JOHN DIEFENBAKER SHOWS HIS SOUVENIRS OF JOHN A. MACDONALD
THIS EXCLUSIVE ALBUM OF A PM’S PRIZED N REFFECTS PRIME MINISTER DIFFEN13AKEE’S HOMAGE: “MACHONALD IS AS VITAL TODAY AS IF HE WERE ALIVE”
PETER C. NEWMAN
To distract themselves from the weighty anxieties of their office, nearly all of Canada’s prime ministers have used at least part of their leisure time in the thoughtabsorbing pleasures of collecting. Sir Wilfrid Laurier searched public and private archives for data ofi Canada’s early fur trade and planned to write a book about it. Sir Robert Borden pasted into a scrapbook the sentimental poems he clipped out of Maritimes newspapers. Arthur Meighen collected Shakespeare folios and made a recording in tribute to the playwright. R. B. Bennett assembled a considerable selection of crystal vases bearing Latin inscriptions. Mackenzie King, who was the most assiduous collector of them all. heaped his home with a fantastic assortment of bric-a-brac, including a facsimile of the death mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln, twenty-five walking sticks, books on spiritualism and cases bulging with all the invitations, letters and Christmas cards that had ever been sent to him.
Most of these curious spare-time habits of Canada’s heads of state remained secret or known only to personal staffs and intimates until after their death or exile from office.
But on a sunny Saturday morning in Ottawa recently. John Diefenbaker, Canada's thirteenth prime minister, talked
IN HIS STUDY, DIEFENBAKER DISPLAYS MACDONALD'S HAND-WRITTEN “MANIFESTO” OF 1878.
freely and warmly to Maclean’s of the hobby that takes him away from the worries of government: he collects letters, documents and other objects associated with Sir John A. Macdonald, the father of Canadian Confederation and the first national leader of the Conservative party.
During a four - hour interview, the prime minister showed me and discussed with me the Macdonald relics he has gathered since assuming office two years ago. To Canadians who picture Diefenbaker either as baying at his political opponents at election meetings or swaying with righteous wrath in House of Commons debates, our talk would have revealed a decidedly different side of the man — a fascinated and admiring student of Sir John A.’s life and tactics.
Diefenbaker’s interest in Macdonald amounts to a great deal more than natural respect for Canada’s greatest historical figure. I discovered during our tour of his house and offices that his is a serious passion, and one that is continually growing, as he acquires more and more of the first prime minister’s property.
At his office in the East Block on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker works under a portrait and beside a full-length statuette of Macdonald. His inkwell was once Sir John A.’s. In the Privy Council chamber, where the cabinet meets, Diefenbaker uses Macdonald's chair, dries the signature on his instructions with Sir John A.’s spring blotter. At home in his study he is encircled by relics of Macdonald, including his clock and easy chair.
Those who are acquainted with Diefenbaker’s passion for Macdonald pieces claim he regards the objects he has collected as his fondest possessions. “There’s a natural parallel between Diefenbaker and Macdonald in the extent to which they both relied on a direct appeal to the people,” one of the prime minister’s closest friends told me. “Conservatives who own things that once belonged to Macdonald, and never considered presenting them to John Bracken or George Drew, have recognized this parallel and sent them to John.”
Diefenbaker is adding more and more items, as word of his fondness for Macdonald pieces spreads through the Conservative organization. He asks friends to make casual enquiries whenever he hears about something that belonged to Mac-
donald, but near-
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For over thirty years Macdonald’s old chair was used as a telephone stool
y all of the objects he now has have been sent to him by admirers. Two recent contributions arrived from the barber who once shaved Sir John A. and the great-nephew of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, now an ardent PC.
The notes that accompany the gifts almost always equate the greatness of Macdonald with the ability of the present prime minister. Diefenbaker compares himself with his idol in only one respect: that in 1957 he was able to lead his party out of the political wilderness, as his predecessor had donc in 1878. "Macdonald," he told me. “is as vital a personality today, as if he were alive. He has been able to transmit his natural vision for this country to all Canadian leaders who followed him, regardless of their party."
Diefenbaker was born four years after Macdonald died, but he remembers his father’s description of meeting Sir John A. at Collingwood, Ont., during the 1891 election campaign. When he was on his world tour last year, Diefenbaker made a brief pilgrimage to the farm in Sutherlandshire, Scotland, where Macdonald's family lived some time before moving to Glasgow, where Sir John A. was born. *
Diefenbaker believes a national shrine should be set up to Macdonald’s memory, but plans to will his own collection to the Public Archives. The valuable centrepiece of that gift will be a copy, in Macdonald’s handwriting, of the National Policy drawn up on January 16, 1878. at a political meeting in Toronto's Shaftesbury Hall. Macdonald, who had been swept out of power five years earlier by the Canadian Pacific Railway scandal, decided in this document to associate his party with a policy of high tariffs, designed to take the country out of the severe depression of the late 1870s. Up to then, tariffs had been used for revenue purposes only; the idea of developing secondary industry through tariff protection appealed to the growing nationalistic sentiment of Canadians. The National Policy brought Macdonald back into power in the election of 1878, and kept him there until his death.
The recording secretary at the meeting that formulated the National Policy was a young reporter for the Guelph Herald called Acton Burrows, later Manitoba's first deputy minister of agriculture. He kept the original document, willed it to his son Aubrey, a Toronto publisher who, just before he died last year, sent it to Diefenbaker.
None of the eight Conservative prime ministers who preceded Diefenbaker collected objects that had belonged to Sir John A. Macdonald, but all except R. B. Bennett used his chair — a high-backed model fashioned out of mahogany and black leather. It was removed from Macdonald’s office when Sir Wilfrid Laurier was sworn in, on July II, 1896, and taken by Sir William Mulock, Laurier’s postmaster-general, to his Toronto law firm, where he placed it in the custody of Geoige A. Kingston, his only Conservative colleague. Kingston loaned it to every Conservative prime minister except Bennett who didn’t answer the telegram ofJ-nng its use. Kingston’s daughter. Mrs.
alter Evans, the wife of an office worker at Waterloo, Ont., is the chair’s current custodian. Before it was loaned to Diefenbaker it served for thirty-one years as her telephone stool.
Included in the Diefenbaker collection
of Macdonald correspondence is a letter donated to him by John H. Sullivan, a Montreal real-estate broker, which Sir John A. wrote soon after assuming office —so soon in fact, that the government had no official stationery. The letter,
which deals with preparations against the Fenian raids, is written on the note paper of Macdonald’s former office— Attorney General, Canada West — with the letterhead stroked out. Another letter sent to Diefenbaker by James Harri-
son, a retired Saint John, N.B., hardware dealer, contains the often-quoted Macdonald aphorism: “Nothing is so uncertain as an election, except perhaps a horse race."
The smallest objects in Diefenbaker’s
collection are two medallions, the size of fifty-cent pieces, that Macdonald passed out to his favorites during the 1891 election. On one side, surrounded by a wreath of maple leafs surmounted on a beaver, is engraved the slogan: "The Old Man. The Old Flag. The Old Policy— OUR COUNTRY FOR EVER." The
other side features Macdonald’s head with the mottos: “Our Country’s Choice” and “The Dominion Must and Shall Be Preserved.” One of the medallions was presented to Diefenbaker by Aubrey Holmes, a retired electrical engineer from Owen Sound, Ont., who inherited it from his father’s coin collection. The other was a gift of Frank Pethiek, of Bowmanville, Ont., who got it sixty-eight years ago, when, as an apprentice barber in Toronto, he shaved Sir John A. He recalls that when he took hold of the prime minister’s nose to scrape his upper lip, Macdonald quipped: “You’re the only man who can lead me by the nose that way.”
Probably the most unusual of Diefenbaker's mementos is the full-length statuette of Macdonald, colored in life-tones and dressed as he appeared in parliament, that he keeps beside him in his office. The thirty-inch sculpture is the work of Louis Hebert, the foremost sculptor of Macdonald’s day whose works include the South African Memorial in Calgary. Diefenbaker got the plaster carving from Major E. G. Cahoon, a retired road engineer living at Aylmer, Que., who inherited it from his father, a Toronto painting contractor and local manager of Macdonald’s election campaigns.
The statuette and the other Macdonald relics that surround Diefenbaker in his office and at home represent only the physical expression of his veneration for the country’s first prime minister. As those who have either sat beside him at official luncheons or have chatted informally with him at other occasions well know, Diefenbaker uses even the most remote gambit to recount a Macdonald anecdote.
His favorite story concerns a determined half-salary English officer from Lanark County in southeastern Ontario named Colonel Playfair, who had repeatedly pestered Sir John A. with requests to be appointed construction superintendent of a government road being built near his home. As his letters were no longer being answered, Colonel Playfair came to Ottawa and insisted that the prime minister be called out of cabinet to see him. Macdonald emerged smiling. "God bless my soul, Colonel Playfair, is that you?” he said warmly. “We have just been discussing in council a military matter that we cannot decide. Now you with your great military experience and your memories of Salamanca and Talavera will surely be able to solve the question.”
The colonel, looking pleased and appropriately grave, didn’t notice that the prime minister was edging back toward the Privy Council chamber. “The question is,” Macdonald shot at the startled officer just before he slammed the door, "how many pounds of gunpowder put under a bull’s tail would blow his horns off?”
Diefenbaker prefers to ignore Macdonald’s well-known habit of excessive drinking, but he does tell at least one story about it. When his fellow Conservative MPs complained that D’Arcy McGee was drinking too much, Macdonald called McGee into his office, and told him: “Look here, McGee, this government can’t afford two drunkards. You’ve got to stop.”
Diefenbaker also enjoys recounting an incident that occurred during the Provincial Fair held at Kingston in 1888. Macdonald was attending with Sir George Kirkpatrick, the rather stuffy Speaker of the House. Macdonald insisted they watch a side-show featuring scantily-clad Viennese acrobats.
"Is this the kind of introduction you give us to an agricultural fair. Sir John?” demanded the outraged Kirkpatrick.
“Why, of course,” was the reply, “we always show the calves first.”
The major source of Diefenbaker’s Macdonald stories is a now rarely available book called The Anecdotal Life of Sir John A. Macdonald by E. B. Biggar, given to him in 1937 by Leon Ladner, a Vancouver lawyer. Diefenbaker has read nearly all of the books written about Macdonald, and considers the recent twovolume John A. Macdonald by Donald Creighton as the definitive work. “Creighton's second volume,” he told me, “is one of the greatest and most vital biographies ever written.”
There were rumors in Ottawa last year that Diefenbaker had asked Creighton to join the Board of Broadcast Governors, set up by the Conservatives to administer Canadian radio and television, but the historian was reported to have turned down the offer. Creighton has, however, accepted an advisory position on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, a committee that works with the national parks branch of the Department of Northern Affairs.
Diefenbaker was recently asked to contribute a foreword for a biography of Macdonald written by an author in Winnipeg. He read the book, decided that it didn’t handle its subject seriously enough, and refused to associate himself with it.
Carnegie and Churchill
Among the books in his private library that he treasures most is a ten-volume edition of the works of Molière, the French playwright. The books, published in 1739, were in Macdonald’s library and bear his bookmark. They were presented to Diefenbaker last year by Henri Laurier, a Montreal lawyer who campaigned for the Conservatives during the last two elections, although he is Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s great-nephew. The volumes were originally acquired by the Liberal prime minister in a roundabout manner. When he appointed Arthur Demontigny, his second secretary, to the Canadian Embassy at Paris in 1902, he asked him to send back any rare books he might find. Demontigny discovered part of Macdonald’s library in a secondhand bookshop on the Left Bank, and sent the Molière to Laurier.
As well as his Macdonald collection, Diefenbaker’s private library contains nearly all of Sir Winston Churchill’s books, many of them autographed. While his reading consists mostly of history and political biography, the books in Diefenbaker’s study also include Kate Aitken's Travel Alone and Love It and Dale Carnegie's How To Stop Worrying and Start Living. One volume that he likes showing visitors is John Jennings’ The Strange Brigade, a history of the Red River colony, which contains a brief mention of "the quiet, sober Bannermans” — who were Diefenbaker’s ancestors on his mother’s side.
Although he has only been in office for twenty-four months, the Diefenbaker home already overflows with mementos. In the study, there’s a poison-dart blowgun that killed two hundred monkeys, given to the PM in Malaya during his recent world tour. He also has a lighter mounted in a kangaroo's foot from Australia and a screen carved out of ivory given to him by India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. One of his favorites is a key, dipped in gold, belonging to the strong box carried on the stage coach into Dawson City during the gold rush.
It was presented to him last year in the Yukon. The photographs in the Diefenbaker living room, all signed by their donors, include the Queen and Prince
Philip, Princess Margaret. President De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and Governor - General Vincent Massey.
The many plaques, honorary degrees and diplomas Diefenbaker has received are hung in a basement games room. Their positioning is sometimes incongruous. A tablet from the Knights of Columbus hangs beside his Masonic Order, and a satirical notice that he is an honorary member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers is next to the august declaration making him a member of Great Britain's Privy Council.
In a glass-covered cupboard upstairs Diefenbaker keeps the gifts he has received since assuming office. As well as the medals, books and other tokens of esteem that he gets from across Canada, many of the packages that come to his home at 24 Sussex Drive contain perishables. A merchant in Welland, Ont., sends him Kosher cookies. A farmer’s wife front Mundra, Alta., asked him to try her strawberry preserves last summer. He gets maple taffy from Levis, Que., and summer sausage from á farmer at Leroy, Sask. An Edmonton housewife thanked him for raising old-age pensions and enclosed a lottery ticket, wishing him luck. It was returned, with reciprocated wishes of good fortune.
During the fishing season a dozen or more iced salmon a week arrive at the Diefenbakers. Some are eaten, the rest sent to the Salvation Army in Ottawa. Diefenbaker’s mail also includes the occasional request. One collector of salt and pepper shakers in Elk Point, Alta., asked him for a set to add to his collection. He was turned down. While he accepts most of the knickknacks he receives, Diefenbaker carefully avoids valuable gifts that might establish a sense of obligation. Before his world trip a Montreal lawyer sent him a leather suitcase. It was returned, as was a gold-plated caring reel presented by a U. S. manufacturer.
While he finds it increasingly difficult to find room for the mounting number of souvenirs he has gathered, Diefenbaker remains determined to expand his Macdonald collection. His best source for tracing more of Sir John A.’s relics is Mrs. Isabella Mary Gainsford, Macdonald’s granddaughter. Now eighty-two, she is the only living daughter of Macdonald’s son Sir Hugh John Macdonald, who was premier of Manitoba in 1900. She lives with her son Hugh, an inspector for the Manitoba Liquor Commission, in a home on Winnipeg’s Lanark Street that contains many of her grandfather’s things, including a dinner set. Diefenbaker sees Mrs. Gainsford whenever he’s in Winnipeg. Although he has never asked her for any Macdonald objects, she told Maclean’s: “1 have a few spoons 1 could lei him have.”
Despite Diefenbaker’s obsession with Sir John A. Macdonald, his most prized possession has nothing to do with Canada’s first prime minister. It is instead the memento of a parliamentary debate in which he participated on July 27, 1944. His thirty-minute speech had supported the family allowances proposed by Mackenzie King, but attacked the measure on constitutional grounds.
In an ivory frame, hanging above Diefenbaker’s bed, is a scrawled note. “My dear Diefenbaker,” it reads. ”1 thought you made an exceedingly good speech this p.m. As you know, I do not share your view of the constitutionality of the measure, but I doubt if a better presentation could have been made. I am pleased to join with your friends in a word of congratulation — King.”