Historians give Dief a bad rap

Fifty years after his election, Diefenbaker's legacy lives on

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 13, 2007

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the election, on June 10, 1957, of the minority Conservative government of John Diefenbaker, ending 22 years of Liberal rule and setting the stage for the Tory landslide of 1958.

While Diefenbaker isn't ranked among Canada's forgotten prime ministers, neither is he ranked among the best. A Policy Options panel of 30 public policy experts in 2003 ranked him sixth among nine PMs in the previous 50 years, behind Pearson, Mulroney, Trudeau, St. Laurent and Chretien, and ahead of only Clark, Turner and Campbell.

The 50th anniversary of his election provides an opportunity for reflection, if not revision, of Dief's standing among PMs. Call it Dief, reconsidered.

For starters, Diefenbaker did half his job in simply winning the election, breaking the back of a Liberal dynasty that had ruled without interruption since 1935, and providing the political alternation that is essential to any serious democracy. The Liberals had been in office so long that their campaign director said he would run their 75-year-old leader, Louis St. Laurent, stuffed, if necessary.

One of St. Laurent's lieutenants later said of Dief that the country was running so well it seemed anyone could run it, so the people elected anyone to run it. This famous put-down took no account of Diefenbaker's talent as the greatest campaigner of his generation. His slender minority of 111 to 104 seats in 1957, grew to 208 seats in 1958, the biggest landslide in Canadian history. Thus, the stage was set for what the CBC's Cameron Graham, in a memorable documentary series, called The Tenth Decade. The Diefenbaker-Pearson years, a time of parliamentary turmoil, were in retrospect an era of significant achievement.

Although Pearson deservedly gets most of the credit for historic initiatives such as the auto pact, medicare and the Canada-Quebec pension plans - not to mention the adoption of the Canadian flag - Diefenbaker deserves some of it, too.

Indeed, the Diefenbaker-Pearson decade stands as a reminder that economic and social policies are often a continuum of one government to the next. For example, the Liberals negotiated the NORAD continental defence pact before leaving office, but it was Dief who signed on to it. It was Pearson who signed the auto pact with Lyndon Johnson in 1965, but it was a Diefenbaker-appointed royal commission on the auto industry that paved the way for sectoral free-trade in automobiles, itself the forerunner of the Free Trade Agreement in 1987.

Pearson was the father of the national health-care system, but Dief was the forerunner with his appointment of Emmett Hall, the Saskatchewan judge whose royal commission recommended it.

And there was Diefenbaker's 1960 Bill of Rights, which set the stage for the Charter of Rights in 1982.

Then, with his Northern Vision, Diefenbaker was the first prime minister with an agenda of Arctic sovereignty. The vision was largely unrealized, but he understood the emotional attachment of Canadians to a part of the country most of them had never seen, and Arctic sovereignty is now a basic test of any prime minister asserting Canada's territorial claims and sustainable development of the North.

There were also significant firsts on Dief's watch, including the first female cabinet minister (Ellen Fairclough) and the first black member of Parliament (Lincoln Alexander). Other firsts include granting the vote to aboriginal peoples and his strong stand against apartheid in South Africa on which another Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, would follow up.

So why, if Dief was such a spellbinding campaigner, and had at least a part of many historic initiatives, is he so easily consigned to the second rank of prime ministers?

Well, largely because of the perception he bungled the two most important files on any PM's desk - federal-provincial and Canada-U.S. relations. He didn't see the Quiet Revolution coming in Quebec, and when it came, he didn't know what to do about it. And he clashed with President John F. Kennedy over Canada's refusal to install nuclear weapons on Bomarc missiles as it had agreed to do.

Yet in the longer view, his government proposed a constitutional amending formula, later known as Fulton-Favreau, that became the standard for two decades of discussions between Ottawa and the provinces. And Canadians today would probably agree with his no-nukes stance.

And finally, he won. That was, indeed, half the job. Just ask his successors, Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper.

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