Next Monday the Herald begins a five-part series on Diefenbaker's vision of Canada
Fifty years ago, the cornerstones of Canadian identity were about to be laid.
Tory Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker, who had in 1958 won what is still the largest majority government in Canadian history, was out. Newly elected Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and the Liberals were in.
© Library and Archives Canada
John Diefenber was Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963.
In the election campaign, Pearson had promised Canadians a new flag. The Maple Leaf flag would be adopted in 1965. Universal health care would follow in 1966 with the Medicare Act.
As America’s war raged in Vietnam, Canadians increasingly saw Canada’s international role as one of peacekeeping. Canada’s navy, army and air force would be merged in 1968, and the services’ traditional uniforms, rank titles and insignia would be abolished.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would significantly reduce the country’s military capabilities, while greatly expanding the welfare state.
The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, established in July 1963, would lead to the Official Languages Act in 1969 and the Multiculturalism Policy in 1971.
The defining moment of this nation-building era came with the country-wide celebrations in 1967 to mark the 100th birthday of Canadian Confederation. It was a year-long party that induced national euphoria and inspired a new sense of nationhood.
Now, Canada’s 150th anniversary is just four years away. The Conservatives, assuming the next election returns them to power, hope to make 2017 equally monumental.
So does the CBC. This summer they, along with VIA Rail and Community Foundations of Canada, wrapped up “2017 Starts Now,” a series of conferences across the country designed to spark a conversation about Canada’s past, present and future and what the 2017 celebrations should focus on.
Author Yann Martel spoke at the Saskatoon conference in May.
“I was trying to think of the object that would best symbolize this country,” Martel said.
“And I thought of the chair.”
“A chair is something welcoming,” he explained. “We can sit on a chair.
“A chair is an open invitation. Isn’t that what Canada is, an open invitation? We have proved to be a remarkably open country, having moved from a narrow outpost of the British Empire to a vibrant, amazingly multicultural country.”
Whether there was anything in Canada’s past that Canadians could be proud of, Martel did not say, but he did say that the empty chairs would also symbolize “the many First Nations who were disregarded, lied to, disrespected, ignored on to death, while European settlers busily stole their land, wrecked their ecosystem and destroyed their civilizations.”
Canada is more than a chair, Diefenbaker would say
It is safe to assume that John Diefenbaker, if he were here, would insist that Canada is something more than a chair -- or the “world’s greatest hotel,” which Martel called the country in 2002.
As Leader of the Opposition from 1963 to 1967, and as a backbencher until his death on Aug. 16 1979, the MP from Prince Albert vigorously opposed just about every aspect of the new national identity that was being forged.
When Diefenbaker saw the Red Ensign replaced by the Maple Leaf flag, he saw a century of Canada’s history being erased. When he saw Canada being re-defined, first as two nations and later as a collection of many groups defined by their ethnicity, he saw Confederation being dismantled.
If, with Martel, one views the old Canada as a narrow colonial outpost and the people who settled it as heartless plunderers, then anyone who wanted to conserve the basic parts of it must be seen as reactionary, antiquated and probably bigoted.
Yet Diefenbaker’s compassion for all who were disregarded, disrespected and ignored, and his primal sense of outrage at their mistreatment, is the most remarkable thing about his life.
In the book Halfbreed, Métis author Maria Campbell recounted her own experiences with Diefenbaker, when he was an attorney in Prince Albert:
“He would represent anyone, rich or poor, red or white. If they had a case and had no money he would help.
“He helped us, and the important thing was that he did so when no one else would.”
Diefenbaker, a Saskatchewan pioneer, grew up with Métis and First Nations people.
“I felt it most unjust that they were treated as less than full citizens of Canada, that they did not have the vote,” he wrote in his memoir. “I promised that if I ever had the power to do so, they would be given that right.” He would make good on his word.
Diefenbaker feared for Canada's future
Diefenbaker’s proudest achievement was his Bill of Rights, enacted in 1960. It was the culmination of his life-long quest for “One Canada,” where Canadians would no longer hyphenate themselves into ethnic tribes.
But Diefenbaker was worried that Canada in the ’60s and ’70s was more disunited than ever and that its democratic institutions were in decline.
He said in 1974: “I contend that unless we caught something of the spirit of the United States in its relations to the millions of people who migrated there for freedom and equality for all, we could never hope for Canada to become a nation, strong, virile, powerful, however great our resources might be.
“For a nation without a soul can never lead upwards and forwards and give its citizens the pride that is necessary to be engendered in each and every one of the population -- the pride of belonging to a country.”