Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Continuing Legacy of John Diefenbaker

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.


  1. A very entertaining retrospective on a great Prime Minister. I attended his funeral in Ottawa back in the day of a different political universe. Interesting to note the respect he received even from his political adversaries.

    Seems much of that civility has been lost in this day and age.

  2. Which is interesting, because let's be honest -- John Diefenbaker wasn't really a very civil guy. Some of his attacks on his political adversaries -- both inside and outside of the party -- were kinda vicious.

  3. Patrick,

    The 1957 Hospital Diagnostic Services Act was originally the brainchld of Paul Martin Sr. during Uncle Louis' tenure. Dief really had no choice but to pass it.

  4. Not really. Diefenbaker could have easily found the support to kill that bill in 1957 if he'd wanted to.

    God knows -- and history shows -- he had no reason to fear an election in 57.

  5. Patrick,

    Sorry, meant to get back to you on this some time ago but have been busy with kids, dog, life, summer & AC/DC fest last night. Angus rocked! Been 28 years since I first saw them & just like Citizen Kane - they never fail to deliver the goods.

    Believe you are categorically wrong on this account - Dief had committed his party to the legislation during the second reading of the bill on April 4, 1957. "[It is a] bill which we hope will soon be implemented and become the law of the land. We in opposition throughout the years have favoured this type of legislation." (See Hansard & Taylor pp.229) When the roll call vote was taken on April 10th of that year EVERY PC member voted in favour.

    I could dump a raft of primary research on you (but won't)... simple fact is that Dief could never have considered not passing this piece of legislation. And, had he tried to defer it, he never would have secured his stunning 1958 electoral victory.


    p.s. oops Taylor referred to is Malcolm:1978

  6. You forgot that he committed an atrocity on our economy with his demoniacally motivated need to destroy all knowledge of the Avro Arrow. The 50000 employees that were laid off due to his incompetence. Great guy.

  7. The Avro Arrow was designed as an interceptor at a time when the delivery method for nuclear weapons was long-range bombers.

    The Arrow was discontinued because missiles had replaced bombers as the delivery method for nuclear warheads.

    Meanwhile, Avro Aerospace had mismanaged their fiscal affairs and put all their egs in the Arrow basket.

    Doefenbaker made the right decision in regards to the Arrow. How is to blame for the myriad of bad decisions made by the management of Avro Aerospace?


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