The last hurrah

Peter C. Newman May 28 1979

The last hurrah

Peter C. Newman May 28 1979

The last hurrah

Peter C. Newman

It ’s an hour before closing time and the Princess Café, a fluorescent-lit Chinese and Canadian food emporium on Prince Albert ’s Central Avenue, is nearly empty. A truck driver with a crew cut and knotty, walnut skin is talking to a kid in a Hawaiian shirt. In one corner sit three Indians with closed faces, not saying anything, just sipping giant Cokes, and in their silence you feel as though the fumes of their loneliness were leaking out of them.

The kid is talking politics. “I’m for Dief He don’t care about agreeing with nobody. He's his own man. ”

The truck driver leans into his coffee. “Yeah, ” he says. “Show John the grain, and he ’ll go against it. ”

It is the Tuesday night of the week before polling day and his tiny retinue of handlers is nervous. After all, this is the last rally of John Diefenbaker’s last campaign. Will the old man fill the hall, even with Peter Lougheed being flown in for the occasion from Edmonton? Can he hold his audience’s attention? Will he use the rally for one final, bitter assault on everyone in sight? Can he be trusted?

By eight o’clock nearly 400 supporters have filled the chairs and, suddenly, marching in behind a piper and the Alberta premier, comes the Chief. He looks like a slightly comatose veteran of the Boer War, but he can still change the temperature of any hall he enters, even this plastic ballroom of the Sheraton Marlborough Hotel with its red ceiling and crematorium cheerfulness.

This is Diefenbaker as icon. Canadian history on the hoof.

Lougheed is all tact and heart in his introduction, careful not to upstage the ancient warrior’s political swan song. There is a kind of forlorn elegance about the ex-prime minister, slumped on the platform, waiting his turn, trembling with age. But once he’s up, the blood rushes into his limbs. His voice is strong, his manner confident and, contrary to the fears of his own stagers, he performs with style and grace. Since he no longer feels the tug of distant politi0 cal wars, the brew of laughter is never = far from his lips. &lt

“They say I’m too old,” he bellows, f mimicking his Liberal and NDP oppo§ü

nents. “I’ll take those birds for a threemile race any time . . . providing they first agree to an examination [PAUSE] from the neck up!” (Asked later in private how he’s really feeling, Diefenbaker’s eyes twinkle as he confides: “Like a 20-minute egg [PAUSE] but the doctors scared the hell out of me. They

said I was as sound as a dollar.”)

He stands, right hand on hip, left forefinger pointing. The clipped participles and long, open vowel sounds lend his speech biblical cadence. His notes keep falling off the lectern, but it makes not the slightest difference. His train of thought seldom survives more than a


sentence. (“Where is Canada going? My friends, I never had a family. The one thing denied me.”) The galloping non sequiturs and fractured metaphors are, mostly, aimed at Pierre Trudeau.

He blames Canada’s horrendous inflation rate directly on the Liberal leader’s extravagances in refurbishing his official summer residence at Harrington Lake. (“When I was prime minister, we spent $25 a year. Olive made the curtains.”) Dancing out his joy with an energy born of gloating, he goes on to accuse Trudeau of approving secret loans to Idi Amin, showing little respect for the Commons (“Parliament is but a memory”) and of being arrogant. (“If Trudeau goes back, Canada ends.”)

The exaggerations grow tiresome, but his timing remains perfect. “There is nothing,” Diefenbaker drops his voice to confess, “nothing more lonely than being a former prime minister. Being the only one ...” The long pause reduces the room to hushed reverence. Then comes the punchline: “But after next Tuesday night, I’ll have company!” The good, windblown faces in the audience crack up, and one finely coiffed Baptist matron in front of me laughs so hard her hairpin pops out.

The electricity flows through his listeners. Other parts of Canada might be a political graveyard or minefield for him, but here they still love the old Chief. This is Diefenbaker Country, and will be, long after he’s gone.

His performance grows boring only when he insists on parroting an endless litany of his past manifestations of courage, almost including the time he didn’t flinch when he was getting a smallpox shot. The speech unrolls for 50 minutes, like some wild, finger-painted fresco. The climax comes when Diefenbaker recites the moving coda from his Bill of Rights.

There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

At 83, Diefenbaker retains two ambitions: to plant Prince Albert’s Diamond Jubilee flag at the North Pole and to outlast Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s 45-year record as a sitting federal MP.

In private, he is quietly preparing the pageant of his passing. He has set $100,000 aside for a disadvantaged children’s home in Prince Albert to be named after Olive, but his main preoccupation is with the details of his burial. After a state funeral in Ottawa, John Diefenbaker’s remains will be carried across the country to Saskatoon aboard a special, slow-moving train (“Just like Churchill’s”). Unyielding beyond the end, he has drafted one very specific provision for the ceremony: his casket is to be draped with the Red Ensign which he fought so hard to preserve as the flag of the country he loves.&lt£&gt