadbent said that the struggle for progressive health care will continue with “the man who will lead that battle, Jagmeet Singh,” the newly elected leader of the federal NDP. When Broadbent motioned to Singh, who was in attendance, there was a round of applause from the audience.

In an interview with The Varsity after the event, Singh said that his campaign was “inspired” by Sanders’ ability to mobilize at a grassroots level, and he complimented Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. “I want to push our public health care to the next step and include pharmacare and dental care,” he said. “I feel the Bern!”

Students on Sanders

Sanders captivated American youth in his run to lead the Democratic Party in 2016.

“For me, at least, Bernie was a big part of my political awakening,” said Jeffrey Ma, a first-year student who waited in the rush line from 8:00 am. “It really enlightened me about a lot of the issues and injustices in our society, and American society.”

Azana Hyder, a third-year student who made it inside Con Hall, said that she thinks “everyone is a fan of Bernie Sanders, whether you admit it or not.”

Robert Xu, a student Governor at U of T’s Governing Council, said before the event he had doubts about the productivity of the discussion. Sanders, he said, “is often criticized for not having enough real, practical ideas” and usually promotes “those general ideas we all think are really good.”

Another student Governor, Amanda Harvey-Sánchez, said she was excited to see Sanders — whose Democratic leadership campaign she campaigned for — but had some reservations.

“One concern that I have is that perhaps it’ll be a self-congratulatory thing where people are just patting Canada on the back for having universal health care and not noting a lot of the important issues we do have in our health care system and how a lot of marginalized people in the country still aren’t getting access to full health care,” said Harvey-Sánchez in lead up to the event.

Rose Gulati, a first-year who was with Ma in the rush line, was quick to vocalize her stance on the difficulty students had securing tickets for the talk. About 20,000 people flooded the event page when it went live, and the free tickets were claimed almost immediately. In addition, a number of tickets were reserved for people with ties to the host institutions. “It was honestly so disheartening, it was heartbreaking,” Gulati said of her inability to get tickets online. “I felt that because it was a U of T event, it should have been available exclusively to U of T students.”

Robert Xu sits on The Varsity’s Board of Directors.