Revolutionary Psychiatry in Saskatchewan

map of SaskatchewanThe mostly rural Canadian province of Saskatchewan is notable (beyond its wheat) for having had the first socialist government in North America, starting in 1944 when the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner of the modern New Democratic Party) came to power. Its leader, Tommy Douglas, was recently voted “Greatest Canadian” in a CBC television series that had counterparts in many other countries (and Douglas was also the grandfather of actor Keefer Sutherland).

In the latest issue of History of Psychiatry (vol. 18, no. 2), John A. Mills (U. Saskatchewan) writes about the extraordinary impact the CCF government had on the delivery of mental health services in this oft-ignored region. The article, “Lessons from the periphery: psychiatry in Saskatchewan, Canada, 1944-68,” argues that:

The government of the Saskatchewan Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, when elected in 1944, established programmes for the state-funded care of all those suffering from mental illness. It enacted legislation covering the care and treatment of the mentally ill and created a division of the Department of Public Health, the Psychiatric Services Branch (PSB), which both recruited and trained psychiatric staff, meeting the need for non-medical staff by creating a programme for the training of psychiatric nurses in Saskatchewan. The PSB devised the Saskatchewan Plan for the delivery of rural services, centred on small mental hospitals of a revolutionary design. Even though never fully instantiated, the Plan commanded worldwide attention. Saskatchewan was also remarkable for its research programmes, covering almost all aspects of psychiatry.

In addition, of course, Saskatchewan psychiatry is known for being among the first to implement a number of “innovative” (not necessarily successful) treatment modes, including experimentation with LSD and with token economies.


About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.