The prime minister’s home town
As a northern capital Prince Albert, Sask., failed its prophets. But as a springboard for prime ministers it’s sent Laurier, King and now Diefenbaker to Ottawa. Here the PM’s just plain John
Marjorie Wilkins Campbell
It was a great occasion for the twenty thousand citizens of Prince Albert when John Diefenbaker flew home the evening of June 10. 1957. the greatest in the town’s history .
The long summer day was not quite over when the first cars arrived at the airport. Before the swift dusk descended and the air was suddenly crisp, landing lights and car lights had transformed the lonely little airstrip beside the North Saskatchewan River. In the crescendo of excitement as the plane touched down no one noticed how shabby and in need of paint the control tower and the waiting room were. North of the lower North Saskatchewan it’s what you are and feel that counts rather than what you have—and P.A. was honoring not only Canada's new prime minister but the homesteader's son from nearby Wakaw who had lived in the town for thirty-five years and whose wife had attended local schools until she was fourteen.
They’d commandeered a new convertible for the celebrated couple. Then, somehow they all unscrambled themselves into a great cavalcade of cars—the number is estimated at anything between six hundred and a thousand— and set out on the triumphant drive to town, over the winding, graveled trail through the jackpine and the poplars pungent in their first fresh green.
Prince Albert, near the geographical centre of Saskatchewan, is known as the town where south meets north. Only one bridge links the little community to the south of the river with the wilderness that stretches north to the land of little sticks and the Arctic.
Slowly the cars crossed the bridge over the wide swift stream and turned east along River Street where on fine days Indians still sun themselves on the bank across from the small Hudson’s Bay Company fur depot. Already those citizens who had gone to bed were roused b\ the cacophony of car horns. Lights flashed on. People thrust heads out of windows, or joined the crowds along the sidewalks. So great was the cavalcade when it turned into Central Avenue that the lights stretched in a bobbing, pencil-beamed chain back across the bridge and all the way to the airport. Headed bv the convertible, it moved up Central Avenue. past the two-story Toronto-Dominion Bank building with the sign Diefenbaker, Cuelenaere and Hall. Law Offices, on the upper windows, to stop at the little old Lincoln Hotel near the railway tracks. There owner Ralph Naish. a long-time admirer of Diefenbaker. had turned over his basement as committee rooms.
The milling, laughing, jubilant crowd tried to listen while Diefenbaker made a brief speech, then surged up the stairs to listen again as he addressed those who hadn’t been able to crowd inside.
Neither of the Diefcnbakers thought of sleep that night. Dawn in summer comes early at the town that is nearly as far north as Moscow'. and there were lights in the homes of main of their friends. They dropped in here and there for coffee and more talk, and for breakfast. Later, on July 15. after Diefenbaker had assumed office at Ottawa, they returned to town for a civic reception at the arm-
ories. Those running the reception lost track of numbers after they had served coffee and doughnuts and ice cream to three thousand.
“But." recalled Bert Wyllie. of the Central Fruit and Candy Kitchen. "John was out doing Central Avenue next morning as if nothing special had happened. He even dropped in for some oranges.”
“Doing Central Avenue” is a popular local custom. Central starts, on the south, at the courthouse on the hill, and sweeps down to the red-brick tire hall that backs on the river, obstructing what might have been one of the town's lovelier views. From the courthouse steps you can see practically all of P.A.. including residential West Hill where the prime minister’s modest house is easily eclipsed by the new ranch bungalow belonging to Mayor Dave Steuart.
Some miles upstream on the river there’s the grim federal penitentiary. Between the pen and the cluster of business blocks the Roman Catholic Cathedral rises above straggling rows of small houses that a casual observer might take for mere shacks, but which here stand lot the first step in privately owned urban dwellings for a thousand or so métis, many of them French-speaking descendants of early fur traders. To the east along the flats spreads some of the older-type houses, and the half dozen new ranch bungalows in the forty-thousand-dollar bracket. It’s all south of the river except the San and the métis and Indian community. known as Moccasin Flats, where a few of the older log structures would delight any painter of primitive living.
“Before he became prime minister. John Diefenbaker could take longer than anyone to do Central Avenue,” a retired schoolteacher. Miss Myrtle Strangways. commented as she drove me about town one day during the autumn.
Though he hasn't as much time now. Diefenbaker’s interest is as warm as ever. It hasn’t lagged since the days when he paused to chat with his client Grey Owl about the beavers Raw hide and Jelly roll—immortalized by the author-conservationist in his books — about Grey Owl's presentation in London to George V. one or another of his wives (locally the number is said to be three or four) or about his daughter Shirley Dawn.
Today the prime minister may pause for a word with Chief John Dreaver. of the Mistawasis Reserve nearby, who represented Saskatchewan Indians at Ottawa during the Queen's recent visit, or a Ukrainian grandmother, or a farmer from Wakaw where he practiced law as a young graduate in the early Twenties. Like everyone else he drops into the Airways or one of the other cafés for coffee, straddling a stool beside one of the many tourists on their way to cottages or fishing at Prince Albert National Park, or a bevy of teen-age Indian girls from one of the reserves, locally referred to as “blueberry blondes.” Maybe he will lunch at the Avenue Hotel where European-trained chef Walter Becker is building up a gourmet clientele and lamenting Saskatchewan's embargo on serving wine in public dining rooms, a situation which doesn't trouble the new prime minister at all. Since Diefenbaker is a Mason, a Kiwanian, a member of the small, white-painted Baptist Church and interested in most of the town's sixtyodd organizations, there's plenty to talk about.
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There’s nothing “typical” about Prince Albert. In politics it’s gone Liberal, CCF and Tory
"He's plain John Diefenbaker on Kiwanis Club notices,” said one member. "No degrees or titles." Actually a good half of the people you meet in P.A. refer to the prime minister as John, partly from small-town custom, partly from affection and, recently perhaps, from a little braggadocio. When Diefenbaker applied for a fishing license last spring, the form was made out simply "To our John," with the full name filled in in brackets: “He'd never accept it unless it was properly and legally made out."
There are few' in P.A. who would deny the Diefenbakers their welcome, even among the Liberals who represented the constituency almost continuously from 1911 until Diefenbaker won it in 1953. In 1957 he polled more votes than his Liberal and CCF opponents combined. Though Saskatchewan has long been a CCF stronghold, the only time a federal CCF candidate won an election at P.A. was when E. L. Bowerman defeated another prime minister, Mackenzie King, in 1945. (Bowerman held the seat for only a single term.) This little city off the beaten track is accustomed to being represented at Ottawa by a prime minister: during a fifth of the time since Confederation Canada's prime minister has been elected by the people of Prince Albert.
Back in 1896, when Canadians were telling one another that it was time for a change. Laurier looked about for a safe seat in his campaign against Sir Charles Tupper. To play it doubly safe, he ran in two constituencies—in Quebec’s Arthabaska and in the Territorial District of Saskatchewan, at Prince Albert. He was returned in both.
Exactly thirty years later, in 1926, Mackenzie King was also looking for a safe seat, following his defeat in Ontario’s North York. He too chose Prince Albert. and won. King sat for P.A. for almost twenty years, prime minister in all but the brief Bennett regime in the early Thirties.
His 1945 defeat by CCFer Bowerman didn't mean that P.A. had suddenly become a typical Saskatchewan town. Actually, it has never been a typical prairie town because of its location at the northern edge of the prairie and the southern fringe of the Canadian Shield. Nor had it gone ahead like other prairie towns. It has failed to fulfill the prophecy of its founder, the Rev. James Nisbet, who in 1866 foresaw a population of a hundred thousand. It hasn't become capital of the province, as it once expected, and the nearest railway main line passes through Saskatoon, a hundred miles to the south. Notwithstanding its isolation and mixed population, or perhaps because of it, it has developed a unique character.
Back when P.A. had its dreams of greatness, a group of citizens founded the Prince Albert Club, a red-brick structure next door to the now partly demolished Opera House, and with an underground passage linking the two so that members could get a drink betw'een acts without going into the winter's cold, sometimes down to fifty-six degrees below zero. A few' years ago the club moved to a new building. The old building is now the Public Library. Under librarian Grace Campbell, it continues to play an important. though quite different role in local life.
The library, for one thing, is helping to stamp out the cultural differences that traditionally have separated Indians from w'hite people throughout the vast P.A. hinterland. In the past many Indian children in remote areas didn't get to school at all. Even today there is a special class at the Anglican Residential School for Indians where newcomers, some as old as fifteen, receive their first lessons. Each year illiteracy decreases, however, as Indians in growing numbers attend the P.A. public and high schools. And one of the notable factors in integrating the two races is the local library and the traveling libraries under its management.
But it wasn't a mixed population or even isolation that kept P.A. back whileother western towns were going ahead. The major cause probably was the crippling financial burden of La Colie Falls dam.
The dam was a fine, ambitious preWorld War I project intended to provide P.A. with hydro-electric power. Surveys of the site forty miles downstream were made and in 1912 the town assumed responsibility for about one and a half million dollars in debentures. A great camp was laid out, and work on the project commenced. The first section of the 755foot structure was well under way when an economic depression forced a halt, f loods hampered work when it was resumed. Frost cracked the unhardened concrete. Construction costs tripled, the Saskatchewan River washed out foundat:ons, ami the entire project had to be dropped, saddling the city with a debt that will not be liquidated completely until 1966. the hundredth anniversary of Prince Albert's founding. Now. though La Colle Falls is still mentioned as a potential hydro-power site. P.A. gets its power from a steam plant.
For decades the city was hamstrung by debt. In 1940 it defaulted on its debt payments, and from 1940 until 194(S it was operated under provincial-government supervision. That year a new mayor was elected, lawyer John Cuelenaere. junior partner in the firm of which John Diefenbaker was senior. Cuelenaere held office until 1954 when he was defeated by the present chief executive, I ibera I Dave Steuart.
Cuelenaere, like so many men from the west, went east to see the bondholders in an effort to get the town back on a sound financial footing. He was able to arrange a settlement whereby the city paid off half its arrears of interest, the other half being canceled by the bondholders. The interest rate was reduced from four to three percent, and gradually P.A. has redeemed its bonds, buying them up at eighty and ninety dollars. Conditions have steadily improved. The council recently ordered a crest bearing the motto "Proud Heritage, Bold DesMny.”
But P.A. was still feeling the effects of its hard times in 1953. It still depended on its two major industries, mixed farming and timber products, with a littlefishing from the north and business it derived as a distributing centre. Though northern Saskatchewan was already estab-
lished as an important mining area, mining interests had bypassed the town almost entirely. Some citizens, despairing that the town would ever live up to its one-time slogan. “Hub of the Top Two Thirds,” formed the Diefenbaker Club and invited John to accept nomination for parliament.
Diefenbaker was living in Prince Albert at the time, but had represented the adjacent constituency of Lake Center since 1940. In 1943 he had been chairman of the first British Commonwealth Conference attended by members of the
U.S. Congress; three years later he had been a member of the Canadian delegation to the Empire Parliamentary Association meeting in Bermuda, and at Washington; he had represented Canada at the 1950 meeting in Australia and, in 1952. had been one of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations. But he was known much better for what he had done nearer home.
Men and women remembered that Diefenbaker, with his brother Elmer, had hauled grain to Saskatoon and had taken on plowing contracts before starting his
legal work. Most families in the sparsely settled area could recall instances when they had profited from his legal advice, directly or indirectly. He had long ago been nicknamed “counsel for the defense” because of the many cases he had won. His yarn about his own brief teaching experience is an often-repeated classic recounted to every visitor.
“I was out with some older pupils.” Diefenbaker is said to have told a teachers' meeting. “It was a fine day. perfect for gopher shooting. But it was also the day the inspector chose to call. Since gopher shooting wasn’t on the curriculum that year, I got fired.”
It all added up to the Diefenbaker Club and the offer of the nomination. Members of the club came from all political parties. They included Ed Jackson, member in the provincial CCF organization, and Fred Hadley, a long-time Liberal and local merchant who became Diefenbaker’s organizer. Diefenbaker was soon being promoted as “The Voice of the North,” and among those typical of his supporters were Billie Halstad and his metis wife.
Halstad kept a livery stable near Wakaw forty years ago and stabled young Diefenbaker’s Indian pony. “It was a rickety rig he had,” he says. Halstad’s seventy-odd-year-old wife recalls the latest visit of Diefenbaker and his wife, in the late summer of 1957.
Mrs. Diefenbaker — the former Olive Freeman—had dropped in with her husband, as they so often do throughout the vast constituency. She mentioned the dinner at which she and the prime minister would entertain the Queen at Ottawa; Gordon Lund and Leo Bremner were going to shoot mallards for the dinner when the season opened. As it happened, Mrs. Diefenbaker later learned that duck was being served at the state dinner at Rideau Hall, changed her menu, and sent the P.A. ducks to Buckingham Palace. But the suggestion was enough for Mrs. Halstad. .She went berry picking. Gathering a great batch of low bush cranberries, the old métis woman carefully winnowed the rich red crop, and made a batch of cranberry sauce, and sent it off to Ottawa.
“Sure it was for the Queen,” she says. “But John helped me when I was in trouble long ago, and he didn’t send no bill, either!”
“Vote for the big name”
There was a photograph of John and Olive Diefenbaker on the TV console at the Halstads’, as there was in practically every house I visited this past autumn. One woman who arrived as an immigrant from Middle Europe decades ago, and who is now a well-to-do matron, had several photographs, including one of herself with the Diefenbakers. It is rumored that it was she, an expert in several languages, who made it her business to see that every newly arrived citizen with a vote knew how to use it. “Vote for the big name,” she advised.
Driving north toward the outskirts of the town itself, it’s hard to believe that here south meets north. The pink and apple-green Flamingo Motel suggests Florida rather than a land of mallards. But turn off Central Avenue to the studios of station CKBI any afternoon, and you'll quickly catch the mood of the northland. Station CKBI is owned by Saskatchewan-born Ed and Frank Rawlinson, who will soon open their new hundred-thousand-watt TV station. While this is primarily designed to serve the community, it will also ensure that next time a prime minister wishes to appear before the country from P.A. he won’t have to fly to Regina as Diefenbaker did on the evening of June 10.
But already CKBI is providing a service, a program called Mailbag, that’s famous throughout the north. Mailbag was started several years ago when the two hospitals and the sanatorium were having trouble getting in touch with relatives of patients. Now, any afternoon anyone with a message for anyone in the vast hinterland may drop in at the studio, knowing that friends and relatives throughout the north will be listening in. It may be a poignant message: “Dad
desperately ill; come at once,” or the joyful news: “It’s an eight-pound boy; mother and baby doing fine.” When sudden snow storms block winter roads, farmers caught in town can get word to neighbors who will feed and water their stock. Students, coming home, can arrange to be met whenever transportation is available. Most of all, perhaps, Mailbag has conquered isolation in this area where Peter Pond in 1778 built his first rough, stockaded fur post.
A hundred and eighty years since the first white man wintered here—and four years since Diefenbaker first represented the town — P.A.’s progress is still not spectacular. The rather plain-looking town stretching along the river still depends on mixed farming and timber products, tourists and the Department of Natural Resources of Saskatchewan. Maybe the uranium deposits at Lac La Ronge, and nearer, will be developed. There is hope that R. C. Campbell, of Vancouver, will shortly commence work on a long-mooted sixty-million-dollar pulp plant, near the site where at the end of World War I P.A. boasted the largest sawmill between Ottawa and the Pacific coast.
This winter, the real shot in the arm is coming from construction locally credited to John Diefenbaker. This winter work is under way on the half-a-million-dollar laboratory where the effects of northern lights on radar will be studied jointly by Canada and the United States AitForce under peculiarly perfect atmospheric conditions. But the key to real progress, now, lies in the phrase “across the river.”
The North Saskatchewan is broad and swift and treacherous. It has long separated the south from the north. It will continue to retard P.A.’s northward development until it is adequately bridged. Where, then, does Diefenbaker stand in relationship to this long-needed, symbolic structure?
To the visitor who wonders when south will really merge with north at P.A., when the town can hope to become a gateway to the uranium fields, it’s apparent that even Diefenbaker is unlikely to provide the desperately needed link, much as he might like to. A new bridge across the North Saskatchewan is properly a provincial project—unless someone can prove that it is essential to national defense. Only when that bridge is built will P.A. lay on another celebration comparable to the historic tenth of June 1957.
Meantime, most people in P.A. don't expect the Diefenbakers themselves ever to come back really to live. “This place isn’t big enough for them now,” said one man. They base their hunch on the fact that Mrs. Diefenbaker has made few changes to the décor of the house on 19th Street West, with its green-broadloomcd, chintz-hung, book-lined living room. And then there’s the prime minister’s office.
“Well,” said Diefenbaker’s law partner, John Cuelenaere, when I asked him about that, “John just uses my office when he’s at home.”
The prime minister can’t often stop long enough for a haircut, I was told. He and Mrs. Diefenbaker were in town only three half days before the last election, the entire local campaign being handled by their friends.
“But that’s all right,” say those friends. “We know they’ll keep coming home when they can, because they want to, and because here they get to talk to ordinary people, neighbors used to grass-roots thinking. Maybe that's not a bad thing if you’re dealing with folks at the international level.” it