Posts Tagged 'john diefenbaker'

Nation-to-nation.

Okay, it’s time to accept that this essay I left untouched for two months – a characteristically logorrheic three-parter that was going to touch on everything from E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project to leaky sewer pipes in Granville Lake, Manitoba – is not getting finished. The issues that animated it – particularly the anti-pipeline protests that were all over the Canadian news back in February – no longer seem terribly pertinent.

Update, May 19 2020: It turned out that all I needed to do to get past my writer’s block was carve out the bloated middle section – which became the present essay. The remainder became “The Saskatchewan Evacuation Party belatedly endorses Andrew Scheer”.

Nearly every day I pass by the provincial courthouse in New Westminster. It’s an unlovely 1980s judicial fortress looming over a courtyard called Begbie Square, until recently presided over by the effigy of its namesake, the first Chief Justice of the Colony (and subsequently of the Province) of British Columbia, Matthew Begbie.

It’s a pretty elegant statue, by Canadian standards, created by the Hungarian refugee Elek Imredy. I persist in using the present tense because I presume it still exists, crated up in a warehouse somewhere. Here’s Begbie Square after its cleansing:

begbie statue removal new westminster record september 12 2019

Let us all gather before our new idol. Image source: New Westminster Record.

Begbie’s crime, to modern minds, is to have tried and sentenced to death five members of the Chilcotin tribe (now more usually called, with varying degrees of diacritic fealty, the Tŝilhqot’in First Nation) found guilty for the murder, over the course of a few months in 1864, of about twenty whites – roadbuilders, settlers, and prospectors – who had penetrated their territory. This spasmodic series of butcheries, ambushes, and skirmishes, entailing the deaths of perhaps thirty men on all sides (including those executed), came to be known somewhat grandiosely as the Chilcotin War. [1]

As recently as 2017, the debate about Begbie’s statue concerned whether it should be “balanced” by the addition of a monument to the six Chilcotin martyrs (the five tried by Begbie at the town of Quesnel, and a sixth tried later at New Westminster). But as the wave of monument-toppling accelerated, this reasonable compromise was forgotten. By 2019 nothing less than complete obliteration of the villain’s name and image was deemed sufficient.

Whether the hanged men were tried fairly, according to 1860s rules of jurisprudence, I don’t claim to know. Certainly there were colonists who, inflamed by early reports of the massacres, would have sidestepped the formalities of the legal process:

[A]re we to stand idly by when dozens of Victorians are being murdered, and make no effort to avenge them or prevent further atrocities? The blood of our murdered countrymen calls loudly for signal and sweeping vengeance. It is mere folly to await the tardy action of the authorities. Let the citizens take the matter in hand at once – to-day! There are hundreds of bold, hardy spirits who would at once volunteer to march against the savage murderers; hundreds of rifles in the hands of Government, and hundreds of citizens who will cheerfully contribute liberally to charter a steamer to convey the volunteers to the scene of the thrice repeated atrocities, where let them not stay their hands till every member of the rascally murderous tribe is suspended to the trees of their own forest – a salutary warning to the whole coast for years to come.

But the trials, although brisk by modern standards, were not the judicial lynchings that might be suggested by lizard-brain emanations like the above. Of the eight Chilcotins who surrendered and were brought to Quesnel for trial, two were released by Begbie without charges, another was found not guilty on insufficient evidence and escaped before he could be tried on a different charge, and five were convicted based largely on witness testimony. One of the five was found guilty only of attempted murder – a crime, Begbie conceded, for which in England he would not have been hanged – but he was implicated in other killings for which no witnesses had survived.

As the judge wrote in a letter outlining the outcome of the trials to the colonial governor, Frederick Seymour,

All the 5 convicts have confessed their guilt of capital offences generally & of the offences for which they have been convicted in particular.

There’s little question that the five hanged men were all active participants in the killings, though it was difficult to assign responsibility for each specific gunshot or hatchet blow. As the killers saw it, they were resisting uninvited aliens who were deliberately spreading smallpox in their community. Begbie believed that an unidentified white man had tried to exploit the Chilcotins’ fear of the disease – which had wiped out as many as two-thirds of their tribe only a few years earlier – by threatening to unleash it on uncooperative natives.

The belief that Europeans introduced smallpox into native communities intentionally – rather than through negligence, as is generally admitted – used to be regarded as an unfortunate but forgivable misunderstanding on the part of traumatized plague survivors. Lately the revisionist view – that settlers, with the support of the colonial administration, in fact engaged in a policy of premeditated biological warfare, a crime that was successfully covered up for a hundred and fifty years – has gone mainstream.

Here for instance is Tom Swanky, author of Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific (his scare-quotes, not mine), arguing that to dissent from the deliberate-infection theory puts one in the company of…well, guess who:

[I]f Canadians truly seek reconciliation and not to be seen as hypocrites, then educators who demonstrate “anti-indigenous-ism” should be treated just as we treat those who show “anti-semitism.” The rule of law requires us to treat genocide-deniers equally.

I haven’t read Swanky’s book. I’m not being dismissive when I call him a conspiracy theorist – which, by definition, he is. Like many such theorists, he knows more about his subject than most experts, let alone dabblers like me, whose research amounted to reading a couple of books and doing some Googling.

As a dabbler, I lack the wherewithal to investigate every 10,000-word, painstakingly-sourced webpage purporting to prove that, say, John McCain covered up evidence of POWs left behind in Vietnam, or that Israeli intelligence knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks, or (if I may be forgiven a timely parallel) that Covid-19 was stirred up in a lab and spritzed around Wuhan on the personal orders of the CIA or Bill Gates or whoever.

While theorists like the ones above must swim against a strong current of public skepticism, those claiming to stand up for indigenous rights are whisked along on wakeboards of cultural sensitivity. [2] For example, in his most recent post Swanky mentions that,

While exonerating the “Chilcotin Chiefs,” the Crown acknowledged, as a matter of historical fact based on reliable evidence, that settlers did spread smallpox intentionally to set in motion the colonization of Tsilhqot’in territory.

I scoffed when I read this. Surely Swanky was tendentiously misrepresenting BC Premier Christy Clark’s 2014 statement clearing the hanged men? Not really:

Many newcomers made their way into the Interior. Some of those came into conflict with the Tsilhqot’in, and some brought with them an even greater danger. That was smallpox, which by some reliable historical accounts there is indication was spread intentionally.

I didn’t realize that BC’s former premier had, on the floor of the legislature, endorsed the theory that her province was founded on acts of genocide. It’s not quite Swanky’s assertion that the colonial government deliberately infected natives under the guise of inoculating them, but it’s at least halfway there.

***

Some years after the trials, in a memorandum submitted to Canada’s Minister of Public Works, H.L. Langevin (another long-dead nation-builder lately demoted from respectability), Judge Begbie pinned the blame for the Chilcotin War on the white interlopers:

There has never, since 1858, been any trouble with Indians except once, in 1864, known as the year of the Chilcotin Expedition. In that case, some white men had, under color of the pre-emption act, taken possession of some Indian lands ( … their old accustomed camping place, and including a much-valued spring of water), and even after this, continued to treat the natives with great contumely, and breach of faith. The natives were few in number, but very warlike and great hunters. They had no idea of the number of the whites, whom they had not seen. They shot down every white whom they did see, twenty-one I think, including a trail party of Mr. Waddington’s – one or two escaped their notice. Six Indians were induced to surrender, and were hung.

The surrender of the Chilcotin rebels was brought about through a combination of threats and deceit; they apparently thought they were there to parley. Feeling some unease that this “annoying circumstance” might throw doubt on the justice of the verdict, Begbie went afterward to the leader of the rebels to clarify the sequence of events. The judge convinced himself that they would have come in eventually – they had been harried into the mountains and were short of food – and that the confusion over the terms of their surrender had no bearing on the fairness of their trial.

Mentioning this and other mitigating circumstances in his letter to Governor Seymour, who would decide whether the executions should proceed, Begbie concluded, “I do not envy you your task of coming to a decision.” (The governor did reprieve one of two Chilcotins who a year later “surrendered” under similarly dubious circumstances, and were tried at New Westminster under a different judge.)

In 1977, a few years before his courthouse statue went up, Begbie was the subject of a full-length biography, The Man For A New Country, by David R. Williams. In his telling, Begbie was an erudite, humane, and broad-minded jurist who stood up for the rights of the colony’s non-British population in general and for BC’s aboriginal people in particular.

A practicing lawyer, Williams looked closely at Begbie’s judgements and where possible reconstructed his reasoning from his handwritten trial notes. Summarizing his handling of the Quesnel trials – and particularly his allowing into evidence statements that were elicited as a result of the suspects’ “induced” surrender – Williams concludes:

At a trial today, it is unlikely any admissions of guilt obtained under these conditions would be admitted into the evidence, but in the nineteenth century, in spite of the existence of the exclusionary rule, the courts did not so often apply it to the protection of accused persons; Begbie, in ruling that the evidence could be heard by the juries, perhaps correctly as the law then stood, experienced nonetheless twinges of conscience.

And on a wider examination of Begbie’s record:

Begbie had such influence with the Indians that he could confidently assert: “I have never known the Indians deny the justice of a sentence arrived at in a Court of Assize of which I approved myself.” This influence stemmed not only from his fair dealing and from his admiration of the race but also from a genuine sympathy for the cause of preserving the Indians’ “rights” against the intrusion of white settlers.

This is – to put it mildly – no longer the received view. No new evidence has arisen: the old evidence is simply seen through a different lens. What new offenses the lens will uncover in a further forty-odd years, I won’t attempt to predict.

Ahan, the Chilcotin hanged at New Westminster, whose name and likeness may be installed in Begbie’s place, claimed in his testimony that he had acted under duress – that another Chilcotin had threatened to shoot him if he didn’t participate in the ambush of a group of prospectors en route to the Cariboo gold fields.

This was a reasonable and plausible defense, as the rebels appear to have acted out of varying degrees of zealotry, peer pressure, and fear of retaliation from their fiercer comrades. But such ambiguities have been scrubbed away in the urgency to elevate the martyrs to hero status. They are all granted the honorific “Chief”. Their less inspiring deeds, like the murder of Mr. Waddington’s road-building crew – slaughtered in their tents in the early morning by men they’d welcomed to their camp and chatted amiably with the night before – are simply left out of the picture.

This doesn’t make Ahan (who wasn’t present at the massacre of the road-builders) unworthy of commemoration. I hope his statue lasts longer than forty years. In any case, I look forward to the return of a human figure to blunt the hard edges of that concrete courtyard – though, given trends in the art world, I will be surprised if the replacement is as artful and attractive as Imredy’s depiction of Begbie.

***

I bring this all up in the context of this winter’s Canada-wide protests over a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia. The controversy began with attempts by some hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en people to block the construction of a pipeline to carry natural gas from Alberta to Kitimat, on the BC coast, along a route passing through their traditional territory.

The elected councils of the five Wet’suwet’en communities nearest the pipeline, along with those of fifteen other northern First Nations, have given their consent to the project and negotiated a share of the jobs and revenues it will create.

But the protesters claimed that the elected councils are responsible only for administering the few dozen reserves which together constitute a tiny part of the sprawling Wet’suwet’en lands over which, as they see it, the hereditary chiefs retain sovereignty.

In this view, the pipeline builders are foreign invaders, like the workmen who a hundred and fifty-odd years ago began building their road without securing, as we say nowadays, social license from the Chilcotin people.

I don’t say this view is wrong. In any case my opinion is irrelevant beside those of the judges and politicians who have, over the last quarter century or so, issued various rulings, resolutions, and misty-eyed avowals that Canadian First Nations retain some unspecified degree of sovereignty over their traditional territories.

How much sovereignty is up in the air, although one can’t help noticing that each new ruling, resolution, and avowal seems to concede a little more. From the Liberal Party’s winning 2015 platform:

It is time for Canada to have a renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples …

We will immediately re-engage in a renewed nation-to-nation process with Indigenous Peoples to make progress on the issues most important to First Nations …

Maybe the authors of the above intended “nation” in the way it’s sometimes used to refer to the two cultural nations, English-speaking and French-speaking, that were once extolled as the founding races of Canada. It’s this limited definition of “nation” that most Canadians probably had in mind when they acquiesced to the use of the term “First Nations” starting in the 1980s – a symbolic acknowledgement that there were folks here already when the French and English showed up. [3]

Outside of the narrow realm of Canadian constitutional wonkery, most people hearing the phrase “nation-to-nation relationship” will visualize, say, Donald Trump stepping across the North Korean frontier to shake hands with Kim Jong-Un.

It turns out to mean the government of Canada begging to negotiate on equal terms with a handful of chiefs claiming to speak for five communities totalling perhaps 3,400 people. [4]

By the same logic that vilifies Matthew Begbie – that a minority of the Chilcotin were justified in using deadly force to resist an invasion by foreigners – surely the Wet’suwet’en protesters can’t be blamed for their non-violent resistance to the pipeline builders. You or I might prefer to ignore the hereditary chiefs and deal only with the elected councillors, who are far more amenable to democracy, capitalism, and the rule of law – our law.

But if we are foreigners, then whom the Wet’suwet’en appoint to speak for them is none of our business. They, or any other of the dozens of little sovereign entities that cover much of British Columbia, or any minority within any one of those sovereign entities who can convincingly claim the right to speak for their people, are free to tell us to take our pipelines, roads, rails, bulldozers, and personal selves, and bugger off.

I hope that this winter’s ructions will encourage parliament or the courts to mark out unambiguously who’s in charge of these entities, and to what degree their mystical utterances override Canadian laws. It wouldn’t bother me much if the courts declared that the First Nations were in fact honest-to-god nations all along, and that what we grew up believing to be the world’s second-largest country is actually a vast patchwork quilt of Tuvalus, Palaus, and San Marinos. If it comes to it, we can weave our roads and pipelines through the gaps between the little independent entities – but first we need to know where the entities end.

M.

1. How many died in the Chilcotin War? According to Judge Begbie, the death toll (not counting those later executed) amounted to “21 white men and 3 Indians”. Seems like he ought to have known.

However, I count only 19 white men – 14 road-builders, 3 prospectors, a settler named Manning, and a member of the expedition hunting the Chilcotin rebels. On the Chilcotin side were one warrior killed during the ambush of the prospectors and two others who later committed suicide – or perhaps one killed the other, then himself. Finally there was one Chilcotin woman, wife or concubine to one of the prospectors, who was in some versions of the narrative murdered by her own people for betraying their plans to the whites.

2. Almost a decade ago I spent days researching another controversy concerning put-upon indigenous people – in that case, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú, whose inflammatory accusations were being passed along uncritically by the media. In the end I decided that, lacking the time and expertise to properly weigh the evidence, I had better keep my big yap shut. I must be getting reckless in my old age.

3. Former Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker vigourously objected when his own party endorsed the “two nations” usage back in the 1960s. He saw it as a threat to national unity. His objections were, of course, chalked up to anti-French bigotry.

But as Dief correctly foresaw, when you tell people they are a nation, they start to believe you.

4. How many Wet’suwet’en bands are there? What is their total population? Which of them do the hereditary chiefs claim to represent?

One site says the Office of the Hereditary Chiefs represents two bands, another site says four; their official website says five. Confusingly, one of their constituent bands is itself called the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. I made a spreadsheet to help sort things out.

british columbia six wet'suwet'en bands

British Columbia’s six Wet’suwet’en bands. Click for full size.

The council of Hagwilget Village, the one Wet’suwet’en band that didn’t sign an agreement with Coastal GasLink, is about 120 kilometres from the pipeline route. One source implies that Hagwilget was left out of the negotiations because it wasn’t directly affected, another says the band council was approached by the company but rebuffed them.

 

Epshtine, Bernsteen, Volfervitz.

As I write this, the results of the British election are rolling in. The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism will soon be falling off the front pages and down into the depths of the international section, where the two-paragraph dispatches from Burma and Bougainville languish unread.

Having paid little attention to the campaign, it was only today that I learned of one of the more trivial flurries of indignation stirred up by Corbyn’s clumsiness. In the leaders’ debate, when asked about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Corbyn pronounced his name as “Epshtine” – in order, claimed his critics, “to emphasise the fact Epstein was Jewish”. To quote a Twitter user named Catherine Lenson:

I’ve seen people call it a microaggression. But this is no microaggression. This is a deliberate provocation. This [is] a man showing his truest colours. It’s taunting. This is racism, pure and simple. And we see it.

I make no claims to knowing what is in Corbyn’s mind. But I’m inclined to judge his gaffe forgivingly, as I do the unnamed BBC interviewers accused by Christopher Hitchens (in his memoir Hitch-22) of microaggressing against his friend Paul Wolfowitz – or, as the name came out after they’d put their “sinister top-spin” on it, “Volfervitz”:

How hard could it be, I would inquire icily … to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made him stop and begin all over again.

I’ve referred to this anecdote before. As I wrote then:

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”.)

That’s from my June essay on Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was frequently irritated when people, including President Kennedy, referred to him as “Diefenbawker”. Most of these incidents were innocent mistakes; some of them, in the earlier part of his career when the war was fresh in people’s minds, may have been deliberate attempts to draw attention to Dief’s German background.

Diefenbaker was in turn accused by the journalist Peter C. Newman, whom he detested for reporting critically about his government, of antisemitically mispronouncing his name as “Kneeman” or “Noyman”. Newman claimed that Dief would go further in private and refer to him outright as “that Viennese Jew”. I can’t find any independent source for these claims; they certainly contradict Dief’s carefully cultivated reputation as a combatter of racial prejudice.

Catherine Lenson, in the Twitter thread linked above, links to an old William Safire column that lists the composer Leonard Bernstein among the famous Jews who pronounced their last name steen. But Safire was mistaken – as I knew already. [1] When I heard of the “Epshtine” flap, I immediately thought of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s hilarious account of a 1970 cocktail party hosted by Bernstein and his wife to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Bernstein was known for boisterously correcting anyone who got his name wrong, for instance when the Panthers’ lawyer rose to thank “Mrs. Bernsteen” for her hospitality:

“STEIN!”–a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! … For years, twenty at the least, Lenny has insisted on -stein not -steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation.

Re-reading Radical Chic reminds us that Corbyn isn’t the first leftist to be stymied by the impossibility of reconciling the interests of well-to-do Jewish liberals on one side and angry proletarians on the other. Wolfe depicts the Bernsteins’ elite set nodding along as Black Panther “Field Marshal” Don Cox declares the United States to be “the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world”. But there are stirrings of unease when Cox refers to the “donations” his party receives from “exploiters of the black community”, i.e., small business owners:

For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man–don’t bring out that ball-breaker–

The film director Otto Preminger pipes up with some impertinent questions about Israel, which the Panther delegation would prefer to avoid discussing. Later, when the New York Times prints an article about the soirée (a term Bernstein resents; it was merely a “meeting”, he says) which quotes the composer replying “I dig it!” to some of his guests’ more uncompromising assertions, the backlash from his fellow Jews is so disconcerting that he is forced to issue a public statement clarifying his position. While he supports the Panthers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, Bernstein explains,

it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.

Bernstein stumbled trying to negotiate what Wolfe called “the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic”. But Bernstein had to go well out of his way to make such an ass of himself. Fifty years later, we all live permanently in that electrified realm, risking a shock every time we utter an unfamiliar name. Which is the safer bet: stein (which looks like you’re drawing attention to the name’s Jewishness) or steen (which would imply that the anglicized version is somehow normative)? Either way you run the risk of being accused of “othering” someone.

My suspicion is that the people who say “Volfervitz” or “Epshtine” or for that matter “Bern-STEIN!” are the same ones who go overboard on the pronunciation of foreign place names like Budapesht and Ibeetha and Lesootoo, refer to Iranians as Ee-rawn-ians, and correct you if you refer to Bombay or Canton. [2] In Kingsley Amis’s unforgettable formulation, these people would be overly pedantic “wankers”, as distinguished from “berks” who mispronounce things out of ignorance. I’m attentive to this division because I have to work hard to suppress my own wankerish tendencies.

Incidentally, until learning about the “Epshtine” controversy today, I had no idea whether Epstein was a steener or a steiner. Going by Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and demeanour, I suspect that he, like me, gets most of his news from printed matter rather than from TV or online videos; it’s possible therefore that when he first saw Epstein’s name he wankerishly defaulted to the more foreign-sounding, ergo “authentic” pronunciation, and his flunkies never bothered to correct him.

M.

1. You can put your trust in Michael Stipe.

2. A friend reports that she was told by an Australian expatriate that the “correct” pronunciation of Melbourne is “Melbin”. I guess we Canadians could begin insisting on “Tronna”, but we’re too polite. We’re happy when someone gets Saskatchewan more or less right.

A couple months back I shrugged at the results of the Canadian election. Last year in a post on immigration I referred to an Anti-Defamation League study on the global distribution of antisemitic beliefs. Way back in 2009 I discussed Jewish overrepresentation in Hollywood.

 

The media vs. the populists.

In June I published a long essay inspired by the memoirs of John Diefenbaker, Canada’s prime minister from 1957-63.

It’s kind of rambling and haphazard and I wouldn’t say it has a thesis, exactly. But to my mind its various digressions share a common theme, which is how in many ways Diefenbaker presaged modern populist conservatives like Trump, FarageLe Pen, Salvini, Orban, etc. – not in his policies, which were particular to mid-century Canada, nor in his rhetoric, which was pompous and long-winded by modern standards, but in the intense allergic reaction he provoked in the establishment, especially the media.

For those unfamiliar with Diefenbaker’s career (and not quite up to tackling my 6,000-word essay): in 1957 his Progressive Conservatives edged out a Liberal government that had been in power seemingly forever; the following year he won what was up to then Canada’s largest ever parliamentary majority; and in 1963, fatally wounded by a mutinous cabinet, a hostile media, and an opposition Liberal Party openly in cahoots with the U.S. administration of John F. Kennedy, he was defeated.

He made many unforced errors during his six years in office, and his bristly, paranoid personality alienated many allies. But the specific issue that led to his downfall was his resistance to accepting American nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missile system his government had over-hastily purchased a few years earlier to contribute to continental defence against Soviet bombers.

Diefenbaker seems initially to have been happy to take the nukes, subject to negotiations to ensure that Ottawa would have a meaningful say if it ever came to launching them. He dragged his feet for a few years, attempting to reconcile his cabinet’s hawks and doves, but was finally won over to his foreign minister’s position: that there was no formula for hosting U.S. nukes that would preserve Canada’s military sovereignty, that a nuclear-armed Canada would lose the moral authority to argue for disarmament, and that the Bomarcs were pretty much useless anyway, with or without nukes.

I’m neutral on the nuclear issue. I can see how Diefenbaker might have accepted the need to sacrifice a degree of sovereignty in order to preserve a strong NATO front against the Soviets. I can also see how nuking up might have seemed to him a provocation more likely to lead to war than to deter it.

But as a Generation Xer who has spent his whole life steeped in a media culture that portrayed the arms race as little better than a case of collective hysteria, and the pro-nuclear side as a mob of sinister psychopaths and spittle-spraying buffoons, I was surprised by the consistently negative spin mid-’60s journalists put on Diefenbaker’s anti-nuke stance. They called it incoherent, divisive, anti-American, and most of all, the word that shows up again and again in nearly every account of the Diefenbaker years, indecisive.

(Then they praised Liberal leader and secular saint Lester B. Pearson for, uh…decisively repudiating his previously held position, and announcing that he would take the nukes Dief had refused.)

It’s not searchable on Google Books and I’m too lazy to confirm by re-reading the whole thing, but I’d guess that the words indecision and indecisive appear on every fifth or sixth page of Peter C. Newman’s bestselling critical account of the Diefenbaker years, Renegade in Power; and that if I threw in synonyms and near-synonyms like hesitate, prevaricate, waffle, etc., I’d find a reference to Diefenbaker’s indecisiveness on every other page.

Indecision was to the Diefenbaker years what chaos has been to the Trump years – the lens through which journalists observe their subject, bringing certain events and narratives into focus while reducing others to an irrelevant background blur.

Take this editorial by John Ivison in the National Post back in June, in which President Trump’s reluctance to blame the Iranian leadership for an attack on oil shipping in the Persian Gulf was cast as an instance of Trumpian chaos:

Trump had his own theory about what might have happened. “I may be wrong but I may be right and I’m right a lot,” he said, positing that someone down the chain of command had ordered the strike. “I find it hard to believe it was intentional.”

It was a classic example of Trump’s political improv – a stream of consciousness, informed by his own narrow experience, based on evidence that conforms to his own prejudices and rejects evidence that contradicts them. War and peace; life and death, all governed by the chaos theory that permanent destabilization works to America’s advantage.

While there are any number of U.S. actions in recent years to which the description “permanent destabilization” might reasonably apply, surely declining to launch missiles at Iran isn’t one of them. But when evaluating Trump, Ivison’s instruments of punditry are permanently set to “chaos”, so that’s all he’s capable of seeing.

***

Speaking of Ivison, I chuckled at his quixotic attempt a couple weeks ago to paint Canada’s relentlessly progressive prime minister as a populist:

[T]here are few more capable exponents of populist techniques than Justin Trudeau. He is clearly not an authoritarian right-wing demagogue, playing on the insecurities created by cultural competition that have left many voters feeling estranged from the predominant values in their own country.

But even if his causes are more cosmopolitan – globalism, diversity, women’s empowerment – they are similarly tribal and, at times, equally disdainful of divergence from their orthodoxy.

Trudeau and his team have been adept at using polarizing rhetoric, symbolism and identity issues, even while accusing his opponents of adopting “the politics of division.”

What is a populist, anyway? In his memoirs Diefenbaker recalled challenging a Conservative Party bigwig who’d dismissed him as a “western populist” to explain what he meant by the phrase:

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.

Diefenbaker’s “western populist” government relaxed immigration rules, expanded social welfare programs, made liberal reforms to the criminal justice system, and took modest steps to make government more accessible to linguistic and ethnic minorities. But none of that mattered. What mattered was that Diefenbaker refused to go along with the agenda of a glamorous Democratic president who was beloved by the media. Therefore he could be dismissed as an uncultured bigmouth from the sticks.

(I suspect that if Diefenbaker had stayed in office long enough to quarrel with the unloved Lyndon Johnson, he’d have a much better reputation today.)

Nowadays, the populist agenda includes restricting immigration, using targeted tariffs to protect blue-collar jobs, and bringing the troops back home. These are currently associated with Donald Trump and the American right, but until a few years ago the latter two causes were largely the province of the left.

(Through the Bill Clinton era, the left also harboured a significant anti-immigration constituency; Bernie Sanders was playing to this vanished audience as recently as 2015.)

In 2016 Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump; her agenda was, arguably, more popular than his. And yet it was Trump, and not Clinton, who was labelled a populist. Clearly this had less to do with Trump’s popularity than with his unpopularity among those with the power to label him.

As Diefenbaker put it, populism encompasses all those things the influential people disapprove of. Or to be more precise, it’s whatever is currently popular among ordinary folks and unpopular among the elite.

***

At the local level, populism often entails citizens rebelling against plans imposed by a remote and unresponsive city hall – plans like paving over beloved green spaces, plunking social housing in sleepy suburbs, and rezoning low-density neighbourhoods to permit apartment blocks. Such rebellions also tend to jumble left-right ideological alignments.

Think of the writer Jane Jacobs, who rose to local fame organizing the opposition to a planned Lower Manhattan Expressway. As described by Alex Mazer in The Walrus,

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts – be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors – and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks.

The urban model Jacobs advocated – bustling, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use streets like those of her beloved (1960s-era) Greenwich Village – is now generally associated with the progressive left, and opposed by the kind of populists who rail against bike lanes and gas taxes. And yet her most famous book, 1960’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a paean to small businesses and bottom-up organization.

Nowadays she’s as likely to be lauded in right-wing publications like The American Conservative and City Journal as in left-wing ones like Salon and Slate; if anything, she gets rougher handling on the left, where the woke vanguard kvetches that she was white and out-of-touch.

Death and Life lambastes the practices of her era’s urban planners, under whose guidance cities were diligently bulldozing poor but functioning “slums” and replacing them with brand-new public housing projects that quickly became cesspits of crime and decay.

They pursued these ruinous policies in the name of an academic fad Jacobs mocks as “radiant garden cities”, combining aspects of Le Corbusier’s Ville radieuse and Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow into a glossy vision of urban life with all its noise and disorder banished to the margins.

The trouble was that in the real world, banishing noise and disorder also entailed banishing street life and economic diversity, creating at best well-manicured dead zones, and at worst unfenced reservations for street punks to roam.

While some of Jacobs’ modern fans would like to believe that her foes were villains “oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning”, she’s clear in Death and Life that the “radiant garden city” vision was pursued by intelligent men with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people whose neighbourhoods they were wrecking. Jacobs compares them to an earlier movement of self-confident blunderers:

And to put it bluntly, they are all in the same stage of elaborately learned superstition as medical science was early in the last century, when physicians put their faith in bloodletting, to draw out the evil humors which were believed to cause disease. With bloodletting, it took years of learning to know precisely which veins, by which rituals, were to be opened for what symptoms. A superstructure of technical complication was erected in such deadpan detail that the literature still sounds almost plausible.

However, Jacobs goes on, the practice of bloodletting was “tempered with a certain amount of common sense”, until in the United States it was pushed to new levels of recklessness by the brilliant and revered Dr. Benjamin Rush, under whose instruction the technique was applied “in cases where prudence or mercy had heretofore restrained its use”:

He and his students drained the blood of very young children, of consumptives, of the greatly aged, of almost anyone unfortunate enough to be sick in his realms of influence. His extreme practices aroused the alarm and horror of European bloodletting physicians.

And yet, as late as 1851, a committee appointed by the State Legislature of New York solemnly defended the thoroughgoing use of bloodletting. It scathingly ridiculed and censured a physician, William Turner, who had the temerity to write a pamphlet criticizing Dr. Rush’s doctrines and calling “the practice of taking blood in diseases contrary to common sense, to general experience, to enlightened reason and to the manifest laws of the divine Providence.” Sick people needed fortifying, not draining, said Dr. Turner, and he was squelched.

Jacobs doesn’t mention that Dr. Turner’s opposition to bloodletting derived from his adherence to a then-trendy form of alternative medicine known as the “chrono-thermal system”, brainchild of the Scottish doctor Samuel Dickson.

Dr. Turner wrote the introduction to the American edition of Dickson’s jeremiad The Principles of the Chrono-thermal System of Medicine, which had been ridiculed in the British and Foreign Medical Review:

The plain truth is, as every one must see, the whole book is a farrago of nonsense; a hash of a few old truths and many fantastic speculations, made piquant by the most amusing self-laudation on the part of its author, and the most extravagant abuse of his professional brethren and imagined rivals.

I’m no doctor, but from what I can glean of his system, Dickson was indeed some kind of crank. However, if you submitted to his treatment, the worst that was likely to happen was he failed to cure you; whereas a doctor who stuck to the conventional wisdom as represented by the British and Foreign Medical Review might very well open your vein and kill you.

The 1960s urban planning consensus has held out a little better than the 1850s medical consensus. While doctors rarely bleed their patients these days, planners continue to blight cities with roads that hinder the movement of pedestrians while doing little to improve the movement of cars. Still, Jacobs’ critique has been so successful that it no longer qualifies as populist: it has been absorbed into the establishment against whom the anti-density, pro-freeway rabble hoist their pitchforks.

I won’t make a fool of myself by attempting to predict which wacky idea currently disdained by the academy, the media, and most of the people reading this essay will in a half-century be seen as so obvious that only fools and villains could ever have opposed it. Today’s populism will become tomorrow’s establishment, and a new populism will burble up to be snickered at and hand-wrung over.

M.

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


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.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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