JOHN DIEFENBAKER He recalls buffalo skulls and Riel's lieutenant; Happy Hooligan and a movie
“The course was determined for me as a youngster, undeviating and unchanging ...”
At the outset of his 1958 election campaign. on a February day that must have been as full—and perhaps as confusing—as any he has ever known, John Diefenbaker took time out to sit down and talk about matters and incidents that had nothing to do with the politics of the moment.
The private side of politics: JOHN DIEFENBAKER
“The course was determined for me
as a youngster, undeviating and unchanging ...”
/Vt the outset of his 1958 election campaign. on a February day that must have been as full—and perhaps as confusing—as any he has ever known, John Diefenbaker took time out to sit down and talk about matters and incidents that had nothing to do with the politics of the moment. He chatted about such things as the comic strips he read as a boy. the books that inlluenced his thinking, the sound a prairie fire makes, the time he was lost in a blizzard, and the reason lor the perfect part in Gabriel Dumont's hair.
It was a bright, cold Monday in Ottawa and the prime minister had just returned from a speaking engagement in Toronto. In a sudden last-minute decision he had switched his election plans and was preparing to leave that evening for Winnipeg to open his campaign in the west. In his residence on Sussex Street his desk was piled high with papers. Cabinet ministers arrived, talked briefly and departed. In an adjoining office a typewriter clacked as assistants made quick switches in a complicated itinerary.
At noon, when most of Ottawa was at lunch, the prime minister left his desk and walked downstairs to his oyster-grey living room where Barbara Moon, James Bannerman and Hugh MacLennan were waiting for him. He settled himself on a flowered couch and the following conversation, recorded by two Hansard reporters, took place:
Mr. MacLennan: Mr. Prime Minister, would you care to tell us briefly about your parents? Mr. Diefenbaker: My mother is living in Saskatoon today, and my father passed away in 1945. Father was a teacher for the first twenty years of his working lite or more, and he became a civil servant in 1912 and continued as a civil servant until 1938.
Father taught in Ontario before he went west, the last school being Todmorden which is part of East Toronto now. It might be ot some interest that in that school there were twenty-eight youngsters, and four ot us were afterward members of the House of Commons together: McGregor is still a member; Tustin was defeated or w'as not a candidate in the last election; and Joe Harris passed away some years ago.
Miss Moon: Your father as a parent—was he a strict man?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No. My father was a person who had a dedicated devotion to the public service. Throughout the schools that he taught there were a great many that went on into public life, because of his feeling that it was one field in which there was a need.
Miss Moon: But in the home, how' was he? Mr. Diefenbaker: My father was a great student.
Miss Moon: A disciplinarian?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No!
Miss Moon: And what about your mother—•
what was the balance between them?
Mr. Diefenbaker: It was a normal home. In so far as my father was concerned, the most important thing regardless of anything, whether we were on the homestead or elsewhere. was the availability of worthwhile books, and it was in that atmosphere that l lived.
Father was quite an accomplished musician. I have no qualification in that direction although my brother has. And throughout life, my father was a student . .
Miss Moon: Had your mother comparable interests?
Mr. Diefenbaker: My mother still lives in Saskatoon—she is now past eighty-five—she has a very strong personality.
Miss Moon: Did your father encourage you to go into lawor go into politics?
Mr. Diefenbaker: That is as far as 1 will go in that direction. Father had an unusually strong and abiding sense ot history, and ot the influence of men in their generation on the history of their time.
Mr. Bannerinan: Mr. Prime Minister, what is the first thing that you as a small boy can remember consciously?
Mr. Diefenbaker: That's a very interesting question. 1 would think my first memory would be of the old Toronto Globe building and of a thermometer on the corner there that 1 wanted to understand. That seems to be my first recollection: 1 had to be able to read in order to interpret what that was.
Mr. Bannerman: And how old would you be at that time? Would you be about six?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 was younger than that.
I read before I was five.
Mr. Bannerinan: May 1 ask you another question, somewhat of the same sort: do you happen to remember what was your first nightmare, or your first really bad dream?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No. I have never had any nightmares at any time—whether it was an election year or not!
Mr. Bannerman: It is quite a non-political question, I assure you.
Mr. Diefenbaker: It is non-existent.
Mr. Bannerman: As a small boy w'ere you yourself conscious of the “opening of the west”—of taking part in it?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No. I can’t say 1 was. 1 was only eight years of age when we went to the area at Fort Carlton, and I was ten when we went on the homestead.
Mr. Bannerman: Used you to hear your
father talking about the opening of the west? Mr. Diefenbaker: No, he was in no different position—he hadn’t been out there before. Everyone who traveled through the country seemed to make it a point to stay with us, for we had a nice home. That is why 1 took strong objection to your suggestion that my continued on page 54
John Diefenbaker continued from page 15
“Working on the homestead . . . we started with the corner post and counted the turns of the wheel”
father was stern in any way whatsoever. Miss Moon: It was just a question.
Mr. Diefenbaker: My father was the kindest of men, far too kind for his own welfare, and when you said he was a forbidding person you touched something that cannot be touched. My father helped out every solitary person that came along and when I heard that story about being forbidding—it may only have been a question. But it was a mighty poor analysis.
Miss Moon: Who were your closest boyhood friends?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 don’t know that 1 can give you any answer in that direction. When I was eight, as I said, father moved west to what was Fort Carlton. That type of life did not make for early attachments.
Naturally my interest in the history of the west dates back to those days. Many of the Mounted Police stopped at outplace. We lived twelve miles from the nearest town. Fverybody stopped at our home and nobody ever paid for stopping there. The Mounted Police used to come to our place and several of them had served in the Saskatchewan Rebellion. Gabriel Dumont was there—Riel’s righthand man. He had come back from exile after the rebellion. It was only about four years ago that 1 learned certain things about Dumont. You know, he was the greatest Indian tighter of all time, a man beside whom Buffalo Bill was a novice. When he was a man of seventyseven, 1 remember, he would throw tin cans up in the air and he would hit them twice on the way down. He had killed eleven policemen himself at Duck Lake before he escaped to the United States.
There was one thing I could never understand and that was the perfect part in his hair. It was a perfect centre part.
About seven years ago the Historical Review published his field notes and it was there 1 learned that his head had been creased by a hullet—and that explains that perfect part. Buffalo Bill wasn’t on the same street with Dumont, you know. For every buffalo that Buffalo Bill killed, Dumont had killed several.
1 must say that Gabriel Dumont is a story in himself—a story that has yet to he written. It’s one of the greatest stories in Canada—the story of the greatest Indian fighter of them all. His field book revealed him as the master strategist, and, indeed, had Riel listened to him rather than having paid attention to signs in the skies things might have been differ ent, although ultimately defeat would have come. Dumont still has relatives around there, you know.
We went from Fort Carlton to the homestead that my father huilt. I can remember working with him starting with the corner post and counting so many turns of the wheel. After we built the homestead my father taught there from 1906 to 1910 when we moved into Saskatoon.
As 1 say, that type of life does not make for early attachments, but many of those who were my friends in those days are now in various positions in public life.
Mr. MacI.ennan: You said there were books in your family home?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Yes, when we were on the homestead and my father was teaching—1 presume he was making about six hundred dollars a year—but no matter what his income would be in those days there was no book of any importance in history or biography or the like that was not bought.
Mr. MacLennan: Could you tell us what
book or books you feel particularly influenced your thoughts?
Ylr. Diefenbaker: We had an Encyclopedia of Biography I would say that had a very considerable influence.
Mr. MacLennan: Could I go on from there and ask you what particular historical characters you might have in mind? Mr. Diefenbaker: As a matter of fact, Lincoln and Gladstone. 1 read everything that was available about them.
Mr. MacLennan: What about military heroes? Did they interest you when you were young?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No, I wouldn’t say that. Mr. Bannerinan: Were you interested in Napoleon?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Oh, yes, I was.
Mr. Bannerinan: From what point of view?
Mr. Diefenbaker: One would be interested in his whole life. 1 read three or four biographies on Napoleon.
Mr. Bannerinan: After you began to go to law school what did you think about Napoleon as a lawmaker?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Well, I have my own views on that.
Mr. MacLennan: At any time did you have any interest in fiction?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 wouldn’t say so.
Miss Moon: 1 am going to ask you the old desert-island question. If you were restricted to, say, five books to spend the rest of your life with, would they be books you have not read or books you have already read? And could you give us an approximation of the list?
Mr. Diefenbaker: I am afraid that question would take longer than the period we have available.
Miss Moon: Well, have you any particular famous books that you treasure more than others?
Mr. Diefenbaker: I wouldn’t say so.
Mr. Bannerinan: Mr. Prime Minister, I wonder if we might ask you about your reading of the Bible.
Mr. Diefenbaker: That is a personal matter.
Mr. Bannerinan: You feel that is too personal?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Yes, that is very much my personal life, and something I would prefer not to discuss.
Mr. Bannerman: Mr. Prime Minister, is there any book that you can think of offhand that you have not read but you would like to read someday?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Oh, a great many!
Mr. Bannerinan: Any outstanding ones? Mr. Diefenbaker: I can’t at the moment identify any one that 1 would like to read. But if one’s life had not been given to the law, there are many others one would have read.
Mr. MacLennan: Have you had any opportunity, with all the other things you have had to do, to read anything in the area of science?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No. Science was my bugbear in university and science will always be my bugbear.
Miss Moon: Mr. Prime Minister, 1 know that your main recreations, when you have time for them, are hunting and fishing, but how much time are you able to spend for personal reading?
Mr. Diefenbaker: That, of course, is an impossible question. You read in whatever little available time you have. I put in some time that way.
Miss Moon: I was going to ask you about movies, television and radio. For instance, do you listen to the radio much? Mr. Diefenbaker (smiling): 1 hear the news.
Miss Moon: What about television?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Oh, I enjoy television. Miss Moon: Any favorite programs?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 wouldn’t say. That would be like advertising!
Mr. Bannerinan: This might seem an impertinent question but do you ever read the comics?
Mr. Diefenbaker: I wouldn’t say I do today, but I’m not saying that in the past I didn’t. You read about certain characters over the years that you naturally follow. But not today for me.
Mr. Bannerinan: Do you remember one particular character you thought well of in the old days?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Oh, you were too
young then to remember.
Mr. Bannerinan: No, sir. You have no idea how aged I am. I am the oldest thing in Canada except the Laurentian Shield.
Mr. Diefenbaker: Do you remember
Mr. Bannerinan: I certainly do.
Mr. Diefenbaker: And the Katzenjam-
Mr. Bannerinan: Do you remember
Mr. Diefenbaker: He was out of my
class. But do you remember Buster Brown?
Mr. Bannerinan: Yes, I do. Did they dress you up like Buster Brown when you were a little boy?
Mr. Diefgnbaker: No.
Mr. Bannerinan: Did they try to?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No, 1 don’t think they
Mr. Bannerinan: 1 guess they wouldn’t have got anywhere if they had.
Mr. MacLennan: Do you recall any particular movies that you saw as a boy that made a deep impression on you, or that you particularly enjoyed or got pleasure from?
Mr. Diefenbaker: We didn’t see them in those days, not until we moved into Saskatoon in 1910; but if one were to endeavor to analyze one’s feeling I would think 1 would go back to Birth of a Nation. I have an intensive hatred for discrimination based on color.
Mr. MacLennan: I was wondering if you would say that. That is the first one I saw.
Mr. Diefenbaker: It had an unchanging effect to it, and it has become changeless. Mr. MacLennan: Have you had time to see more recent or contemporary pictures?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No, but Birth of a Nation must have made a great change on the thinking of those who saw it—particularly if they were adolescent.
When we went on the homestead, of course, there were no movies. We were twelve miles from the nearest town. We saw no movies but we saw the opening of the west. When we moved in there, the area had never been touched by man as far as cultivation was concerned. The type of companionship that one would have would be limited to one’s attendance at school. But you don’t stay around school when you live three and a half miles from it. Your companionship becomes either the outdoors or books.
Mr. MacLennan: Gabrielle Roy was born out on the prairies and she told me the thing that made her a writer was the solitude there. She said that her father acquired a whole set of Balzac, and that as a little child those books were her friends and they changed her life. In other words, you might think now that you were very fortunate that you did not have the moving pictures to attend.
Mr. Diefenbaker: Yes.
Miss Moon: Mr. Prime Minister, you have talked about living in the west when it was opening up. Do you think this is apt to produce in people any particular set of characteristics?
Mr. Diefenbaker: When you live in a new world—and it was a new world—
you realize something that one who hasn’t had that experience cannot realize —something of the aspirations and the needs of the average man. We saw the opening of the west: the arrival in the main of the first major influx of immigration. We had settled around us people of various racial origins; we saw the beginning of that Canada which we have today.
Mr. Bannerinan: Is there any particular event in that scene that you remember as significant?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Yes, as I look back there are two events which stand out. 1 think first of the prairie fire that I saw— that is a spectacle that will always remain with me. And the other event is my memory of being lost on the prairie and spending an entire night in the storm. Miss Moon: Were you alone?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No, I had my uncle, a schoolteacher, with me. It was the night of March 11, 1909, and it is one event that remains with me. We had gone to a school concert: the school we attended was at Halcyonic, an area of Old Country Quakers. My uncle taught there and he also homesteaded at the same time father did.
Well, we left the school concert about ten o’clock at night, and it was a three1 and-a-half-mile drive home. When we came over the elevation—and it was an unusual elevation for the prairies as they were in that portion of Saskatchewan— we saw in the distance the light that my father always used to put out on the door. But the horse could not face the blizzard, and turned off: and so we were lost and had to spend the night in an open cutter turned up on its side. We were fortunate: the storm broke in the morning and we were found. When I am in that area I often pass by and sec that location.
Mr. Biinnennan: Would you describe a prairie fire for us?
Mr. Diefenbaker: A prairie fire is an indescribable scene. You know, this part of the prairie still had the old buffalo trails on it—paths where the buffalo followed each other in single file; and every half mile or so there would be great wallows in the ground where the buffalo would wallow. In those days that area was still pretty well covered with buffalo bones. There were piles of these bones in the southern part of the province between Moosomin and Regina and the harvesting and sale of buffalo bones was rather lucrative for the early settlers— in 1903 and 1904.
Now the reason the buffalo were so common in this area was because of the wonderful grass. And those grasses had been burned over for generations by prairie fires.
With a wind behind it, the roar of a prairie fire is something that can never be forgotten. I remember, at the time of this fire, everybody went out and built a fire break about four miles from outplace. 'They would plow several rows, and then plow another several rows a hundred yards away and burn the area in between the two.
A prairie fire has an indescribable sound, and at my age it would naturally make a greater impression than it might have later. But the descriptions of the prairie fires that I’ve read by the oldtimers show that it really produces a terrible roar. You see it coming in the distance and you wonder!
Mr. Banncrnian: May I return to the question of music. 1 gathered from what you said a moment ago you did not exactly specialize in it.
Mr. Diefenbaker: I am not a musician— let me put it that way.
Mr. Bannerinan: I did not mean quite
that. My question is this: Nearly all of us when we are preoccupied, and if alone, or if the circumstances are right, find ourselves humming or whistling something between the teeth—while waiting for a train or trying to decide something. Do you do this?
Mr. Diefenbaker: No. I don’t.
Mr. MacLennan: It is always to me an absolute marvel how a man in your position can do one fiftieth of what you do. How do you manage to do it?
Mr. Diefenbaker: It’s because I get lots of rest. 1 was just reading about Mr. Pearson today: He sleeps w'ith ease. Well.
I sleep on the least provocation; I get between seven and a half and eight hours’ sleep at night, regardless of anything.
Mr. MacLennan: Like Napoleon, you can shut the door?
Mr. Diefenbaker: When that door closes and I come into this home, or my own home, it is closed as far as that day is concerned. I had a large court practice, indeed, I was in court all of the time— but when I closed the door, it was closed, unless of course Í w;as going to work at night. But I’m not much given to doing night work, except study.
Mr. MacLennan: Have you always had the ability to do that?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 followed that habit through the years. There is no carry-over from the day’s affairs.
Mr. MacLennan: Could you tell us how you do it?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Well, it is a complete w'iping away of everything—an eradication of the activities of the day. It is based on the philosophy that 1 live each day for itself.
Mr. MacLennan: As you know, that is the basis of the philosophy of the life of Sir William Osier: to live each day for itself.
Mr. Diefenbaker: That’s my philosophy, and it’s very helpful.
Miss Moon: Do you find work stimulating, or is your approach to it methodical? Mr. Diefenbaker: You psychologists ask questions that are beyond me! 1 just like work—that's all.
Mr. Bannerinan: May 1 ask you a simple question?
Mr. Diefenbaker: When you ask a simple question in court, that’s the kind that get's everybody into trouble.
Mr. Banncrman: This won’t get you in any trouble. What do you like best to eat? What is your favorite dish?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 don't know.
Mr. Banncrman: You have no particular favorite?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 don't think 1 have. Miss Moon: Do you like food as an interest?
Mr. Diefenbaker (laughing): You would have to ask those who provide the necessary wherewithal.
Mr. Banncrman: Do you try to get a good square meal at regular times to keep your strength up?
Mr. Diefenbaker: I start off the day with a good breakfast. It docs not matter so much for the rest ol the day.
Mr. MacLennan: Mr. Prime Minister, 1 have always felt myself that responsibility of the kind that burdens a ship's captain or a man in the position of prime minister, must put a tremendous taxation on a man from the standpoint of loneliness. Have you felt that, sir?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 would not want to emphasize that. The first responsibility of a prime minister or of the leader of a national party is not to allow himself to be insulated from reality. 1 presume that applies throughout all positions of leadership. There is a tendency, not in a sycophantic w'ay, but in a natural way, to tell a person in a position of leadership what is expected will please him. Once
if ever that occurs the decisions arrived at will not be based on a realistic appreciation of public opinion.
Mr. MacLennan: What steps do you take to make sure that doesn’t happen?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Anyone around me knows that is my view, and they realize it immediately; it is made perfectly clear to them. In addition to that, 1 necessarily have certain people whose frankness 1 have always found helpful — even though sometimes that frankness has not produced the kind of answer that was entirely appreciated by me!
Miss Moon: Mr. Prime Minister, what made you decide to be a lawyer? What attracted you to the profession?
Mr. Diefenbaker: Well, 1 decided that at a very early age. There was no member of my family who was a lawyer. I never deviated from that course from the time 1 was eight or nine years of age. There never was any change.
Miss Moon: Was this because of your reading?
Mr. Diefenbaker: 1 would say so.
Mr. MacLennan: But at nine years of age—that’s amazing.
Mr. Diefenbaker: It was a set course and it was never deviated from, never changed. The course was determined for me as a youngster, undeviating and unchanging to the destination.
Mr. MacLennan: From that age on. Mr. Prime Minister, you feel really that you had a compass?
Mr. Diefenbaker: It was all determined for me. 1 determined myself that that was the thing 1 was going to do—and 1 determined that because of my being of mixed racial origin. 1 am the first prime minister of this country of neither al-
together English nor French origin. So I determined that that was the thing I was going to do. I never deviated from that course, and I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration.
At university they used to laugh about this dedication to a certain purpose. I said: “You will never build a Canada on this basis, when every ten years a person has to register on the basis of his paternal origin. You will never build a Canada on that.” If you look the records up you will see that I spoke on that at the university. And when 1 made my first speech in parliament in June of 1940, that was it, and on the 11th of August, 1944, I came back to it again and I said, “This is wrong.” I said that those who served in the Canadian Armed Forces with “Canada” on their shoulderstraps, when they came back, were going to have to start to register again according to their racial origin. Mr. Mackenzie King said he would join with me.
1 said that I never thought of Roose-
velt as a Dutch-American or General Eisenhower as a German-American or Pershing as a German - American. I said that they were all Americans and that we were building up in Canada this hyphenated citizenship, and I said, “That is what I am going to change.”
John W. Dafoe used to take a strong stand on that. His people came to Canada—this is from recollection—around 1690 or 1700, and he had to register every seven years as being Dutch. It was so bad in this country that Edward, Prince of Wales, was an Englishman in Wales but when he arrived at High River, he had to register in Canada as being of German origin.
Well, I never deviated from this purpose. 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. ★