30 years ago today, John Diefenbaker, one of Canada's greatest Prime Ministers, passed away.
With Diefenbaker's passing, Canada lost the source of one of the most definitive visions of Canadian unity -- the "One Canada" philosophy after which he named his memoirs.
Diefenbaker's fingerprint on Canada is unmistakable. Among his accomplishments was the 1960 Bill of Rights, which Pierre Trudeau essentially entrenched in the Constitution as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the introduction of Canada's first non-racist immigration policy.
John Diefenbaker's commitment to Canada was unmistakable.
Through his "One Canada" policy, Diefenbaker favoured a fundamental cultural union of Canada's various cultural solitudes. To this day, the Conservative party continues to struggle between Diefenbaker's "One Canada" vision and other visions -- like Joe Clark's "community of communities" vision -- of the country.
Diefenbaker firmly believed that a Canadian's cultural background should matter very little in regards to what they could or could not accomplish as a Canadian. Diefenbaker was the first Canadian Prime Minister to originate from neither French nor English backgrounds. Despite the fact that his German last name -- which he had to change to minimize its Germanicness -- was often used against him by his political opponents, he found ways to triumph against this petty bigotry.
Diefenbaker's legacy also has a distinct dark side. Having survived two wives -- Olive and the later-neglected Edna -- Diefenbaker spent his last days planning his own funeral.
He would remain obsessed with outdoing his top partisan political rival, Lester Pearson, and with denigrating his political rivals within the Progressive Conservate party -- individuals such as Dalton Camp, who was so instrumental in manufacturing his ouster. Diefenbaker would write that Camp "was nothing", despite Dalton Camp's decisive role in his ouster as Conservative leader.
He would also take aim at Joe Clark. He had once remarked that Clark "had to have his wrist starched for his wedding night" with Maureen McTeer.
Diefenbaker had a transformative effect on the Conservative party. Despite his opposition to the party's John Bracken-enforced 1942 name change to the Progressive Conservative party, Diefenbaker introduced to the party a new-found concern for ordinary Canadians.
In 1961, Diefenbaker convened the 1961 Royal Commission on Health Services. At the time he had one of the largest majority governments in Canadian history -- his government's survival did not depend upon appointing the commission, nor on implementing any kind of publicly-funded health care system.
The Royal Commission on Health Services, chaired by Justice Emmett Hall, established under Diefenbaker's government, reported favourably about the prospect of establishing a public health care system in Canada.
Previously, in 1957, Diefenbaker passed the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Act (although he had a minority government at that particular time). Within a year Newfoundland, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia were on board with the cost-sharing program. In 1961 Quebec became the last province to join.
Lester Pearson and Tommy Douglas wound up sharing credit for Canadian health care. But a great number of Canadians forget that it was Diefenbaker who helped lay the groundwork.
Diefenbaker was a Prime Minister in the populist mold. After his reign as leader the party would no longer be viewed solely as a party for bankers and economic trusts.
While many political leaders prefer to speak to Canadians through press conferences and political rallies, Diefenbaker preferred to meet Canadians through farm house meetings, whistle-stop train tours, and "main streeting" -- a stroll through the main street of a city or town in which he would make a point of speaking with any local who wanted to speak with him.
Diefenbaker was as well known for his folksy stories as he was for his relentless and vitriolic attacks on his political opponents.
The mark John Diefenbaker left on Canada is indelible. 30 years after his passing, he is with us still.