End game or not, John George Diefenbaker is still extant
Peter C. NewmanJanuary11973
ONE MORE WHIRL FOR A PRAIRIE POPULIST
End game or not, John George Diefenbaker is still extant
PETER C. NEWMAN
I went out to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, for a few days during that eccentric campaign last autumn to report on John Diefenbaker’s reelection; to discover what, if any, secrets might still be simmering in the smithy of his soul. I went, too, because it seemed like a good place to get away from the press buses, the handouts and the crowds. A place where you could still touch the country. But mostly I went because John Diefenbaker was once again in the political ring and I couldn’t stay away.
I found a candidate very different from the frantic Diefenbaker of the great national campaigns, those drawn-out public bloodlettings when success was measured not by victory but by survival. This was a relaxed politician, dancing out the joy of being back among his own people, the brew of laughter never far below the surface of his outrage.
The Diefenbaker Years of Canadian history seemed as distant as the Boer War, but the man whose name they bear was still running hard (because he knows no other way to run) and it was only his tight-faced competitors who failed to understand why, at the age of 77, he really had no choice. Diefenbaker’s life has been so exclusively channeled into his public role that clinging to existence means clinging to office. Watching him “mainstreet” the small prairie towns, hearing him talk to the farmers in the faded Legion halls, I could feel myself in contact both with the roots of his power and the reasons for his downfall.
The dilemma of most Canadian politicians seriously interested in office is how to stress their marginal differences so they can conceal their basic similarities. John Diefenbaker’s difficulty is exactly the opposite: his problem is somehow to make enough concessions to his nature so that he will sound enough like his less individualistic rivals. He sees himself as a man on his knees in a land of political midgets.
This campaign, his thirteenth, began as always with a nominating convention at the Orpheum Theatre, a converted
vaudeville house in downtown Prince Albert. Summer had one more week to run and half-a-dozen Indians dozed on the benches near the Hudson’s Bay Company fur depot on River Street. The combines were still out harvesting and Diefenbaker’s people worried about packing the 800-seat theatre.
But the Orpheum filled quickly that night as a seven-piece band called The Cottonpickers (MUSIC ANY WAY YOU LIKE IT) struck up a kind of Hawaiian gavotte then went on to play polkas and country rock. J. J. Cennon, a local radio personality, came on stage to warm up the audience: “Did you hear about Trudeau’s accident? He was taking his morning walk when he was hit by a motorboat!”
Here, in this draughty little theatre, Diefenbaker had first conjured up those grand visions that later claimed the emotional conquest of a decade. And now the man who had refused to sip Napoleon brandy with Winston Churchill, who had called General Eisenhower “Ike” to his face, and who had saved the Commonwealth by standing up against South African apartheid was reduced to this praetorian guard of hometown loyalists. Still, this was his army, and there was a rush of sheer happiness (that made you realize how rare joy is in crowds) when the barbaric evocation of the bagpipes heralded The Chiefs arrival.
But after eight nominating speeches, itemizing the Great Man’s glories, there was a bad 10 minutes as Bob Fair, a Saskatoon businessman, nominated his brother, Bill, as an antiDiefenbaker Conservative candidate. “The PC party has gone from a majority of 208 members in 1958 to a minority of 72 members at the present time,” he began. “What happened? Who was to blame? The Party? Or The LeaderV’ It was a chilling moment. Every eye in the house turned on John Diefenbaker and suddenly people were remembering all the tragedies, small and larger, that had cost their man his power, understanding a little of why he was being challenged here on his home ground by a spoiler, a young man / continued on page 51
DIEFENBAKER from page 26
impatient with the old man and his dreams.
Diefenbaker’s speech, the only major address of his campaign, was one of those impressionistic spectaculars in which he seems to become a figment of his own imagination. He is old, so old now, feeling his way toward the night of time, but the mercurial touches are still there. The half-smile, the devastating scorn for his opponents, the burning blue eyes mocking the pomposity of his performance. By alternating clipped participles with long open vowel sounds he achieves a Biblical cadence, the glancing immediacy of his language enforced by gesture. The right hand swooping down in accusing chops as the whole man sways to the melody of his words. “Why do I continue in public life?” he demanded, then answered his own question: “I still have work to do for Canada. So much to do. So little time to do it.”
The most curious part of Diefenbaker’s hour-long discourse was the listing of his accomplishments. He said, among the other things, that he was the only Canadian ever to be awarded the Princess Olga Medal from the World Organization of Ukrainians for Freedom; he said that he had been chosen an honorary chief by the National Indian Brotherhood; he said that the Canadian Zionist Federation had honored him and that the Free Baltic People of the World were about to do so.
But at the end he landed back in Prince Albert: “I’m asking you to mobilize. Let us march together to bring about the changes that you want. Ladies and gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart I thank you. My people residing in this constituency, I shall not fail you. Thank you. Thank you.”
The actual campaign began next morning. Word was out that they were going to get Dief this time. (They were always going to get Dief but nobody ever did because you can’t defeat a man who assesses himself at his own valuation.) Bill Berezowsky, of the NDP, a stocky, energetic socialist with a good, windblown face, put on the best campaign any candidate had ever run against the former PM. His initial slogan aimed at Diefenbaker’s age was GIVE YOUTH A CHANCE. Bill Berezowsky is 68. He campaigned so well that on election night Diefenbaker told him: “You scared the hell out of me.” But Diefs support cut so deeply across party lines that even in this ebbing time he ended up with a 9,678 vote margin.
Diefenbaker only left Prince Albert for five brief appearances in his supporters’ ridings; he made few formal speeches. One exception was a talk he gave to the students of the local Composite High School. He reminisced about his greatness (“I’ve lived history.
I’ve made history, and I know I’ll have my place in history. That’s not egoism”). He relived some of his great moments with his own reading of events (“President Kennedy sent one million dollars and 400 operators to defeat me in 1963”). Later he made fun of Pierre Trudeau’s contention that Otto Lang was Canada’s Greatest Wheat Salesman (“If Otto Lang had to cross a field with four cowpies in it, he’d manage to step in all of them before he’d make it to the other side”). But his greatest scorn was reserved for Trudeau himself (“I heard the Prime Minister. It was a four-letter word. It ended in ‘k’ and it wasn’t ‘work’!”).
Most of his time was spent meeting small groups of constituents. He seldom paused for conversation. He held open house with himself.
“If it wasn’t for you, Mr. Diefenbaker, Prince Albert wouldn’t be on the map
today, that’s what my dad says. . .” “Well, thank you, son, and how is your dad? A fine man. . .”
“How are you, Mr. Diefenbaker? I want you to know that I still carry the letter you sent me in 1957 when I was sick in the sanatorium. It sure helped me a lot. . .”
“Ah, that’s very kind of you. There aren’t many letters like that still extant, you know, not very many.”
To a bystander: “Isn’t it remarkable that in this violent age, I, a former prime minister, can walk around among all sorts of people with no bodyguard, no fear. Isn’t that remarkable?”
A hot politician in the age of cool, Diefenbaker is always in a hurry. Time pursues him. To cover the most territory in the shortest period he rented a helicopter to tour his riding. He descended from the sky through the autumn haze and people flocked to meet him. At Ethelton, with a population estimate of 12 families, 60 people were waiting. At Meskanaw, school kids were out waving a big Union Jack and Maple Leaf. The farmers drove in from four directions drawn by his presence, many still in their coveralls, a few of their ladies dressed up with crowns of small afternoon hats. Talking at first, they grew still as he landed, the chopper’s blades stirring up a
wind that blew about their faces, fluttering the hair of the women, making little jib sails of the vents in the men’s jackets. “We’d circle a little town in this damn helicopter,” said Dick Spencer, the local PC association president who rode along with him, “and I’d pull myself up and think, ‘Oh God, if you’re there at all make us a crowd,’ because I couldn’t bear to see Dief disappointed. Then I’d sit back and wouldn’t look at him till I’d checked the school yard and seen maybe 30 cars, which would mean maybe 60 people, and then I’d look over at him and the eyes would be sparkling and he’d be getting ready to speak.”
Talking afterward to some of the farmers who had met him — though touched seems a more appropriate word — I could see why John Diefenbaker still inspires such loyalty in most of western Canada — and why the Conservatives made such impressive gains here. What he understands so well is that there is only one issue that matters in the West: the idea of control. The Liberals, whether under Louis St. Laurent, Lester Pearson, or Pierre Trudeau, tended to equate the political satisfaction of the Prairies with wheat sales. Otto Lang, the former dean of the University of Saskatchewan Law School, appointed by Trudeau as the minister in charge of the Canadian Wheat Board, kept stressing throughout his campaign that prairie farmers would market at least one billion bushels of grain this year. The strategy failed because he never recognized what John Diefenbaker has known all his life: that wheat sales mark only the beginning of most farmers’ concerns.
There is money on the Prairies this year. Net farm income in Saskatchewan is expected to reach $616 million for 1972 and Ford dealers are reporting truck and car sales increases of 23%. But the farmers know, too, that in another year or so they may be poor again. (In 1970, Saskatchewan’s average net income per farm was $2,500.) They realize that their economic existence is governed by forces over which they exercise little control. That’s why the West has always needed champions (and not just wheat salesmen) inside the larger circles of power in Ottawa. And that’s why they love John Diefenbaker. As prime minister he granted them a measure of selfdetermination by sponsoring laws to help even the odds.
This is a land of long memories. During the Thirties Saskatchewan suffered the severest curtailment in material living standards of any area in the civilized world. The older farmers fear it can happen again unless they’re able somehow to gain control over their future. Basic incomes will always hinge on how the weather affects crop yields and no man can guarantee that. So when they continued on page 52
talk about control, Westerners really mean getting away from the stifling influence of the commercial, industrial and transportation interests of Eastern Canada which seem anxious to turn the Prairies into an exploitable hinterland. Westerners admire John Diefenbaker for the enemies they share: those nameless Eastern Interests who, looking down from their penthouses of power, always regarded the Man from Prince Albert as some kind of unfathomable electoral accident, a political street singer to be silenced.
As I talked to farmers, letting uncounted cups of coffee grow cold between us, they speculated about their lives. It is not envy they feel. They have little desire to emulate the slickness of the east, no wish to inhabit the smooth apartment towers that stab the sky around the great urban centres. It is
anger that fills their minds and resentment that motivates their politics. Not so long ago they were at the forefront of Canadian civilization. They won this country from the wilderness and now they have lost it to the moneyed navelgazers and midnight philosophers from Toronto and Montreal who never had to serve their harsh apprenticeships. The older generation mourns the decline of religious faith and is furious with Trudeau’s sacrilegious wisecracks. They regret the disappearance of simplicity, fidelity and all the homely virtues. They want to return to a time when people did a little business so they could socialize, not socialize in order to do business.
By helping them celebrate their past because he himself is so much a part of it, John Diefenbaker became a kind of thundering reminder of the Prairies’ missing alter ego. He moved through the
knots of farmers who turned out to see him, savoring the sights, the sounds and the smells of the land, looking into men’s eyes and women’s feelings, measuring their distances and their closeness, understanding their protection of each other, their sense of shared loneliness. His brief blessings didn’t bleach the color and meaning out of words, like the benedictions of most politicians on the stump.
Here was a rare communion of instinct. The old man living out his legend. The people responding to the spectacle of his presence with a deep folk wisdom that saw hini as a final link with their hopeful origins, a touchstone against the baffling present and the frightening future. And that was why the Diefenbaker magic, long a spent force in the rest of the country, still meant something here. ■
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