Douglas was born in Falkirk, Scotland, in 1904, the son of Annie (née Clement) and Thomas Douglas, an iron moulder who fought in the Boer War. In 1910, his family emigrated to Canada, where they settled in Winnipeg. Shortly before he left Scotland, Douglas fell and injured his right knee. Osteomyelitis set in and he underwent a number of operations in Scotland in an attempt to cure the condition. Later however, in Winnipeg, the osteomyelitis flared up again and Douglas was sent to hospital. Doctors there told his parents his leg would have to be amputated. Fortunately, a well-known orthopedic surgeon took an interest in his case and agreed to treat the boy for free if his parents would allow medical students to observe. After several operations, Douglas's leg was saved. This experience convinced him that health care should be free to all. "I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside", Douglas told an interviewer many years later.
During World War I, the family returned to Glasgow. They came back to Winnipeg in late 1918, in time for Douglas to witness the Winnipeg General Strike. From a rooftop vantage point on Main Street, he witnessed the police charging the strikers with clubs and guns, a streetcar being overturned and set on fire. He also witnessed the RCMP shoot and kill one of the workers. This incident influenced Douglas later in life by cementing his commitment to protect fundamental freedoms in a Bill of Rights when he was Premier of Saskatchewan.
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