This column was originally published in the Saskatoon Express.
John Diefenbaker, once prime minister of Canada, is much in the news these days.
He would absolutely love that.
His return to the media spotlight comes courtesy of Garrett Wilson, a Regina lawyer and author. He objects to the statue of Diefenbaker selling a newspaper to then-Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, sitting on the Saskatoon corner of First Avenue and 21st Street.
Date of occurrence was ostensibly July 29, 1910. The statue was, appropriately, funded by the StarPhoenix.
But Wilson says the newspaper transfer never happened. That’s not to say the StarPhoenix blew it, by any means; Diefenbaker told the story about meeting Laurier many times during the 1963 election campaign. Wilson claims that story was never verified.
Well, maybe it happened, and maybe it didn’t. Dief was somewhat known for telling stories; and he certainly told this one, many times. Wilson argues that the statue is journalistically on shaky ground, since Dief himself was the only source on the story, and Wilson doesn’t trust that source.
Let us assume that the story is apocryphal. Even so, it fell from Diefenbaker’s lips; and if he is not the most reliable witness, who else would have seen the event, and verified it? It’s pretty hard to prove either way. And it’s a heck of a good statue.
I met him once. It was in the lobby of the Sheraton Cavalier hotel; I was very young, and quite amazed that the former prime minister was standing right before me. He walked right up to me and shook my hand, murmuring some sort of pleasantry, his head, sadly, shaking slightly. I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed at the time, but I’ve always liked meeting PMs, particularly when they’re actually in power. Gives you a better feel for who they are, and what’s going on.
I met Paul Martin before he became PM; Brian Mulroney (his head is even bigger than it looks on TV) while he was in office; and Stephen Harper. “Met” is maybe a big word for the slim interaction, although I had a great interview with Martin once, when he was still finance minister.
Returning to Dief the Chief, though, we need a statue of him in Saskatoon. If this is the right one, and I do really like it, I leave it up to debate. I prefer to remember Dief for the great good he did.
When I studied political science at the University of Saskatchewan, I wrote a paper (and got a resounding A, if I may say so) on Dief’s early effects on apartheid. He stood against the South African government and opposed its membership in the Commonwealth. The opprobrium from Canada and other nations led South Africa to retreat from its application for readmission.
"Apartheid has become the world’s symbol of discrimination,” said Diefenbaker in the House of Commons on March 17, 1961. “I took the position that if we were to accept South Africa’s request [for readmission] unconditionally, our action would be taken as approval or at least condonation of racial policies, which are repugnant to and unequivocally abhorred and condemned by Canadians as a whole."
May I say, Amen?
Diefenbaker gave First Nations people the franchise in 1960; they voted for the first time in 1962.
Also in 1960, Diefenbaker’s government enacted the Canadian Bill of Rights, the first federal expression of human rights law. It was a bill that Diefenbaker started writing in the 1930s, and it’s said that his experience as a lawyer led to a deep frustration with discrimination.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
To this day, the following quote from Diefenbaker gives me a thrill. Think of all the countries that cannot come close to aspiring to what we have achieved in Canada, in large part because Diefenbaker got the whole thing rolling.
This is what it means to be Canadian.
“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”
For all these reasons, getting snippy about a potentially apocryphal statue is perhaps not terribly necessary. Dief was far from perfect. But what he accomplished was incredibly, positively Canadian.