Access to health care based on need rather than ability to pay was the founding principle of the Canadian health-care system. Medicare was born in one province in 1947. It spread across the country through federal cost sharing, and eventually was harmonised through standards in a federal law, the Canada Health Act of 1984. The health-care system is less a true national system than a decentralised collection of provincial and territorial insurance plans covering a narrow basket of services, which are free at the point of care. Administration and service delivery are highly decentralised, although coverage is portable across the country. In the setting of geographical and population diversity, long waits for elective care demand the capacity and commitment to scale up effective and sustainable models of care delivery across the country. Profound health inequities experienced by Indigenous populations and some vulnerable groups also require coordinated action on the social determinants of health if these inequities are to be effectively addressed. Achievement of the high aspirations of Medicare’s founders requires a renewal of the tripartite social contract between governments, health-care providers, and the public. Expansion of the publicly funded basket of services and coordinated effort to reduce variation in outcomes will hinge on more engaged roles for the federal government and the physician community than have existed in previous decades. Public engagement in system stewardship will also be crucial to achieve a high-quality system grounded in both evidence and the Canadian values of equity and solidarity.