John Diefenbaker’s One Canada.

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s memoir One Canada was published in three volumes between 1975 and 1977. My boxed set was inscribed to me by the ex-PM on April 8th, 1979, when he was in negotiations with my father to narrate a series of radio vignettes about famous Native Canadians. I wasn’t present; I had just turned three. Diefenbaker died that summer, putting an end to the idea.

I wrote a couple years back about my “dad books” – the ten to twenty percent of my library that I inherited from my father and have kept around less out of enthusiasm than out of a sense of filial duty. The three volumes of One Canada were my last unread dad books. Politicians’ memoirs are not a genre of particular interest to me.

However, I feel a personal connection to Diefenbaker, not only through his slight acquaintance with my father but because of my Saskatchewan upbringing. I grew up in Prince Albert, the town where Diefenbaker settled in the 1920s and which he represented in parliament from 1952 until the end of his life. Many of the minor figures mentioned in the first volume of One Canada I recognize from the names of streets and civic buildings in Prince Albert and Saskatoon. From grade three to seven I attended John Diefenbaker School. On visits home I fly into Diefenbaker International Airport.

As for his politics, before reading his memoir I knew three things about Diefenbaker’s career:

  1. That his government had extended to all adult Native Canadians the right to vote. (Which is why he was a logical choice to narrate those radio vignettes. I’m sure my father also would’ve found some way to work in Diefenbaker’s nickname, The Chief.)
  2. That at the peak of Cold War nuclear tensions, his government had initiated a program of civil defence that involved mobilizing the Canadian Militia (known today as the Army Reserve), of which my father was, as a young man, a member. This program’s most, ahem, concrete result was the so-called Diefenbunker, a fallout shelter and emergency command centre outside Ottawa. [1]
  3. That, in opposition, he had forcefully opposed the design for what became our national flag.

My uneducated verdict: Canada didn’t fall apart under the six years of his rule. On the other hand, Diefenbunker aside, it was hard to point to any enduring accomplishment of his government.

(Note: all unsourced Diefenbaker quotes and anecdotes are taken from One Canada.)

diefenbaker one canada boxed set

One Canada, Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker.

Progressive, conservative.

Between 1942 and 2003 Canada’s right-of-centre party, colloquially the Tories, were officially the Progressive Conservative Party: columnist Allan Fotheringham used to mock them as the Forward-Backwards Party.

This self-cancelling sobriquet originated as a sop to John Bracken, the popular Progressive premier of Manitoba, to induce him to seek the national Conservative leadership in 1942. In Diefenbaker’s view, by the 1945 election (which the Tories lost) Bracken had abandoned whatever Progressive principles he carried over to his new party.

Before romping to the Tory leadership in 1956, Diefenbaker made longshot runs in 1942 (just two years after arriving in Ottawa) and 1948. He did a little better each time, to the annoyance of the party “pashas” in Central Canada, whom he disdained as reactionaries and who in turn despised him as a “Western populist”. Then as now, what this meant was hard to pin down:

I once asked one of them to define the term for me. He thought it was some kind of erratic radicalism. When pressed further, he wasn’t certain what his new term encompassed, except that it did encompass those things he disapproved of.

Much of Dief’s “populism” was gestural, like his conspicuous lack of interest in joining Ottawa’s tony Rideau Club. (He used to chuckle that from his office atop Parliament Hill he could “look down on” the club a couple blocks away.) In his memoir he recounts how an “important Canadian industrialist” once dropped by his office and complained when he wasn’t shown in ahead of an Alberta farmer with a prior appointment – a mere “rustic”, as the indignant bigshot supposedly described him.

That such snobbishness was highly correlated with Liberal Party membership may have been more than Dief’s paranoid fancy: after 21 uninterrupted years in power, the Liberals would have been the party of choice for power-hungry hacks, greasy-pole-climbers, and all those serenely invested in the status quo.

The Tories defeated Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal Party in 1957 by running to their left on the economy – vowing to increase the Old Age Pension, launch a major public works program to fight rising unemployment, and roll back the “continentalist” trade policy that had allowed big American corporations to buy out or outcompete smaller Canadian firms. Their victory was propelled in part by public disgust at Liberal high-handedness in invoking closure to shut down the Pipeline Debate in 1956; the Tories’ main objection to that bill had been that the pipeline in question was to be built by an American-owned company.

You’ll notice that 1950s-style Progressive Conservativism has a lot of overlap with modern-day conservative populism – bumptiously nationalistic, suspicious of foreign capital, blithe about budget deficits – and would go over about as well with the descendents of that “important Canadian industrialist”. As Peter C. Newman wrote in Maclean’s during the 1963 election campaign:

The sight of a Tory prime minister condemning Toronto financial interests is indeed a strange one in Canadian history. But then Diefenbaker has always been a maverick in his own party. When he was in opposition he shocked his fellow Conservatives by advocating that businessmen convicted of monopoly practices should be jailed, not just fined.

Diefenbaker elaborates:

To steal a million dollars and face a ten-thousand-dollar fine, if one was caught, was an invitation to the potential wrongdoer. … [A] corporation as an artificial person is not punished by picayune penalties of that kind.

I’m sure Dief would have had much to say about a Liberal government’s legally questionable convolutions to avoid prosecuting a major Quebec-based employer.

Against bigness.

Humblingly, the fourth thing I thought I knew about Diefenbaker I had completely backward. In my faulty recollection Dief, the doughty sentinel of Canadian sovereignty, had nurtured the Avro Arrow, the technologically advanced fighter jet whose funding was vindictively cut off by his Liberal successors.

Of course, as any afficianado of Canadian made-for-TV historical dramas could tell you, it was Diefenbaker who vindictively killed the Arrow, a project bequeathed to him by Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. As he admits:

[F]rom a construction standpoint, the AVRO Arrow was an impressive aircraft, superior to any other known contemporary all-weather fighter, something all Canadians could be proud of as their product.

But alas:

[I]t was altogether too costly, had too short a range, and would be out of date by the time it got into production.

Moreover, the Arrow’s potential customers in Europe and the States, concerned no doubt with cultivating their countries’ own airplane industries, showed no interest in buying the damn thing. Critics (like Gordon Donaldson, in Sixteen Men) have recast Dief’s reluctant acceptance of the economic realities as a deliberate and gleeful desecration:

An industry died and Diefenbaker stamped on its grave by personally demanding that the five Arrows in existence be completely destroyed. … It was the most extravagant display of vandalism in Canadian history.

Dief claims to have had no foreknowledge of the “callous” way his decision would be handled – the workers laid off via an announcement over the factory loudspeakers, the prototypes “reduced to scrap”. For these actions he pins the blame on the manufacturers, who were lazy parasites besides:

A.V. Roe, since the end of the Second World War, had lived and grown rich on Canadian defence contracts. The company seemed horror-struck at the prospect of having ever to compete in a normal market-place situation.

It isn’t hard for a more sympathetic historian, like John Boyko, to frame this as another instance of Diefenbaker putting the boot to entrenched business interests:

Two years before President Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, Diefenbaker proved that he would not be its handmaiden: the Arrow was dead[.]

In fact, Diefenbaker was as fulsome as any modern conservative in his attacks on government waste and his celebration of free markets. This sometimes had schizophrenic effects. Senator Eugene Forsey recalled a meeting with the Canadian Labour Congress in which one of Dief’s ministers gave a well-received presentation on the government’s labour-friendly policies. But alas:

The prime minister arose and said, “I have nothing to add to what the minister of labour has said,” and then talked for ten minutes and proved it. He not only had nothing to add, he had a great deal to subtract. It wasn’t at all clear … But out of the fog came, from time to time, “free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise, the principles of free enterprise to which this government was devoted…”
—Quoted in Peter Stursberg’s Diefenbaker: Leadership Gained.

Forsey sent a letter chiding the PM for fumbling the goodwill his minister had reaped; Dief responded by snubbing Forsey for the next two years.

In his memoir, Diefenbaker attempts to square his contradictory impulses:

I believe in the right of the individual to make his best in life. I have nothing but contempt for those who regard profits as being dangerous. Without them there is no advance, nor would there be the free society that is ours. But I believe that there must be a minimum for all. There is a profound division between those who believe that the State has no legitimate role in determining the course of the individual, and those who believe that the State has responsibilities as a referee, and so must have the power to protect the weak and the less privileged. I am not against big business. Bigness is essential today as never before; but I am against bigness when it permits the few to destroy or undermine the welfare of the many.

(A modern-day conservative populist has expressed the idea more pithily:

Market capitalism is a tool, like a staple gun or a toaster. You’d have to be a fool to worship it. Our system was created by human beings for the benefit of human beings. We do not exist to serve markets. Just the opposite.)

To his conservative critics, such ideological eclecticism only proved that Diefenbaker “had no discernible political convictions”. To liberal journalists, who might have been expected to show more sympathy, the explanation was that he was building a personality cult. Newman again:

Diefenbaker made sure there would be few ideological barriers to those who wanted to become his disciples. In order to involve non-Conservatives in his struggle, he deliberately discarded most of his party’s traditional policies and transformed it into an organ of personal aggrandizement.

In a later Maclean’s article Newman would psychoanalyze Diefenbaker’s small-town followers in language forecasting modern-day expeditions among the surly denizens of Trumpland:

It is anger that fills their minds and resentment that motivates their politics. Not so long ago they were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. They won this country from the wilderness and now they have lost it[.] … They regret the disappearance of simplicity, fidelity and all the homely virtues.

Meanwhile Dief’s Liberal opponents, however few their substantive policy differences with his government, had borrowed from their American friends the mantle of suavity and forward-lookingness. When in 1963 Democratic Party pollster Lou Harris (who had entered Canada using a false name to avoid alerting Diefenbaker to his presence) surveyed the electorate on behalf of Lester Pearson’s Liberals he found that (to quote Boyko again):

The party was attracting the same people as Kennedy and the Democrats: urban, educated, young, middle and upper class, and ethnic minorities. These groups, Harris told his Liberal friends, represented Canada’s future. Conservative support rested with each of the groups’ mirror opposites and, like Diefenbaker himself, hearkened back to a quickly receding past.

Years later, the author George Grant recalled how he’d baffled the metropolitan opinion-shapers by backing this “silly survivor from a well-forgotten past”. He quotes a “young scion of great wealth” who chided him:

“Oh George, how can you support such a vulgarian? Pearson is such a gentleman compared to that yahoo.”

Deux nations.

john and olive diefenbaker 1960

John and Olive Diefenbaker in 1960.
Source: Maclean’s.

Of course, no populist campaign would be complete without accusations of dog-whistle politics. However often Diefenbaker protested his belief in equal rights for all – however conciliatory were the French phrases he bawled out in his barbaric Saskatchewan accent – he could never shed the reputation of being secretly anti-Quebec.

The critics were confident that they could crack Dief’s coded messages to his redneck base. Of the 1965 campaign, in which the ousted Chief flogged his Liberal successors over a series of scandals, historian J.L. Granatstein wrote:

The names were French, and the Tory leader revelled in his mispronunciations and appeals for One Canada. In the code of the day, whatever Diefenbaker might have meant, he was unfailingly understood as wanting to put and keep Quebec in its place.

Or when at the 1967 Tory convention, Dief (fighting hopelessly to retain the party leadership) resisted a policy declaring Canada as constituting “deux nations”:

To many it seemed only a statement of the Canadian reality. But to John Diefenbaker, deux nations meant that his party was giving short shrift to those Canadians who were of neither French nor English origin and conceding an equality to French Canadians that he could not accept.

Pained by such sniping, Dief would point to his government’s record: the appointment of Canada’s first French Canadian governor general, bilingual cheques for civil servants, the introduction of simultaneous translation in parliamentary debates. His cabinet minister Leon Balcer later told Peter Stursberg that these were “the kind of thing that would have created enthusiasm in Quebec in the fifties”. But by 1960, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was already getting into swing, and such gestures could be dismissed as mere “tokenism”.

While Dief was seen in some English Canadian circles as too ethnic, in Quebec he was resented for his sentimental attachment to the British crown, his support for conscription during the war, and his reverence for Tory prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, still blamed for overseeing the execution of the French Canadian rebel Louis Riel in 1885. That event wasn’t such ancient history as it seems today: as a child Diefenbaker had met Riel’s lieutenant Gabriel Dumont, by then a fearsome and fascinating old man, with a distinctive part in his hair from the bullet that grazed his skull at the battle of Duck Lake.

Diefenbaker thought that Riel’s cause had been just, but the man himself off his rocker:

If I had a case in which the evidence of insanity was as clear, I would not have to submit any further evidence, I feel sure. If he had allowed his lawyers to carry the defence as they wanted to, he would have been found “not guilty” by reason of insanity.

Riel’s death, he complained, had ever since been “a millstone” dragging down the Tories’ chances in Quebec.

Ironically, it was a Quebecker, Diefenbaker’s sometime-ally, sometime-rival Pierre Sevigny, who claimed credit for inventing Dief’s catchphrase during the 1958 campaign:

Diefenbaker was talking in his inimitable way about Canada, the dream of a greater and better and bigger Canada. I told him: “Well let’s leave it as this. One Canada where everybody will live together in harmony.” I remember the word “harmony.” My God, it was as if I had put a bomb under his seat. He got up and said, “That’s it! Yes. One Canada.”

Sevigny traced Dief’s anti-French reputation back to his decision in 1957 to heed the strategic advice of a western colleague, Gordon Churchill, to reallocate party funds away from the pursuit of Quebec votes:

[Churchill] did not advocate starving out Quebec and giving it nothing. But he advocated a common-sense policy which was to use the little money that the PCs had in a better way, in a more rational way than had been done. …

Of course, politics being the nice polite game that it is, Mr Churchill’s and Mr Diefenbaker’s and all of the Conservatives’ enemies took advantage of this declaration to represent Churchill as the enemy of Quebec and French Canada and that kind of nonsense.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

In this respect, the 1957 Tories presaged the 2016 Trump campaign’s adoption of the so-called Sailer Strategy of abandoning their unavailing attempts to win over Latino voters to pursue more numerous, more persuadable blue-collar whites.

The dirty brush.

john diefenbaker 1940

Diefenbaker circa 1940.
Source: Saskatoon Public Library.

Like Donald Trump, Diefenbaker would be dogged by rumours of association with avowed racists:

A flash in the pan, the K.K.K. was first noticeable in Saskatchewan in 1926. It spread much in the same way as the Non-Partisan League or the Progressive Party before it. Based on a strong anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-non-English-immigrant, anti-coloured sentiment, it was fired by the oratorical powers of J.J. Maloney. Around it coalesced certain factions sharing a bitter hatred for the [Liberal Premier James] Gardiner machine. If left alone, it might have disappeared as quickly as it had emerged. Unfortunately for everyone, Gardiner began in 1928 to use it as a political straw man. He launched a series of political attacks on it in the Provincial Legislature, bringing the K.K.K. out of its obscurity, giving its leaders the appearance of political martyrs, and making it a recognizable centre of opposition to his government and its policies. Everyone who opposed Gardiner, his policies, and the viciousness of his machine was tarred with the dirty brush of Klan fanaticism.

That, at least, was how Diefenbaker saw it: no doubt Gardiner and his allies convinced themselves they were doing noble work, shining a cleansing light on this outbreak of moral bacilli. (Likewise Hillary Clinton as she singlehandedly made the alt-right a household name by condemning it in the middle of a national election campaign; likewise the American media each time they play along with some desperate attempt by David Duke to edge himself into the national conversation.)

Diefenbaker goes on to share an addendum to the Klan story that a contemporary politico would likely omit:

I met the Klan leader, J.J. Maloney, only once and then for a period of not more than five or ten minutes. He asked for legal advice on the financial difficulties of the K.K.K. arising when its American organizers absconded with a large part of the organization’s dues.

I’m sure this encounter didn’t help Diefenbaker’s case when, during his 1956 leadership campaign, he was accused of having been in the Klan. He was cleared through the intercession of a Saskatchewan cabinet minister who, having access for some reason to “a complete list of the Klan membership”, swore that Diefenbaker’s name wasn’t on it.

(While some of Dief’s foes were trying to link him to the Klan, others were whispering that he was secretly a Jew.)

A reincarnated Diefenbaker would probably be more circumspect about having had cordial business dealings with a Klan leader. But the incident is consistent with his belief that everyone, however unpopular, was entitled to a legal defense. [2] During World War II he opposed the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to take up arms; at the dawn of the Cold War he condemned the government’s use of “police state methods” to break up a Soviet spy ring; and soon after he was “booed to the echo” by his Tory colleagues for resisting a party proposal to criminalize Communism. As Maclean’s related a few years later:

[T]he project got so far along that the literature was actually printed and awaiting distribution. Diefenbaker fought the idea in caucus, using the same arguments as Stuart Garson, the Liberal Minister of Justice, uses in public – that to outlaw Communism merely drives the party underground; that you can’t put a man in jail for his beliefs, no matter what they are. Diefenbaker carried his point. The campaign literature, still in bales, was carted away and burned. But the incident did nothing to allay the suspicions of those who call Diefenbaker a “Leftist.”

(In those quaint days “Leftists” were understood to be opposed to criminalizing speech.)

When in 1958 he introduced his legislation for a bill of rights – a document he’d been tinkering with since his days as a young lawyer in Wakaw, Saskatchewan – it was with the promise that thenceforth

wherever a Canadian may live, whatever his race, his religion or his colour, the Parliament of Canada would be jealous of his rights.

In his statue on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker is depicted clutching a copy of his cherished bill.

“They are all Canadians.”

Dief’s bugbear “hyphenated Canadianism” sounds like a talking point from Canada’s modern-day megaphone of intemperate populism, The Rebel. But back before our government began sorting the citizenry into ever more profusely hyphenated racial categories to enforce equal representation, Dief’s beef was with what modern progressives would call the “othering” of those with non-British and non-French ancestry.

In an interview with Maclean’s during the 1958 election, Diefenbaker was strangely tight-lipped about the most innocent subjects – his favourite books, his favourite TV shows, his favourite food [3] – but he opened up when asked about “his compass”:

I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration. … It’s the reason I went into public life. That is what I said I was going to do. I’m very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin – and they are all Canadians. [4]

Under his government, Canada’s immigration system was reformed to remove the preferential status that had been granted to applicants from the British Isles and Western Europe. He bragged of having encouraged Canada’s first black MP, Lincoln Alexander, to run – “because he was a good man for the riding, not because he was black” – and of having appointed Canada’s first Native Canadian senator, James Gladstone.

diefenbaker native headdress duck lake saskatchewan

Diefenbaker is lectured for culturally appropriating Native Canadian headgear.
(I kid.)

As for Louis Rasminsky, his pick as governor of the Bank of Canada, he claimed he would have had the job already if St. Laurent’s Liberals hadn’t ruled him out because he was a Jew.

Diefenbaker sympathized with minorities in part because he, too, had put up with digs about his ethnicity. Saskatchewan CCF leader Tommy Douglas recalled sharing a microphone with Diefenbaker during the 1940 campaign:

I was rather pleased to meet him because at that time he was having a difficult time. My sympathies were with him. … [His Liberal opponent] Fred Johnson, more than by innuendo, very deliberately tried to portray Diefenbaker as a German. Every time he referred to him he referred to him as my opponent, “Mr. Diefenbacker,” and made it as guttural as possible at a time when, of course, anti-German feeling was very high.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Although the political impact was probably marginal – Diefenbaker narrowly won that race – such insults nevertheless stung:

I suppose that those who have never experienced this sort of thing will never truly understand it. I have often wondered what the effect on my life would have been if my name had been my mother’s, Campbell-Bannerman, rather than Diefenbaker. [5]

Hence, President John F. Kennedy’s innocent mispronunciation of “Diefenbawker” was doubly grating: a personal slight, as well as a slight to Canada, whose leader’s name the callow president couldn’t be troubled to learn.

diefenbaker kennedy maclean's magazine

Diefenbaker and Kennedy.
Source: Maclean’s.

(As prickly as Dief could be about his own name, his enemies’ names were fair targets: during the 1965 election he would rail at “the Bananas and the Mananas and the rest of that menagerie,” referring to some petty Liberal corruption scandals concerning mobsters Joe Bonanno and Onofrio Minaudo.)

Reading about Dief’s name sensitivity, I was reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ complaint in Hitch-22 that certain left-wing journalists, when discussing his politically unpopular friend Paul Wolfowitz, would become suspiciously fastidious about pronouncing his name “Volfervitz” – rather than in the usual, and in this case correct, American way.

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

While on this topic, I can’t overlook Peter C. Newman’s assertion that Diefenbaker, nettled by his portrayal as a vain ditherer in Newman’s book Renegade In Power,

took great delight in mispronouncing my name as “Kneeman,” or more frequently as “Noyman.” He called me, in public, the “Bouncing Czech” [6] and in private, “that Viennese Jew.”

As evidence, Newman points to a handwritten note in the Diefenbaker archives:

Then there is Newman. … He is an innately evil person who seems intent on tearing other people to pieces. Seems honourable people have no protection from his mind and pen. He makes his fortune in doing so. NOTE: He is an import from VIENNA! [7]

Decline and fall.

As Robert Fulford documented after Dief’s 1963 defeat:

American journalists showed no affection for John Diefenbaker. He said in the campaign that they were against him, and he was right … from the liberal Democratic Reporter (“incapable of decision”) through the liberal Republican Life (“shrewd but narrow”), through the nonpartisan Atlantic Monthly (“Washington, like London, is weary of the Diefenbaker regime, which has had a genius for annoying both capitals”) right over to the ultra-conservative National Review (“led a once-great party into a wilderness of suspicion and parochialism”).

In his 1962 and ’63 campaigns, Dief suffered media coverage so blatantly, nitpickingly negative that it probably helped him, by affirming the authenticity of his embattled little-guy pose, more than it hurt. If anyone doubted that the powers-that-be had it in for him, he could unfurl, say, this mid-campaign edition of Newsweek with its lurid cover portrait:

diefenbaker newsweek cover february 1963

Newsweek, February, 1963.

…and equally lurid portrait inside:

[T]he India-rubber features twist and contort in grotesque and gargoyle-like grimaces; beneath the electric gray V of the hairline, the eyebrows beat up and down like bats’ wings; the agate-blue eyes blaze forth cold fire.

Diefenbaker would claim in his memoir that Newsweek‘s Washington bureau chief, a friend and ally of President Kennedy, had published the above article at Kennedy’s behest.

The later years of Dief’s rule had been enlivened by repeated spats with the Americans. The PM had gotten on chummily with President Eisenhower, who “[u]nlike his successor … did not regard the United States presidency as a glittering jewel; he saw it as a job to be done.” But when the rich, good-looking Kennedy came to power, Dief saw in him a Yankee manifestation of Liberal-style haughtiness and unearned self-assurance. (Kennedy had an equally immediate aversion to Diefenbaker, “that boring son of a bitch”; Mrs. Kennedy found his conversation “painful”.)

On their first meeting, in Washington, the former small-town lawyer asked the new president how he could have appointed his brother Robert, with no expertise in the law, as Attorney-General. Kennedy evaded the question with a joke: “Can you tell me how he could learn law faster?”

When the two history buffs chatted about the War of 1812, Kennedy teased his visitor that he was unaware of any British naval victories in that war. On his return to Ottawa, Diefenbaker instructed his national librarian to dig up some paintings depicting British victories so that he could send one as a gift to the president. His executive assistant John Fisher resisted:

I pleaded with Mr Diefenbaker, “Don’t send that to Kennedy, sir. What are you trying to prove by sending down something a hundred years after the event?” “Oh, we must teach him history. History must be taught,” he would mutter. I could tell from the twinkle in his eye that he was enjoying the devilish exercise.
—Quoted in Stursberg, Leadership Gained.

Fisher had the paintings sent out to be cleaned and then “stalled, stalled, stalled” in the hope that his boss would forget about the rash idea. (They were never sent.)

As the two leaders’ relationship soured, the ribbing gave way to real antipathy. Of being nagged by the new president to join the Organization of American States, Dief writes:

I was not about to have Canada bullied into any course of action. This was the first of a number of occasions on which I had to explain to President Kennedy that Canada was not Massachusetts, or even Boston.

He bristled at Kennedy’s demand that Canada stop trading with Castro’s Cuba, and lost his temper over American bureaucratic interference with a shipment of Canadian wheat to Communist China. Kennedy was equally infuriated when Diefenbaker was slow to mobilize the Canadian military during the Cuban missile crisis. (Dief feared that the move might antagonize the Soviets.) But the final straw was the PM’s refusal to accept American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc surface-to-air missile systems he’d agreed to install at two locations in Ontario and Quebec.

Dief’s reticence wasn’t based on philosophical opposition to nukes (although he was in favour of non-proliferation and arms-reduction treaties in the abstract) but on the reasonable-seeming principle that Canada must first be guaranteed joint control – that is, a “qualified veto” governing the use – of any nukes stationed on Canadian soil.

With nuclear bombers having been supplanted as the major threat to North American security by intercontinental missiles – against which surface-to-air missiles were ineffective – Dief had begun to suspect that, like the now-cancelled Avro Arrow, the Bomarcs survived only because of bureaucratic inertia. It didn’t emerge until just before the 1963 election that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara had admitted that the Bomarcs’ primary strategic purpose now was to draw fire from Soviet missiles “that would otherwise be available for other targets”.

By the mid-1970s, when Dief was composing his memoir, the Liberals under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had gone much farther in thumbing their noses at the Americans while advertising Canada’s friendliness to Communist regimes. But in the early 1960s those needling Dief for insufficient hawkishness included not only right-wing members of his own cabinet, but most of the media, the Democratic administration in Washington, and his Liberal opposition in Ottawa.

Trudeau’s predecessor as Liberal leader, Lester Pearson – for the benefit of my non-Canadian readers, that would be Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson – jettisoned his earlier skepticism toward the Bomarc system and blasted the government for its “evasion of responsibility” in not accepting the nuclear warheads. In Dief’s view, Pearson had sold his principles in exchange for foreign aid in the elections of 1962 and 1963:

President Kennedy had achieved his dearest Canadian wish. It was a partnership complete: the Liberals under Pearson had progressed, if one may call it that, from condemning our wheat sales to Communist China … to embracing the United States position on arming with nuclear weapons the Bomarcs and, no doubt, yielding to United States demands for the storage of all manner of nuclear devices in Canada. At the time, Pierre Elliott Trudeau described Mr. Pearson as “the unfrocked pope of peace.”

(Trudeau in the early 1960s had been a supporter of the socialist NDP and a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy. Throughout his memoirs Dief has fun recalling Trudeau’s gibes at Pearson’s coziness with the Americans.)

diefenbaker watching trudeau on tv

Diefenbaker watches Trudeau in the 1979 leaders’ debate.
Source: Canadian Press.

Kennedy’s team certainly made no secret of the fact that they had been cheerleading for Pearson’s Liberals, even if their actual interference had the opposite of the desired effect: the newly elected Pearson told Kennedy that his State Department’s notorious press release accusing the ex-PM of lying about the nuclear negotiations had “probably cost me fifty seats”, by riling up Dief’s nationalist supporters.

I’m sure many readers will scoff at Diefenbaker’s suggestion that besides authorizing the press release, ordering up the nasty Newsweek article, and loaning his pollster to the Liberals, Kennedy had arranged for his Wall Street buddies to take steps to undermine the Canadian economy, leading to the 1962 run on the currency which contributed to Dief’s defeat.

There’s no proof of that. But at the time, many Americans concurred with Diefenbaker that Washington had deftly engineered his downfall. Some, like Richard Starnes in the Washington Daily News, praised the operation:

[A]droit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime that promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence. … [T]he Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.

Other Americans were aghast at their government’s cheek, like the man who approached Dief in the wake of his loss saying, “I want to shake hands with the only Prime Minister of Canada who has ever been defeated by a President of the United States.”

Whatever combo of U.S. interference, media bias, and Tory backstabbing overwhelmed Diefenbaker, it was certainly helped along by his own talent for aggravating the rich and influential. As he expressed it, not without self-pity:

I went down there to see what I could do for the common people and the big people finished me[.]

One Canada.

In the foreword to Volume Two of One Canada, Diefenbaker’s editors remark that Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, like President Hoover in the States, is to this day maligned for having had the bad luck to be in power as the Great Depression set in. Bennett left no memoir to tell his side of the story. Consequently:

The Conservative regime that governed Canada from 1930 to 1935 has been treated by Canadian historians as an aberration in the great Liberal scheme of things Canadian. A major work on R.B. Bennett has yet to be written. Had Mr. Diefenbaker failed to provide us his account of his national stewardship, we might have had worse than nothing in its stead.

Intent on supplying grist for the historians, Diefenbaker dissects his prime ministership with eye-glazing thoroughness, quoting liberally from his own speeches, press statements, and routine correspondence. (Perhaps to debunk the myth of his French-language illiteracy, several lengthy statements are presented in their original French.)

But his tendency to assume an intimate knowledge of the politics of his era makes his memoir useless as a standalone history. Often he’ll introduce a subject with some comment like “Without going into unnecessary details (they are chronicled elsewhere)…” leaving the reader to guess where he stood on the issue: not always easy, given how Dief bucked his own party’s traditions, not to mention how political alignments have shifted in the past sixty years. I found myself skimming a lot, slowing down for the interludes of gossip, spleen-venting, and folksy wisdom.

Therefore I can’t quite recommend One Canada to casual readers. Perhaps some Canadian publishing house with a passion for 20th century history and a jaunty indifference to sales figures could undertake a one-volume abridgement, which would skip over the langours but retain all the good stuff. If an editor is wanted, I’m available.

M.

1. Re Diefenbaker’s civil defence policy, see discussion of the Special Militia Training Plan in Chapter 6 of Andrew Burtch’s “Canada and the Failure of Civil Defence, 1945-1963”.

2. Dief took seriously his cabinet’s responsibility to review every death sentence case; these lengthy discussions annoyed his colleagues and contributed to his government’s reputation for irresolution and inertia. Per Peter C. Newman’s accounting (in Renegade In Power), Dief’s cabinet commuted 52 of the 66 death sentences they examined, a percentage much higher than their predecessors’ 35 of 85.

These sentence reviews led to awkwardness over the presence of Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first female cabinet minister, whom the old-fashioned Dief once asked to leave the room during consideration of an infamous sex killing. She complied but later scoffed at the overdelicacy of her “namby-pamby” male colleagues. (This story is related in Stursberg’s Leadership Gained.)

3. In Renegade in Power, Newman recounts how “when reporters badgered Mrs Diefenbaker to tell them her husband’s favourite food, she had no answer. Later, when she asked him, he hesitated for a while, then replied, ‘Oh, yes, I know. Potatoes.'”

4. In the same 1958 Maclean’s interview Diefenbaker declares that he has “an intensive hatred for discrimination based on color”. He attributes this conviction, strangely enough, to his early viewing of the movie Birth of a Nation, with its heroic Ku Klux Klansmen protecting Southern civilization from brutish blacks. As near as I can tell from browsing old reviews on Google Books, Birth of a Nation was seen as racist even in the 1950s. Did Dief mean that as a teen he was so repelled by the movie that he became an anti-racist? Or did he discern in it some anti-racist moral that is invisible to modern viewers?

5. Considering the number of Canadians and Americans with German ancestry, it’s remarkable how rarely politicians with German-sounding names have risen to prominence in either country. West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer couldn’t help noticing the overlapping tenures of the 20th century’s two great exceptions: at a 1958 meeting with the PM, he joked, “Adenauer, Eisenhower, and Diefenbaker – what a threesome!”

6. In Martin Amis’s non-fiction book about Communism, Koba the Dread, he mentions how after his father Kingsley visited Czechoslovakia in 1966 a “stream of Czechs” dropped by their London home, leading to a corresponding stream of bad puns: “There were bouncing Czechs, certified Czechs, and at least one honored Czech, the novelist Josef Skvorecky.”

7. I really don’t know what to make of Dief’s alleged slurs against Newman, who has been accused by others of “greedy and cynical manipulation” of the facts: Conrad Black, for one, called him “a peddler of gossip” and sued him for libel. But then, Black’s reputation is not exactly without blemish

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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