Canada is the only country with a broad public health system that does not include universal, nationwide coverage for pharmaceuticals. This omission causes real hardship to those Canadians who are not well-served by the existing patchwork of limited provincial plans and private insurance. It also represents significant forgone benefits in terms of governments’ ability to negotiate drug prices, make expensive new drugs available to patients on an equitable basis, and provide integrated health services regardless of therapy type or location. This paper examines Canada’s historical failure to adopt universal pharmaceutical insurance on a national basis, with particular emphasis on the role of public and elite ideas about its supposed lack of affordability. This legacy provides novel lessons about the barriers to reform and potential methods for overcoming them. The paper argues that reform is most likely to be successful if it explicitly addresses entrenched ideas about pharmacare’s affordability and its place in the health system. Reform is also more likely to achieve universal coverage if it is radical, addressing various components of an effective pharmaceutical program simultaneously. In this case, an incremental approach is likely to fail because it will not allow governments to contain costs and realize the social benefits that come along with a universal program, and because it means forgoing the current promising conditions for achieving real change.