Why the Conservatives are swinging to Diefenbaker


Blair Fraser November 24 1956

Why the Conservatives are swinging to Diefenbaker


Blair Fraser November 24 1956

Why the Conservatives are swinging to Diefenbaker


Blair Fraser

His supporters say:

He’s the party’s best speaker He’s well known to most Canadians He’s effective in parliament


His critics say:

Quebec doesn’t want him temperamental and getting old He’s not noted as a team man

Backers of John Diefenbaker for the Conservative leadership had a pleasant surprise at the meeting of the party’s national executive in Ottawa last month. They came prepared to start at once a long, hard, uphill fight for their candidate. They found, apparently, nobody to fight against them.

“We're amazed,” said a Diefenbaker man from the prairies. “We thought at most we’d have maybe half the parliamentary group (the fifty-three Conservative MPs). Instead, practically all of them seem to be with us. You hardly hear anyone else mentioned.”

The westerner’s foreboding had not been groundless, though. John Diefenbaker, MP for Prince Albert, Sask., is unquestionably the Conservative best known to the general public now that George Drew is retiring. His bitterest enemies concede that if an election were held tomorrow, Diefenbaker would draw more votes to the Conservative party than any other leader in sight. He is the party’s ablest parliamentary debater, most popular campaign speaker, and only truly national figure. Nevertheless, support for Diefenbaker within his own party is by no means unanimous.

Last August, when George Drew's first entry into hospital raised the possibility that he might have to be replaced as party leader, Conservative MPs could have been listed in approximately equal factions, for and against Diefenbaker as successor. Against him were all the leading figures in the parliamentary group, with the exception of Major-General George Pearkes VC, who had nominated Diefenbaker at the 1948 convention. Other front-rank Conservatives—men like J. M. Macdonnell, the financial critic, Earl Rowe, the acting leader, and Leon Balcer, of Quebec, who is president of the National Progressive Conservative Association — all these were in the opposing camp.

Within the parliamentary group the Diefenbaker faction, equal in numbers, was lighter in firepower. Mainly it was made up of plain back benchers, men who appear to the public as nameless, faceless vote casters.

That was in August. When the parliamentary caucus and the national executive met in October to plan the convention that opens Dec. 10, the situation had changed. Diefenbaker had emerged as the choice of the rank and file not only in caucus but in the party as a whole, and was so far ahead as to seem virtually unopposed.

One MP, explaining his own shift to the Diefenbaker camp, told his colleagues: “My people are lor John. If I were to oppose him I’d probably lose the nomination and I’d certainly lose the election.”

The extent of the change was revealed even before the national executive meeting broke up. Colonel Gordon Churchill DSO, who captured Winnipeg South Centre after Ralph Maybank went to the bench, had not previously been counted as a Diefenbaker man. Yet it was Gordon Churchill who came out as spokesman of a “committee to draft John Diefenbaker,” and who announced that they had polled the Conservative MPs and found eighty percent were for him.

This looked almost like a revolution within the party. Some of Diefenbaker’s backers, and the most vociferous, are not merely for Diefenbaker. They’re also against his opponents, the established leadership inside and outside the House of Commons. If John Diefenbaker does become national leader, these backers will expect drastic changes in the Conservative hierarchy. They’ll expect the men who have been important figures for the past ten or fifteen years to become unimportant figures. They’ll expect the hitherto unimportant — namely, themselves — to become top dogs.

These hopes may be premature but they are not fantastic. The threat of rebellion made it all the more astonishing that the pro-Diefenbaker forces appeared, in October, to have things all their own way, with the opposition in silent confusion.

If not Diefenbaker who’s the best bet?

Why the Conservatives are swinging to Diefenbaker

The reason for the silence was plain enough. Opponents were agreed that they didn’t want Diefenbaker, but they weren’t agreed on whom they did want.

They talked of Hon. Leslie Frost, premier of Ontario, a spectacular winner of provincial elections who gets support from habitual Liberals as well as lifelong Conservatives. Within a few days of George Drew’s resignation, though, Frost announced he had no intention of entering the federal field.

They talked of Sidney Smith, president of the University of Toronto, who would have run at the 1942 Conservative convention if Premier John Bracken of Manitoba hadn’t run instead. Smith may have been tempted this time, but if so he didn't show it. He turned the invitation down.

They talked of young Dufferin Roblin, who just might become premier of Manitoba before his fortieth birthday next June. But Roblin is a Diefenbaker man himself, and said so. He has no present intention of leaving the provincial field, but if he did it would not be to oppose John Diefenbaker.

An MP with a sense of humor

They talked, and are still talking, of several others including some Conservative members of parliament:

Edmund Davie Fulton, MP for Kamloops, is a Rhodes Scholar who has just turned forty, but who has already been in parliament more than eleven years. He has the rather unusual distinction, for an opposition member, of having introduced a bill that was adopted and became law —the amendment to the Criminal Code that bans crime comics.

Donald M. Fleming, MP for TorontoEglinton, ran third at the convention of 1948. He has been a leading figure in the parliamentary opposition, a tireless worker, a voluble debater, a faithful student of French who can now make a speech without notes in that language.

George Nowlan, of Wolfville, N.S.. MP for Digby-Annapolis-Kings, won his spurs in federal politics by capturing the seat once held by Right Hon. J. L. llsley. A lanky, genial, droll fellow, he is the only Conservative MP noted for his sense of humor.

Others have been mentioned as possible dark horses—John B. Hamilton, for instance, the young Toronto lawyer who took over the late Rodney Adamson’s seat in York West. Hamilton is a good speaker and a hard worker, but the fact that he’s mentioned at all after only two years in parliament is a measure of the Conservative confusion.

One reason for it. probably the main reason, is that different people oppose John Diefenbaker on very different grounds. What appear as damning faults to some are redeeming features to others.

Of all the opposition to Diefenbaker as Conservative leader, the hardest core is Quebec. In the parliamentary group, Quebec means only Leon Balcer of Trois Rivieres and young Robert Perron of Dorchester. (Wilfrid Dufresne of Quebec West, the third French-speaking MP in the Conservative party, is said to be pledged to Diefenbaker but is not influential.) But in the convention that will choose a new Conservative leader in Ottawa next month, Quebec will have about three hundred votes out of approximately thirteen hundred. All of them, barring one or two mavericks, will be cast against John Diefenbaker.

Quebec Conservatives can produce all sorts of reasons for their hostility. They note that Diefenbaker speaks no French —but neither did Mackenzie King and neither does Walter Harris, whom many Quebec M Ps back for the succession to the Liberal leadership. They recall that he was for conscription during the war and critical of Quebec's opposition—but so was George Drew, who got most of Quebec’s support at the 1948 convention.

At least one of the reasons cited against Diefenbaker in Quebec is actually false. He is accused of having fought against the issuance of a license to a Frenchlanguage radio station on the prairies a few years ago. Men who led the fight for .that CBC license assure me that this charge is not true at all—Diefenbaker never opposed them, they say.

Quebec’s real case against him is not brought out, .because it is really the strongest case for him in the rest of Canada. Quebec Conservatives are against him because he has campaigned for years in the cause of civil liberties.

Diefenbaker seldom lets a chance go by to denounce Premier Maurice Duplessis’ infamous Padlock Law, by which anyone Duplessis or his police care to call a Communist can be deprived of the use of his property. Quebec Liberals have not dared oppose this law, much less repeal it (as they could have done between 1939 and 1944).

Diefenbaker often speaks out for religious freedom, which Quebec denies to such militant sects as the Witnesses of Jehovah. Again this is something on which Quebec Liberals have not dared oppose Duplessis, if indeed they disagree with him.

Diefenbaker has been trying for ten years to get parliament to pass a Canadian bill of rights which would guarantee, or at least proclaim, certain basic freedoms for all Canadians. He himself has not gone so far as to urge amendment of the British North America Act to put these rights out of reach of provincial authorities, but Quebec apparently suspects him of this intention.

In any event, Premier Duplessis of Quebec turns thumbs down on Diefenbaker. Quebec Conservatives are not necessarily disciples of Duplessis, but they do count heavily on his organization for any headway they may make in the province. Therefore they heed his veto on candidates for the leadership.

Naturally, this is not the reason they stress in public for opposing Diefenbaker. They know that the things for which Duplessis dislikes him are the very things English Canadians admire in him. They know that nothing would so endear him to the voters in other provinces as the hostility of Maurice Duplessis. However, it's the hostility of Maurice Duplessis that makes their own so implacable.

Outside Quebec, the opposition to Diefenbaker as leader rests on two grounds.

One is simply that he is too old and not strong enough. Diefenbaker was sixty-one in September. Even in youth he was not particularly robust, and he is less so now. He has become rather hard'v_ hearing lately, and there is some fear that this ailment—a major handicap to a politician in parliament — may grow worse. These doubts of his health and strength account for the fact that some who were Diefenbaker men eight years ago. and still count themselves admiring friends, are not supporting him today.

"Our strongest point against the Liberals is that they’re a government of tired old men,” they say. "Let’s not choose another tired old man as our own leader.”

But this is a minor point to most of Diefenbaker’s critics. Their major charge is much deeper. It is the old allegation, one that comes up in every discussion of Diefenbaker’s qualities, that “he isn’t a team player.”

What do they mean by this?

Partly, they mean that Diefenbaker has never seemed a loyal and wholehearted supporter to the men who were running the Conservative party, in parliament or out. He was an outstanding figure among the bedraggled remnant that survived the debacle of 1940—Diefenbaker was almost the only newcomer to Conservative ranks that year—and immediately became the party's best debater, but he had difficulty concealing his low regard for most of his party colleagues. Neither was he a great admirer of John Bracken as Conservative leader, and still less of the strategists who picked Bracken for the job. Since 1948 he has made no secret of his belief that the same outsiders who chose Bracken also imposed George Drew on a convention that, left to itself, would have chosen Diefenbaker.

Diefenbaker’s friends hardly bother to deny this part of the indictment. To them, it’s a virtue in him. They say Conservative party policy for the past twenty years has been a monotonous masterpiece of ineptitude, and the half dozen Conservative leaders alike in one respect only— none could win an election. If John Diefenbaker wasn’t always enthusiastic about the policy or the leader, all it proves to them is that Diefenbaker had more sense than the men who were running the party. Let’s have Diefenbaker run it instead, they say, and see if wc don’t do better.

However, Diefenbaker’s critics mean other things too by the charge that he "isn’t a team player.”

“Powerful elements . . . won’t have Diefenbaker. It could be an exciting fight”

They say Diefenbaker is temperamental —too temperamental to be the stabilizing force a leader should be. They say he is too easily upset when things go wrong, and has a tendency to suspect dark plots against him. They say he is temperamentally incapable of taking the blame for anything. From the point of view of a party organization, these qualities make Diefenbaker a hard man to work with.

Many of his supporters don’t deny all this, either; they merely brush it aside.

“What the hell,” they say, “Mackenzie King was temperamental too, wasn’t he? But he knew how to win elections. John can win us more seats than anybody else, so for heaven’s sake let’s let him do it.” Some even go so far as to argue that his age and his less-than-robust physique are an advantage, in the circumstances: “John can win us more seats than anybody else next summer. He won’t be able to carry on as leader for more than one parliament, if that. Let’s pick him now, and then we’ll be in a stronger position to pick someone else the next time.”

Such arguments have converted the more halfhearted among his opponents into equally halfhearted supporters. Added to the sizeable group that always backed him for positive reasons, these converts make a majority of the Conservative party at the present moment. But there are still powerful elements in the party that won’t have Diefenbaker if they can possibly avoid it. and they may yet be able to turn the Conservative convention into an exciting battle.

Their difficulty up to now has been to agree on a suitable alternative candidate. All of those mentioned, or even thought of, have drawbacks from the point of view of some element in the anti-Diefenbaker faction.

A real sou of the west

Davie Fulton, the able young MP for Kamloops, B.C., may yet turn out to be the man around whom the dissidents will rally. Fulton was the first after Diefenbaker to announce himself a candidate for the leadership, but even so his announcement was somewhat delayed. His friends were disappointed at the initial reaction, during the October meetings, to suggestions that he should run.

Fulton’s background and career seem ideal for a Conservative leader. He is a real son of the west — his grandmother was the first white child born in Victoria — yet an impeccable party man, grandson of one Conservative premier, great-nephew of another, and son of a man who was both a provincial cabinet minister and a Conservative MP.

He was British Columbia’s Rhodes Scholar in 1937, and came back from Oxford just in time to sign up as an articled student and gain admission to the bar six months later. Then he joined the Seaforth Highlanders, went overseas as a lieutenant and came back a major. He was nominated by the Conservatives of Kamloops without his own knowledge, while he was in Holland; he left Europe a few days before VE Day with a planeload of other soldier candidates, and won his election after a campaign of less than a month.

Incidentally it was Fulton, not Fleming, who was first among English-speaking MPs to speak French in the House of Commons. He delivered part of his maiden speech in French in 1945. Since then he has been a continuously active and industrious member, and is now his party's expert on the rules of the House. As such he took a leading part in the pipeline fight last May.

However, Fulton as a candidate for the Conservative leadership has two formidable handicaps.

First, he is a Roman Catholic. In several parts of Canada, notably rural Ontario and the Maritimes, this is regarded in party circles as a major drawback. Tories say, “Remember the last time we had a Catholic leader. Bob Manion. He lost his own seat, and we only got thirtynine in all Canada. Never again.” The fact that the late Hon. Robert Manion was a somewhat ineffectual leader, cursed with an unintelligible program and an incompatible set of supporters, has no apparent impact on these people. To their way of thinking, he lost because he was a Roman Catholic.

But to make matters worse for Fulton, he is also viewed with great mistrust in that he could have his job back if the venture failed to earn him a living.

In November 1856 Notman set up shop at 17 Bleury Street. His first photographs were daguerreotypes on metal, and ambrotypes printed directly onto glass. These portraits required skill and experience, for every operation had to be performed rapidly and with precision. Notman polished and coated the plate in his darkroom, placed the dripping result immediately in the camera, took the picture, and rushed back at once to the darkroom to process it. There was one advantage: the customer left the studio picture in hand. And if the features were portrayed with unflattering accuracy (retouching being impossible) the detail was at least beautifully and minutely rendered.

These early photographs soon gave way to the “wet-plate” system that dominated the period between I860 and 1880. The plate was still inserted into the camera while wet, hut the result was a negative that could be used to make as many positives as required. Although some of them are almost a century old, these early plates still print photographs of unexcelled quality and the system is retained today to make lantern slides.

One of Notman’s early subjects, aged 108, still lives in Montreal

Notman prospered almost from the start. In 1860 he took a portrait of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and the future Edward VII. He was named photographer to the Queen, and his views of Canada, Handsomely bound, began to sell to visitors at a hundred and fifty dollars a set. He often used make-up on his subjects and did a thriving trade painting out the black eyes of brawling officers and NCOs at five dollars apiece. If he was ingenious, he was also forthright. One officer paid him twenty dollars for a set of portraits and was so upset about the result that he tore them up on the spot. Notman responded by tearing up the twenty-dollar bill. The subject smiled, shook hands and apologized.

At the world’s great expositions, which were a feature of the age, Notman consistently won gold medals for excellence, and he was soon expanding his business by opening studios in Ottawa, Toronto, Saint John, Halifax, Boston, Albany, New York and Newport. He photographed most of the Fathers of Confederation, all visiting royalty and many of the great and near-great of the era—from P. T. Barnum to Charles Kingsley. He became a publisher and issued books of his photographs, many of them hand-tipped onto the pages. His Portraits of British Americans, with text by Fennings Taylor, clerk of the Legislative Council of Canada, was issued as a monthly periodical and later bound in two volumes in the days before Confederation.

All these early pictures were made under conditions that would drive modern photographers to distraction. The wet plate and the lack of artificial light presented no greater problem than the sitter himself. Exposures lasted between fifteen and forty seconds and the subject had to be rendered immobile by a metal posing stand that supported his back, arms and head. The resulting picture had to be developed within ten minutes. If it didn’t turn out, Notman had to prepare a second plate on the spot. These conditions, no doubt, explain the look of fixed and often fierce determination, not to mention actual distress, that is to be found on the faces of some of Notman's subjects.

One photographer of the era suggested the following recipe for ameliorating these difficulties:

“Have at hand books, fans, flowers, ornaments, yellow-tinted letters filled with suggestions with which ladies can beguile themselves and their hands. Have canes, hats, pens and more books to ease off the angularity of the masculines. Provide jumping jacks, barking dogs, tin whistles, jew’s-harps, and a small organ to bamboozle the babies. Besides, be able yourself to turn into an acrobat, gymnast or long-tailed monkey on the shortest notice.” Wise words, to many an expert.

No photographer took this advice more closely to heart than William Notman. Mrs. W. W. Ruthven, who was photographed by him in 1883 and who, at the remarkable age of a hundred and six is still living in Montreal, recalls one of the Notmans capering about with a toy lamb atop his head to hold the attention of an infant sitter for the necessary time exposure.

Through an ingenious arrangement of props and backgrounds, Notman managed to surmount his difficulties and to give many of his pictures the spontaneous air of an outdoor snapshot. His technique caused the Philadelphia Photographer, the trade bible of the 1860s, to go into raptures.

“Nature has been caught—not napping —but alive!” the editor exclaimed in 1866. A year later he praised Notman again, as the photographer “who stands foremost in this particular branch . . . Here we have snow, ice, winter!, grace, ease, a likeness and almost motion itself, yet all taken within the limits of the glassroom.”

Notman, describing his own Hollywood-style methods, wrote that the floor of his studio was not carpeted, but cov-

ered with a stuff “which looks so brown and shabby to begin with that you never fear spoiling it, but, as occasion requires, with perfect freedom pile cordwood on it, build cottages, form sandy beaches with boats drawn up, erect tents, plant trees, crowd solid blocks of ice, form snowwreathed plains or introduce a frozen lake or stream in which a skater may appear to glide. All this, if it does not afford a change of air. at least gives a change of scenery and by leading you out of the everyday rut invigorates and refreshes the mind.”

For light, of course, Notman had only the sun that poured in through the three enormous skylights set in the wall and sloping ceiling on the top floor of his studio, each one controlled by an intricate system of blinds. If the sun didn’t shine, Notman and his subjects sometimes had to wait for days.

In spite of these mechanical embarrassments, Notman continued to think of himself as an artist.

“Study works of art,” he advised wouldbe photographers. “Paintings, engravings, sculptures, and photography all demand careful study ... If your home is in a large city, be grateful for the opportunity its galleries and art repositories afford you.”

Indeed, Notman’s studio became an academy from which several of the leading artists of the day graduated. One of them, John Arthur Fraser, under Notman’s tutelage, revolutionized the art of painting over photographs and the results, which could not be distinguished from original work, became a Notman stockin-trade. Fraser, a charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy, helped form the Ontario Society of Artists whose first exhibition was held in a gallery built by Notman on the present site of Toronto’s King Edward Hotel.

A host of famous men passed through Notman studio

Equally well known was Henry Sandham, RCA, whose portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald hangs in the Parliament Buildings. Sandham executed many of the painted backgrounds on which Notman superimposed his photographic figures and later helped work out the huge “composites” which became a Notman specialty. Other photographers tried to copy these mass portraits in which every figure was photographed separately and the whole put together like a jigsaw puzzle. But the problems of perspective, lighting and arrangement were so complex that none were able to equal Notman and his stable of artists.

After 1880 the dry plate made outdoor group photography more practical, and the composite technique faded (though it is still used occasionally today). George Eastman’s invention of the Kodak in 1888 put the snapshot within everybody’s reach, Notman’s sets and backgrounds went out of style and the firm slipped into more conventional portraiture. William Notman died in 1891 but his sons carried on and the studio continued as the most fashionable in Montreal. In 1934 the last surviv j son, Charles, sold the business

'XL-csociated Screen News but continued operate the studio. (Charles' son, GeoiT■ Notman, eschewed the photographic field for the aeronautical and has risen to become president of Canadair.) When Charles died, two years ago, ASN sold their interest to an old-time employee, Niels Montclair, who continues it today under its original name.

But the enormous collection of old photographs remained in the film company’s possession, housed, and almost forgotten, in a labyrinthine underground vault.

Here, in the sepia tones of another century, were the hundreds of thousands of photographs that help add to our understanding of the Canadian past. Now at McGill, in the process of being microfilmed, they are safe for posterity, if