Brenda Corney, of Red Deer, Alta, admires some lilies on her kitchen table on Dec. 20. — Photo by The Canadian Press
Brenda Corney definitely wasn’t a typical 12-year-old in 1961. When all the provinces joined Canada’s national health-care movement, she heralded the triumph to her classmates in Mulgrave, N.S.
“There wasn’t one person who wanted to talk about medicare in my class. Not one. I was the only 12-year-old in my class excited about medicare,” said Corney, 63.
“It made me a little bit weird. But I knew all about medicare. I knew because Mom and Dad talked about it every day — how it was going and when we won, and when it became Canadian.”
Corney was born in Moose Jaw, Sask., to parents who counted Canada’s universal health-care champion Tommy Douglas as a friend.
“(Douglas’s) idea for medicare grew out of the fact when he was a child he had a tumour in his leg. Without money, the best thing to do was just chop it off. But some doctor took pity on this young boy and did the operation for free and saved his leg.”
Douglas was one of the lucky ones. Others died on the doorsteps of hospitals because they didn’t have the money to go in, Corney said.
Health care shouldn’t depend on acts of charity, she said.
“We should have something built in our system that says human beings have dignity and they have a right to health care.”
Corney, chairperson of Friends of Medicare, Red Deer Chapter, since 2010, and provincial Friends of Medicare board member, said business should not profit from health care either.
In 1979, before the birth of her son, Corney spent two and a half months in hospital and after her son was born, he didn’t leave the hospital for about three months.
“He got the care he needed and he was able to move on with his life, and I was able to move on with my life, and we can contribute to society because we’re not under this tremendous burden of debt.”
In fact, her two children grew up to give Corney six grandchildren.
Corney, who was a nurse for 28 years in Red Deer in surgery and psychiatry, said she saw plenty of patients who, like her, couldn’t afford massive medical bills.
“I’ve seen vulnerable people. People lying there facing cancer treatment or facing end-of-life situations.
“How can I say to myself (health care) should be a commodity and they should get care based on what they can afford? No. Never. I don’t care who that person is,” said Corney who retired from nursing three years ago.
“Medicare is just so rock-solid for me.”
She said the public health-care system has its problems, but as long as there’s pressure to turn it over to the private sector, there won’t be the will and creativity to make the public system work.
“As long as we have this creeping privatization of services, then what will happen is those who can afford it can get faster service.
“There is a place for business, but it’s not taking care of people’s health.”
Medicare and a public long-term care system for seniors are not impossible because of Canada’s growing, aging population, she said.
“We have brilliant minds. All the creativity in the world didn’t die with Tommy Douglas. We can do it.”
Corney, a longtime supporter of the NDP, leaned to the left very early in life.
In 1953, her father, David Corney, ran in Saskatchewan’s riding of Prince Albert for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor to the NDP.
“When we lived in Saskatchewan, I must have been three or four, and my dad ran against John Diefenbaker in an election. I would go along the streets on my trike. They would post things up and if the picture wasn’t my dad, I would stand up on the seat of the trike and I would tear it down. Two blocks around where I lived, nobody else had a chance.”
Diefenbaker, who eventually became prime minister, won with 44.1 per cent of the vote, followed by Corney at 30.9 per cent.
Her father was a businessman who went on to start Cypress Hill Cheese, which became Faith Farms Cheese with processing plants in Swift Current and Wetaskiwin and a packaging plant in Red Deer. He eventually sold to Alpha Milk in the 1980s.
Her mother, Dorothy Corney, spent years as appointment secretary for Manitoba NDP Premier Ed Schreyer and cabinet secretary for the NDP government.
In Red Deer, her mother was known for her efforts to get the city declared a nuclear-free zone and her political commentary as one of the Raging Grannies.
“(David and Dorothy) were political activists.
“They were on the foreground of social justice issues and quite an example.”
Corney said her parents helped light the torch she carries, but she alone had to decide where to shine that light.
She chose medicare.
“When you’re standing there holding the death certificates of both your parents, you know that your time is limited,” she said, as if gripping a death certificate in each hand.
“This time is a gift. But it’s the gift of time to do things that are most important to you.”