The mixed legacy of a great prime minister -- Diefenbaker

Dief's record looks a lot better today than it did at the height of his reign

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Diefenbaker Canada Centre, on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in Saskatoon, is the final resting place of Canada's 13th prime minister, as well as his living memorial.

Stephen Harper was there the other day to check out the recreation of John Diefenbaker's office and cabinet room in the East Block on Parliament Hill.

The 22nd prime minister was also there to cut a cheque for $1.3 million of infrastructure money to renovate and upgrade the Diefenbaker Centre, which also houses the school of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan. The university is booming, with dozens of Canada Research Chairs, and more construction cranes than the entire Montreal skyline.

The creation of the Diefenbaker Centre was Dief's legacy project in the last decade of his life, when he was chancellor of the university from 1969 until his death in 1979. The centre is unique in that it was obviously modelled on the presidential libraries in the United States and is still the only one of its kind in Canada. No other Canadian university commemorates the life and times of one of its own who became prime minister, and more's the pity.

The occasion in Saskatoon was the 30th anniversary of the Diefenbaker Centre and 50th anniversary of Diefenbaker's Bill of Rights. I was there as a donor of the copper plaque replica of the Bill of Rights, which the Conservative caucus presented to Diefenbaker on his tribute night at the 1976 Conservative leadership convention.

Diefenbaker gave it to Tom Van Dusen Sr., a devoted member of his staff and author of The Chief, a biography that was a good deal more sympathetic than the prevailing wisdoms of the day.

It hung in Van Dusen's Parliament Hill office until he retired from Brian Mulroney's staff in 1989. I was then Van Dusen's son-in-law and he gave it to me, and it hung in my office in Ottawa and later at the Canadian embassy in Washington. After several moves, it went into a box in my basement. In the last year it has been splendidly restored by art curator Anita Henry in Montreal and has finally found its proper home, thanks to Peter and Janice MacKinnon of the University of Saskatchewan.

Diefenbaker's policy legacy looms larger in retrospect than it might have in his lifetime. It isn't that he has been neglected by historians so much as dismissed by them as the temperamental leader of a dysfunctional government. It didn't help his case that the historical template was set by Peter Newman's poisonous biography, Renegade in Power, a signed copy of which, dedicated to Dief, is displayed under glass at the centre.

Diefenbaker is remembered as a towering rhetorical leader, in the House and on the hustings, but his substantial legacy is mixed. Yet if Diefenbaker's achievements are considered as part of a continuum, the Bill of Rights being one example, he emerges as a very important prime minister.

While the 1960 Bill of Rights did not have the entrenched constitutional character of the 1982 Charter of Rights, many key provisions of the Charter were first articulated in the Bill of Rights.

More than a decade before official bilingualism, Diefenbaker made government cheques bilingual, and introduced simultaneous translation to the House of Commons.

The themes of diversity and empowerment were found in the appointment of the first woman, Ellen Fairclough, to Cabinet. He gave aboriginal Canadians the right to vote without losing their treaty status. When Mulroney campaigned against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, using the Commonwealth as his platform, he was taking a page from Dief, a quarter century earlier.

Diefenbaker's appointment of the Hall Commission, led by Saskatchewan Judge Emmett Hall, was a landmark that led directly to medicare.

The Glassco Commission reshaped the organization and administration of the federal government. The Bladen Commission led to the Auto Pact.

A decade before Pierre Trudeau's recognition of Red China, Diefenbaker opened the door with wheat sales.

And then there was his northern vision, with its Roads to Resources program. Half a century later, Harper has made Arctic sovereignty, sustainable development, and the autonomy of northern peoples a centrepiece of his policy agenda.

And if Diefenbaker was ultimately defeated over his decision not to deploy nuclear missiles, it is a fact that half a century later no Canadian politician would ever advocate nuclear weapons on Canadian soil.

Twenty-four years ago this week, for the unveiling of Dief's statue on Parliament Hill on his birthday, I worked with Mulroney on his remarks, with some help from Tom Van Dusen.

I remember the closing line well, and it stands the test of time: "For his life, we are a better people, living in a better land."

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