Bill of Rights: Dief’s gift long forgotten

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Sun Media, Friday, August 13, 2010

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the Canadian Bill of Rights.

Not the Charter of Rights, but the Bill of Rights proclaimed on Aug. 10, 1960.

John Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights.

No celebration marked the event on Tuesday, nor was much notice taken of it.

Which kind of makes the point that Diefenbaker is very much under-appreciated for his achievements as Canada’s 13th prime minister.

His greatest political contribution to Canada was breaking the back of a 22-year Liberal dynasty with a Progressive Conservative minority in 1957, followed by the biggest landslide in Canadian history in 1958. Dief provided the alternative that is the lifeblood of a competitive democracy.

He was reduced to minority status in 1962 before losing the 1963 election to Lester B. Pearson, whom he taunted and tormented for four years as leader of the opposition.

Diefenbaker remains the only Conservative leader since Sir John A. Macdonald to win three consecutive elections.

His policy legacy looms much larger in retrospect than it may have in his lifetime, in that it is part of an impressive continuum. So much of what he accomplished paved the way for what happened later, the Bill of Rights being an obvious example.

While it did not have the entrenched constitutional force of the Charter of Rights, most of the key provisions of the Charter — including freedom of speech and religion, and the right to life, liberty and the security of the person — were first articulated in the Bill of Rights.

The building of a civil society was the great passion of Diefenbaker’s life.

The themes of tolerance and empowerment are found in Diefenbaker’s appointment of the first woman, Ellen Fairclough, to Cabinet in 1957.

He gave aboriginal Canadians the right to vote without losing their treaty status. He named James Gladstone as the first aboriginal senator in 1958. Diefenbaker took important first steps on the road to bilingualism when he cut government cheques in both languages and introduced simultaneous translation to the House of Commons.

His appointment of the Hall Commission, led by Judge Emmett Hall of Saskatchewan, was a landmark — it led directly to medicare.

The Glassco Commission re-shaped the organization and administration of government. The Bladen Commission made recommendations resulting in the 1965 Auto Pact, forerunner of the Free Trade Agreement.

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

And then there was Diefenbaker’s Northern Vision, with its Roads to Resources program. Half a century later, his Conservative successor, Stephen Harper, has made Arctic sovereignty and sustainable development of the North a centrepiece of his policy agenda.

Diefenbaker was ultimately defeated by reneging on his pledge to accept nuclear weapons in BOMARC missiles on Canadian soil. Half a century later, no Canadian leader advocates nuclear weapons stationed in Canada.

In a 2003 ranking by Policy Options of the nine prime ministers of the previous 50 years, Diefenbaker was sixth.

Perhaps on this anniversary of the Bill of Rights, it’s a moment to reconsider his achievements.

If you look closely at his statue on Parliament Hill, he is holding the Bill of Rights.

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