This is the second in a five-part series
He was not yet eight years old, but the young John Diefenbaker would never forget how the other schoolboys made fun of his name.
© Library and Archives Canada
"(Diefenbaker) seemed to combine the inspiring vision of the prophet, the burning sincerity of an evangelist, and the annihilating attack of a prosecuting counsel determined on the conviction of a monstrous criminal."
- Donald Creighton, "Canada's First Century."
“I used to get quite upset,” Canada’s 13th prime minister wrote in his memoir. “I felt that my forebears’ having been in Canada for so long a time made me a Canadian.”
Toronto in 1903 was extravagantly WASP-ish -- a centre of British Imperial culture -- and being Canadian was often identified with having English, Scottish or Irish ancestry.
On Aug. 15, 1903, the Diefenbakers boarded a train and departed for the Prairies, where they would meet many other people with names that would have been snickered at in Toronto.
Diefenbaker recalled the distinctly non-British crowd that he saw when they arrived at the station at Rosthern: Ukrainians in sheepskin coats, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, French.
The government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had been courting robust farming people to populate the Western frontier, an effort that led to an influx of immigrants between 1901 and 1913.
It was Diefenbaker’s experience as an outsider and a Saskatchewan pioneer that gave rise to his populism and his passion for individual rights, said Dick Spencer, who campaigned with Diefenbaker in his riding of Prince Albert from 1963 until Diefenbaker’s death in 1979, and served as president of the riding association from 1965 until 1979.
“Diefenbaker’s connection with these people was not just that he knew them, but that he identified with them emotionally,” Spencer said.
“He was one of them.”
As a boy on his familiy's homestead, Diefenbaker would help load a wagon with bushels of wheat, and often went along with his father to the grain elevator where, according to Diefenbaker, an unscrupulous elevator operator would almost always rip them off.
“I have never forgotten this exploitation of the Western farmer, the pioneer, by the great grain interests,” Diefenbaker wrote in his memoir.
While allowing for personal ambition, Spencer believes the main motivations that drove Diefenbaker into politics were “an early resentment” towards the Central Canadian elites “who were quite prepared to look at what was happening in Saskatchewan at that time and pay no attention;” and by a desire to help those who were ignored.
“He considered these people to be without advocates, and he was going to be their advocate,” Spencer said.
Not content with being one of the top defence lawyers in Saskatchewan, Diefenbaker ran in a number of elections until finally winning a seat in the House of Commons in 1940.
Canadian identity should have nothing to do with ethnicity, Diefenbaker said
Not long after that, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the Mackenzie King government to order the internment of ethnic Japanese Canadians. Diefenbaker was appalled. For him, this was personal.
“The situation was more or less similar to that prevailing in 1916 and 1917, when there was so much antagonism in our country against those of German birth and origin,” he wrote in his memoir.
I am a Canadian, a free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind. John Diefenbaker, House of Commons, July 1, 1960
During the 1925 election campaign, his detractors had labelled him a “Hun” -- a serious slur in the years after the First World War.
Diefenbaker had taken it as an opportunity to begin what he called his “lifelong attack on hyphenated Canadianism.”
“My whole purpose, from my university days, was to bring an end in this country to discrimination on a basis of race, creed, or colour,” he wrote in his memoir.
He recounted his speech on the hustings in Prince Albert: “They call me a Hun! … The only crimes they can pin on me are youth and German ancestry. Am I a German? My great-grandfather left Germany to seek liberty. My grandfather and my father were born in Canada.”
He later added: “I was not a German, not a German-Canadian, but a Canadian.”
In 1947, Diefenbaker introduced a private member’s bill calling for a Bill of Rights.
“Our political freedom is an abiding and a living thing,” he said the following year on CBC radio. That freedom “is part of our heritage” and is “founded on the sacredness and dignity of the human being,” he said.
But the King government had, since war time, departed from the “constitutional liberties of an individual guaranteed by habeas corpus, which, since 1670, has provided that no person shall be imprisoned without trial.”
“(I stand for) freedom maintained by the equality of every person in this country before the law,” Diefenbaker proclaimed.
That conviction was reflected in his policies as prime minister.
His government gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in 1960, and in 1961 removed racial discrimination from Canadian immigration policy.
At the 1961 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, Diefenbaker joined the Asian and African Commonwealth leaders to exclude South Africa from the Commonwealth because of its apartheid policy. The Bill of Rights was enacted in 1960.
Diefenbaker’s concept of “One Canada” -- “a wonderfully ambiguous phrase,” according to Spencer -- also meant equality between Canada’s regions.
Diefenbaker was the first prime minister to introduce economic development programs for Atlantic Canada and to have a vision for the North, University of Moncton political scientist Donald Savoie said.
“He saw Western Canada and Atlantic Canada playing a much more meaningful role, with not all decisions being made by Ontario and Quebec,” Savoie said.
The origins of indvidual liberty, minority rights and toleration
By the ’60s and ‘70s, however, Diefenbaker would be accused of being out of touch; people of non-British ancestry could not relate to his attachment to British symbols, critics said.
Ironically, Diefenbaker inherited that trait from his ethnically German father.
“When Queen Victoria died, Father regarded it as one of the most calamitous events of all time,” Diefenbaker wrote.
The attachment was emotional, but there were intellectual reasons for it.
“(Father’s) knowledge of British history was phenomenal, with particular emphasis, as I recall, on the manner in which freedom had been established.”
Diefenbaker spoke of that history in many of his speeches, including a 1963 address at Guild Hall in London, England.
“To be of London is to share in a stream of history that has enriched that quarter of the world’s population within the Commonwealth, and free men everywhere, with the heritage … of the common law, trail by jury and parliamentary democracy.”
The British political tradition must be central to “One Canada” because it is the very context in which minority rights and the principle of tolerance developed in the first place.