You could like John Diefenbaker. You could dislike him. But what a generation of Canadians could never do was ignore the man from Prince Albert. One of the most complex politicians to ever lead us, he served as prime minister between 1957 and 1963 and then went on to become perhaps one of the foremost and fiercest Opposition leaders Canada has ever seen. And long before his death in 1979, the father of the Bill of Rights and champion of ordinary Canadians had become a living legend. On this, the 125th anniversary of Diefenbaker’s birth, a group of distinguished Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and four of his predecessors, joined by the Conservative party’s new leader, Erin O’Toole, pause to look back on the life and legend that was John Diefenbaker.
“With nearly 40 years as a member of Parliament, including almost six as prime minister, John Diefenbaker dedicated his life to serving Canadians. Some of his decisions as PM still inspire us to this day and have shaped our country for the better. His government ushered in the Canadian Bill of Rights and granted the right to vote to First Nations, and he appointed the first female minister to cabinet and the first First Nations senator. Both my father and grandfather were in politics at the same time as he was, and I know they had mutual respect, despite political differences. They also had the same goal: make our great country even better.”
23rd Prime Minister of Canada
“Mr. Diefenbaker was a true House of Commons man. He spent a commanding 39 years as an MP, and whether serving as prime minister, leader of the Opposition or, after 1967, as a regular Conservative MP, Parliament was in many ways his true home. In debate, his performances were riveting, and I learned a great deal about the House by watching Mr. Diefenbaker on his feet in the Commons. We always enjoyed excellent personal relations because he saw me as a fellow House of Commons man who also believed in the importance of Parliament and the crucial role each MP, of all parties, should play in our system of government. Mr. Diefenbaker’s faith in and vision for Canada was unshakeable, and on this, the 125th anniversary of his birth, I am proud to recall our friendship and the great debates of the day we both participated in.”
17th Prime Minister of Canada
“One of Mr. Diefenbaker’s greatest legacies is the principled stand he took on behalf of Canada against South African apartheid. In 1961, at the London Commonwealth conference, he defied the British and others to spearhead, in a historic partnership with non-white Commonwealth leaders, the removal of South Africa from the Commonwealth because of that nation’s odious apartheid system. As a young Progressive Conservative, I had the privilege of being in the audience the very night Mr. Diefenbaker arrived back in Ottawa from this Commonwealth conference. His address to young Progressive Conservatives that evening was electrifying. We all took to our feet and cheered Prime Minister Diefenbaker, a leader who had made all of us so proud. Almost 30 years later, when I was prime minister, Nelson Mandela addressed our Parliament. During Nelson’s historic address, he made a special point of acknowledging Mr. Diefenbaker’s early role in fighting for South African freedom. There can be no higher tribute to Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s leadership than that.”
18th Prime Minister of Canada
“My father was first elected to the House of Commons in 1935, and Mr. Diefenbaker became an MP in 1940. As a result, the two of them faced each other across the floor of the House for decades. While both were strong partisans supporting different parties, there was mutual respect between them, representing some of the finest traditions in Canadian parliamentary life. This is a commentary about politics back then, in comparison with too much of the politics of today. Sadly, we seem to have lost some of the camaraderie between MPs of all parties that existed during the era when my father, Tommy Douglas of the CCF (NDP) and John Diefenbaker took part in vigorous debates, taking opposing sides of many issues of the day, always doing so with mutual respect. I doubt Mr. Diefenbaker, who truly loved Parliament, would be happy with many aspects of the House of Commons in recent years.”
21st Prime Minister of Canada
“The ancient injunction “let us now praise famous men” was coined for individuals like John Diefenbaker. Our 13th prime minister was a man of great passion, vision and extraordinary rhetorical power. He was also a Canadian patriot to his very core. Prime Minister Diefenbaker vigorously defended, throughout his long and storied career, the principles that are at the heart of Canada — the institutions of constitutional, democratic and limited government, and the equality of individuals before the law. Above all else, John Diefenbaker believed in freedom and that the essence of freedom was that law-abiding citizens should never suffer arbitrary intrusions into their lives from their government. These convictions inspired a generation of Canadians and continue to animate our national life today.”
22nd Prime Minister of Canada
“John Diefenbaker and I have a few things in common beyond being lawyers. First, our unwavering commitment to a strong Canada. And second, we both lost the leadership of the Conservative Party the first time that we sought it. We share something else. In his speech to the 1967 PC convention, Diefenbaker told convention-goers that he had been accused of being “too much concerned with the average Canadian.” He added that he couldn’t help it. After all, he was one of them. So am I. Dief was the first Conservative leader to turn his attention to the workers that were building Canada’s prosperity but not sharing in it. He appointed the first woman to cabinet and the first Indigenous person to the Senate. He also put our rights into law — the same ones that I defended every day in uniform. John Diefenbaker changed Canada. But it never changed him.”
Leader of the Opposition
During a time of uncertainty and international tension, Diefenbaker believed in the strength of a united Canada. He was fearless in defending our interests as a country, while bringing it closer together with meaningful actions like granting voting rights to Indigenous peoples and promoting diversity in his Cabinet and in Parliament. Above all, Dief the Chief will always be honoured as the nationbuilder who enshrined our fundamental human rights and freedoms in the Canadian Bill of Rights.
Compiled by Kingston’s Arthur Milnes, a veteran political speechwriter whose published books include studies of prime ministers Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Arthur Meighen, R.B. Bennett, Brian Mulroney and John Turner. Milnes has recently been appointed in-house historian at Kingston’s Frontenac Club Hotel.