On May 20, 1957, over a thousand people braved heavy rain and packed the Mossbank Community Hall to witness a confrontation of epic proportions.

Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas, the icon of prairie socialism, faced Ross Thatcher, a renegade former colleague.

Tommy Douglas and Ross Thatcher just prior to 1957 debate.

Douglas (left) and Thatcher (right) just prior to their famous confrontation

Their debate established Thatcher’s reputation as the fierce champion of free enterprise and was the prequel for over a decade of some of the sharpest ideological tension in provincial history.Two year prior, Thatcher abandoned Douglas’s party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which he had represented in Parliament since 1945. After subsequently joining the Liberals, Thatcher further earned Douglas’s ire by labelling Saskatchewan’s crown corporations a “dismal failure.” Douglas challenged Thatcher to debate the record of the crown corporations any time and any place. Thatcher accepted.
Actor Kelly Munce and Will Barber pose in preparation of the 2003 re-enactment of the 'Debate of the Century'Actor Kelly Munce (left) and Will Barber (right) strike a pose in preparation for the 2003 re-enactment of the “Debate of the Century”

Thatcher chose to debate Douglas during the 1957 Federal election when he was contesting the Assiniboia constituency as the Liberal candidate. He also selected Mossbank, a Liberal stronghold, as the location for the debate.

The hall was packed with media and CCF and Liberal supporters.The Mossbank Hall was packed with the media as well as CCF and Liberal partisans

The debate attracted unprecedented attention, with reporters from all over Canada in attendance. Broadcast live via radio, thousands listened as the two men argued facts and figures about the relative success or failure of crown corporations. Douglas cast aspersions on his opponent’s political integrity while Thatcher suggested government accounting practices were suspect. The highly partisan audience, almost equally divided between CCF and Liberal supporters, interrupted both speakers with boisterous heckling and applause.

Douglas and Thatcher both performed well, providing the audience with compelling arguments and entertaining theatrics.

Crowds lined up outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers in the rain.

Despite the poor weather, many who could not get seats inside chose to listen on loudspeakers mounted on the outside of the building

Although defeated in 1957, the Mossbank debate propelled Thatcher into the provincial arena where he eventually became Premier himself. The Debate proved to be a harbinger for the bitterly fought battles between right and left during the 1960s.In 2003, a re-enactment of the famous debate was held in the same hall where the original event took place. Over 600 people attended two sold-out performances. Audience members were encouraged to heckle and cheer much as the crowd had done in 1957, and they proved to be as vocal as their predecessors.

Bibliography

Eisler, Dale. Rumours of Glory: Saskatchewan and the Thatcher Years. Hurtig Publishers, 1987.

Saskatchewan Archives Board, T. C. Douglas Papers, R-33.1 cxxix.958(146)

Picture Credits

All historic photos courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives Board, and used with the permission of the Leader Post and Michael West.