In 1969 and 1970 Denis Smith tried to work with John Diefenbaker on the preparation of his memoirs. His efforts were frustrated. The three volumes of Diefenbaker's banal and unreliable One Canada came out with the assistance of a different amanuensis, from 1975 to 1977. The quarter-century that has passed since Smith abandoned his first effort to set down the Diefenbaker record has allowed the writing of an altogether different class of book. Coming out shortly after Diefenbaker's one-hundredth birthday, Rogue Tory is finely written, thoroughly researched, superbly organized, and scrupulously fair. It rivals Donald Creighton on Sir John A. Macdonald as the best biography of a Canadian prime minister.
Smith came to Diefenbaker as something of an academic Red Tory and nationalist. After giving up on him, he published three other books. Bleeding Hearts.Bleeding Country (1971) is an impassioned attack on Trudeau's handling of the October Crisis, and more broadly on Trudeau's anti-nationalism, which, Smith argues, led to the invocation and abuse of the War Measures Act. At the time, he was one of the many English Canadian intellectuals who expected Quebec to become independent within a decade. Gentle Patriot (1973) is a very sympathetic study of an alternative nationalist hero and a distinct failure, Walter Gordon, who co-operated fully with Smith, making his papers and draft memoirs available (before publishing the memoirs himself in 1977). In Diplomacy of Fear (1988), Smith looked in early Cold War diplomacy for the roots of Canada's dependence on the United States. But as a careful and honest scholar, he could only find Canada playing a creditable role as a bridge between Europe and America in the founding of NATO.
By the time he returned to Diefenbaker, the national issues on which his government foundered could be seen in a long historical perspective. Smith writes without bias and his account of Diefenbaker is clear and balanced.
And yet the paradoxes of Diefenbaker's career remain. By some measures he was an enormously successful politician. His 1958 sweep will likely remain the greatest general election victory in Canadian history. He was the first Conservative leader since Macdonald to lead his party to victory in three general elections. Even after the collapse of his government in 1963, he was able to win a plurality of seats in English Canada and keep the Liberals from a majority in two more general elections. But by any measure he was an unsuccessful prime minister, letting his government drift from the easy generosity of his first minority government in 1957 until its melodramatic defeat in the House of Commons in 1963. He was resentful, paranoid, a cultivator of enemies, and he had a low regard for the truth. Despite his failure and his real nastiness, he was never hated by Canadians as several of his predecessors and at least two of his successors have been. His memory has been fading, but it has generally been affectionate. Smith tries to resolve the paradoxes by distinguishing between the man and the legend: the man a disappointed failure, the legend a triumphant underdog. But the man and the legend were one. It was because he saw himself as an underdog and resolved early to obtain triumph that he was capable of such bitterness and destined to fail.
Diefenbaker had a rootless childhood, his family occupying at least nine different homes in Ontario and Saskatchewan before he was fifteen. His father seems to have had an undistinguished career as a teacher and was an unsuccessful homesteader. Diefenbaker described his mother as "the much more determined personality". Smith suggests that she was "dour, intimidating, prejudiced, ignorant, and wilful". Such an unsettled childhood would naturally set him out on life as an outsider. His only early bond was with his ne'er-do-well younger brother Elmer, to whom he remained loyal and who fully, if ineffectually, repaid his loyalty until Elmer died. His sense of himself as an outsider remained with him throughout his life and was at the root of his ambition. He seems also to have conceived a resentment of those more fortunate than himself from earliest childhood. He and Smith see in this the root of his populism and such sense of social justice as he had, but it seems to have been an largely negative sentiment.
Smith demonstrates that Diefenbaker's story of being invalided from the army as a result of an injury from a trenching tool while training in England was a lie. He speculates sympathetically that he suffered from a psychosomatic illness. He had enlisted for officer training in April 1916 and sailed for England in October. He seems to have had plenty of time for sightseeing and going to the theatre in London before returning to Canada in February 1917.
Called to the bar in 1919, he set up practice in the village of Wakaw, midway between Saskatoon and Prince Albert. He was able to make a decent living, buying the first of a series of smart new cars in 1920, and, more importantly, making a name for himself. He moved his practice to Prince Albert in 1924. He was not a brilliant lawyer. But in the prairie world of the twenties, lawyers were held in respect and any substantial trial gained some public attention.
Diefenbaker's father was a Liberal. How he became a Conservative is unclear. The Liberals were apparently interested in recruiting him as a candidate as late as March 1925. But by August of that year he was the Conservative candidate for Prince Albert for the general election expected in the fall. Conservative prospects in Saskatchewan were poor, as his five political defeats before his election to the House of Commons in 1940 (but not yet for Prince Albert) confirmed. Perhaps chance and personal contacts made him a Conservative. He never liked being called a Tory. Both parts of the title of Smith's book would annoy him. He may have sensed that his long-term prospects in the weaker party would be better. This proved true. As a Liberal he might have made it no further than the provincial cabinet. He was never a party man and beyond his rhetorical populism had no discernible political convictions. When he finally ran successfully in Prince Albert in 1953, it was practically as the candidate of the Diefenbaker Clubs, though he was officially the Progressive Conservative candidate. He demanded unreserved lifetime loyalty as the party leader. But he was a loner in the caucus before he became leader and secretly relished Tory failure when he was no longer leader.
What he loved in politics was the rhetorical combat in campaigning and the House of Commons, and the recognition exemplified in mainstreeting. His career is full of tales of rousing campaign speeches and devastating attacks in the House of Commons. Even as prime minister his successes in the House were attacks on the opposition. Election campaigns revived his spirits after the crisis of 1963 and after two years of fractious opposition in 1965. The legend says that he was a great orator. But there is no Diefenbaker speech worth reading. He was incapable of the substance, eloquence, and force of Meighen, whose speeches collected in Unrevised and Unrepented are still eminently readable. His most important speeches were often put together from scraps from his staff and his own jottings. He was not well-read. An old-fashioned education and a few good books at home were enough to give him a sense of the grand style. Trial advocacy developed a kind of theatrical talent. He had a sense of his audience and was quick-witted and shameless. This was enough to equip him to capture audiences when the public still went to political meetings in the hope of being given a good show. By the sixties and seventies he was an anachronism and even a figure of fun, but he could still entertain.
His long record of defeats might have discouraged someone less determined and more interested in government than campaigning. But he was still relatively young and established himself in both local and national Conservative circles. Perhaps his most bitter defeat was as the forlorn leader of the provincial Conservatives in the Saskatchewan general election of 1938. He could only field candidates in twenty-three of fifty ridings and the party took only twelve percent of the popular vote, coming fourth behind the Liberals, the CCF, and the Socreds. He complained at the lack of support from the national party and Eastern Canadian business-an odd complaint: transfers from national parties and out-of-province contributions are now illegal in most provinces.
In the small Conservative caucus from 1940 to 1956 and in his 1942 and 1948 leadership campaigns, he was able to make himself into a national figure. He was, despite widespread reservations in the party, the natural successor to George Drew when he resigned in 1956. How far he was necessary to defeat the Liberals in 1957 it is difficult from this distance to judge. Their defeat was not expected, but after twenty-two years in power, under an aging prime minister and under the impact of the Pipeline Debate, the time might seem to have come. What cannot be doubted is that the triumph of 1958 was Diefenbaker's. The extraordinary enthusiasm whipped up by his campaign-people swarming to touch him and breaking down the doors of halls to hear him-was all for Diefenbaker.
Having won the highest prize in the game to which he had given his life, Diefenbaker had no idea what to do with it. He was a telling example of the general problem of democratic politics: that the contest by which our leaders are chosen neither attracts nor produces leaders. He enjoyed his foreign trips and greeting foreign visitors. He made countless speeches and collected dozens of honorary degrees and various other honours. When it came to the real work of government he wanted to do good but had little idea what to do. He simply drifted along when he was not distracted by prejudice and suspicion or paralysed by conflicting opinions.
His interest in "the Vision of a New Canada of the North" went little beyond its rhetorical usefulness in the 1958 election campaign. In the minds of his young economics adviser, Merrill Menzies, and his Northern Affairs Minister, Alvin Hamilton, it promised an active big-spending government investing in the infrastructure of the North. Some roads were built to resources. But for good perhaps rather than ill, Diefenbaker was not interested in supporting the vision against the advice of a fiscally conservative cabinet. Piecemeal, politically pragmatic freehandedness and a recession left him with little margin for spending on the vision.
Diefenbaker was characteristically proudest of his introduction of the Canadian Bill of Rights. It was more a piece of rhetoric than legislation. Had it not been superseded by the Charter, the ambitious and increasingly ingenious and disingenuous courts might have made something of it. Its status as simply one statute of Canada among many meant that it could never have had an important impact. Diefenbaker was not interested in the political complications of trying to make it a constitutional enactment. Bora Laskin and F. R. Scott suggested that it could be added to the British North America Act by Westminster on the request of the Parliament of Canada, thus making it binding on the national government and Parliament, but even this relatively simple proposal was ignored. Whether or not some vague regard for the sovereignty of Parliament made Diefenbaker reluctant to subject it to the supervision of the courts, we cannot know. He does not seem to have thought about such issues. Tens of thousands of copies with his corny "I am a Canadian" pledge over his signature were distributed across the country and he was content.
He was reputed to be a great man for rights. As a criminal defence lawyer, rights were tools of his trade, though not so much as they have become since the Charter. Beyond that rights were for him little more than rhetoric. He accepted with complacency the RCMP's arbitrary purges of the civil service on security grounds. In his attacks on the King government's use of orders-in-council to deport Japanese Canadians and in the Gouzenko affair, his concern was as much for the rights of Parliament as for the rights of individuals. The constitutional, legal, and, still more, the philosophical issues through which rights have developed were simply beyond his interests.
Nor was he interested in economics. A big deficit was a political embarrassment (though not as much as a tax increase), but he was always vulnerable to political pressure for spending, particularly from farmers. The chief economic controversy during his time as prime minister was most significant politically. Nearing the end of his term, the Liberal-appointed governor of the Bank of Canada gave a series of speeches vaguely outlining a comprehensive and mildly nationalist economic policy implicitly critical of the government. It is usually supposed that Coyne and the government were at odds over monetary policy. But while some ministers wanted easier money, as some always do, Diefenbaker and his finance minister, Donald Fleming, never did quarrel with Coyne's monetary policy. As Coyne's speeches became a political embarrassment, however, the cabinet resolved, with less than a year left in his seven-year term, to get rid of him. It fixed on his pension arrangements as a ground for his dismissal implying that he had taken advantage of his position for personal gain. A one-sentence bill was introduced in the House of Commons declaring the governorship vacant. The debate in the House, led by Diefenbaker, was vitriolic, with Coyne from the sidelines demanding a public hearing and describing Diefenbaker as the evil genius behind the affair. Blunderingly refusing to have Coyne before a Commons committee, where a Conservative majority could have grilled him, the government left him the chance to appear before the Liberal-dominated Senate Banking and Finance Committee like a victim of persecution. The whole Senate defeated the bill and Coyne immediately resigned claiming vindication. The government suffered severe political damage. Diefenbaker's suspicion of Liberals and vindictiveness contributed to turning an embarrassment into a disaster.
Some embarrassment over his German name made Diefenbaker a genuine advocate of unhyphenated Canadianism in One Canada. Those who would be loyal to him, of whatever sort or condition, were his friends. Those who would not were his enemies. He had no other discrimination. This was the best of him. His ultimate success opened up Canadian politics. But his legacy has been largely subverted by multiculturalism. Hyphenated Canadianism is now practically required by law.
Diefenbaker had one prejudice, against what he would call Bay Street Tories, a mixture of his personal resentments and Western alienation. The myth of the Bay Street Tories was largely a Liberal creation: Bay Street, being nothing if not opportunist, was largely Liberal. Diefenbaker's prejudice would not allow him to see-or draw upon-the variety and popular appeal of Ontario Conservatism. And so, he cut himself off from potential support.
He still has a reputation as a nationalist done in by the continentalist Liberals with help from Washington. As such he figures as the hero of George Grant's Lament for a Nation. Smith effectively demolishes the myth. Diefenbaker had a real attachment to the Crown and the Commonwealth and other un-American traditions. He could not make much of these and raged against their decline in the flag debate. He was not paranoid about creeping republicanism. It was a
conscious policy, as Pearson admits in his memoirs. But Diefenbaker was not naturally anti-American and as a staunch anti-communist accepted American leadership of the Western alliances. Within days of taking office his government had approved the extension of an agreement allowing US aircraft to carry air to air nuclear-armed missiles while flying over Canada. Within weeks it had approved a joint operational air defence command in NORAD making Canada the junior partner in the joint defence of its air space.
The crisis that led to the defeat of his government in 1963 did not result from a refusal of Diefenbaker to countenance nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. That was a position he only affected in the rhetoric of the 1963 election campaign. It was his failure to decide, and his inability to lead when the cabinet was divided over whether to take the nuclear warheads to which the purchase of the BOMARC missile had already committed Canada, that led to his fall. Any decision he might have taken would have lost him a couple of ministers. Any decision could have been defended. Indecision left him vulnerable. Though leader, he could not lead.
Diefenbaker liked and admired Eisenhower. He was a certified great man, the sort Diefenbaker thought should be his friend. Kennedy was just a successful American politician and everything was against their getting on: on the one side, age, insecurity, and a humble upbringing; on the other, youth, self-assurance, and a background of wealth and power. To make matters worse, by 1963 Canadians preferred Kennedy's style to Diefenbaker's. The anti-Americanism of his 1963 campaign was badly timed.
His successes in holding the Liberals to a minority in 1963 and 1965, when his predecessors as Conservative leader never won more than sixty-seven seats in the general elections from 1935 to 1953, helped him cling to the leadership. They were campaign triumphs, as each time the Progressive Conservative vote on election day was more than ten percent above the polls when the elections were called. But Diefenbaker was helped by Pearson, who was a lousy campaigner and a weak prime minister. He handled the scandals that tarnished his government in its first years poorly. He got to Pearson, and the frantic ex-diplomat allowed the House of Commons to descend into partisan slanging, at which Diefenbaker and his close supporters were more than a match for the Liberals.
He seems never to have seriously considered resigning as leader. He floated the idea of resigning in the wild meetings of February 1963 as a means of embarrassing his opponents. However obvious the necessity of his retirement was after his 1963 defeat, he could not bear the thought of leaving the stage. Political drama had become his life. He would give it up when he died. The nastiness of the fight to get rid of him he brought on himself. The wonder is he could have had so many supporters to the end. That a seventy-one-year-old twice-defeated leader should have thought he had the right to continue indefinitely as leader was absurd (as even the teenage Sean O'Sullivan should have seen). All parties have taken care to provide for leadership review in their constitutions to avoid another Diefenbaker trauma.
What brought Diefenbaker down was his loss of Quebec. His fifty seats in Quebec in 1958 gave him a golden opportunity to restore the Conservatives in the province to a position they had not held since Macdonald's death. But Diefenbaker thought introducing simultaneous translation in Parliament and nominating a French-Canadian Governor General showed ample understanding of Quebec. He chose few and undistinguished ministers from Quebec and gave them minor portfolios. In choosing ministers outside of Quebec he had little choice but to include those who had risen to prominence before he became leader. As he put it to Ellen Fairclough: "It looks as if I shall have to form [the cabinet] largely of my enemies." He took his "enemies" from Quebec, Léon Balcer and Pierre Sévigny, but he never took the trouble to get to know his Quebec caucus and bring on its very considerable talent.
Dick Spencer met Diefenbaker first in 1963 when he was a young Prince Albert alderman and school teacher. He worked with him in the Prince Albert campaigns from then until his last campaign in 1979 and served as riding association president from 1965. Trumpets and Drums is partly a political biography of the mature Diefenbaker and partly an account of the local Prince Albert campaigns from Diefenbaker's first return to the riding in 1953. The sources are not always clear, but it is in part Spencer's own political memoirs and is used as a source by Smith for Diefenbaker's last years. Spencer writes well enough in a casual, rather pleased-with-itself style. The accounts of the local campaigns, the bulk of the book, are almost comically tedious. The campaign itineraries are run through again and again: Torch River, Codette, Nipawin, etc., etc., etc.: the numbers at the meetings are recounted; the banal ritual of mainstreeting is repeated: "Hi, John, remember me?" "Hello, hello, good to see you." We are told a lot about food: here, date loaf and cheddar cheese, there, buns with egg or salmon salad, always more ice-cream. The names of scores of campaign workers are recalled and they were all great characters.
What interest the book has is in the latter part, on the period when the collapse of his government and his ejection from the leadership brought out the worst in Diefenbaker. It was all betrayal and deceit and the diabolical Dalton Camp. This is the time when Spencer knew him. He became a young crony. He saw the worst of his idol, acknowledging that he wanted to hurt the party after his loss of the leadership and recounting his glee at Conservative losses in the 1968 general election. Even looking back fifteen years after Diefenbaker's death, Spencer cannot get beyond the emotional extremes of the divided party in the sixties. His opponents were nasty, yelping, young hyenas, cowards, and fools. Among prime ministers, Macdonald, Laurier, King, and Diefenbaker were in a class by themselves and Diefenbaker was the greatest of the four. Spencer asks us to take Diefenbaker as his own fantastic evaluation. With the whole sad band of uncritical loyalists, the only people who could long escape his enmity, Spencer encouraged his faults.
Ellen Fairclough's account of her years in Ottawa take up little more than a third of her memoirs. Though her place in history is as Canada's first woman cabinet minister, her account of her life as Saturday's Child, "who works hard for a living," in modest, provincial Hamilton, Ontario, is as interesting as her account of her years in Ottawa. She was a secretary, accountant, businesswoman, and municipal politician before her election to the House of Commons at forty-five in a by-election in 1950.
Her life as a minister seems to have been largely travel (a quarter of a million miles, mostly by train), speechmaking, and campaigning. Perhaps this is what she remembers best, forgetting the tedious days of office work. But like most of her male colleagues, she does not seem to have done much, partly because of the inertia of government and partly because there was nothing in particular she wanted to do. She served as secretary of state, the closest thing then to a minister of culture, with responsibility among other things for the Dominion Carilloneur, and instituted July 1st ceremonies on Parliament Hill. She was minister of immigration for four years during which immigration levels fell, as Europe became more prosperous relative to Canada and the government moved slowly to make education and skills the chief criteria for immigration. She became fairly cynical about the political pressures for and against immigration and would have preferred not to have the power to make exceptions to the rules at Diefenbaker's insistence or on the importuning of immigrants. She was postmaster-general for less than a year before the government fell.
Fairclough's experience of Diefenbaker was typical. She had been at odds with George Drew early in her political career, but they became good friends. She agreed with the other woman Tory MP, Margaret Aitken, not to support any leadership hopeful in 1956. Diefenbaker accused her of supporting Fleming and classed her among his enemies. He demanded her loyalty and got it. But she seems never to have been taken in by him. She was on the sidelines for the nuclear weapons debate in cabinet, prepared to go along with whatever consensus emerged. Shortly before the government fell, her brightest idea was for a Royal Commission on the Great National Purpose.
Diefenbaker's funeral was the grandest in Canadian history and was planned by him to confirm his place among the greats, not just of Canada but of the world. The Diefenbaker Centre in Saskatoon, next to which he is buried, is a unique effort in Canada to preserve a politician's memory and reputation. The supposedly anti-American Diefenbaker is the only Canadian to have something like a presidential library. But his memory is already fading. There is no ill will and some affection for him among those who first became aware of Canadian politics when he was waging his battles. His sense of drama at least made politics entertaining. He could be funny.
Smith's book will not be superseded. No significant sources have escaped his attention. He makes good use of the British and American diplomatic sources, which are insightful and generally fair. All the drama of his rise and fall is revived. The impression left in the end is of a rather shallow life and democratic politics reduced to posturing. The man is dead. The legend is fading. Denis Smith has found Diefenbaker's place in history.
John Pepall is a lawyer, writer, art collector, and former Tory candidate.