Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

‘Not the usual Quebec-Ontario politician’: Historian John Courtney on John Diefenbaker, the prairie populist who changed Canada forever

00:00:00
Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with University of Saskatchewan professor emeritus and leading Canadian historian John Courtney about his must-read 2022 book, Revival and Change: The 1957 and 1958 Diefenbaker Elections.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by John Courtney, a decorated Canadian scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Saskatchewan, who’s influenced a generation of political science students and faculty members. He’s also the author of the 2022 book, Revival and Change: The 1957 and 1958 Diefenbaker Elections, which tells the story of the rise and fall of John Diefenbaker’s progressive conservative government between 1957 and 1963. I’m grateful to speak with him about Diefenbaker’s worldview, his governing record, and his legacy within Canadian conservative politics. Professor Courtney, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

JOHN COURTNEY: Oh, thank you, Sean. Nice to be here, and look forward to our conversation.

SEAN SPEER: There are so many questions to put to you, Professor Courtney. I probably have too many here. We’ll see how many we can get through, but let’s start with the government that Diefenbaker and his party ultimately defeats. The St. Laurent government was, according to contemporary political categories, quite a conservative one. It was hawkish on communism, conservative when it came to fiscal policy and the role of the state and the market economy, and traditionalist in its social outlook. How would you compare and contrast the Progressive Conservative party in this era? Was Diefenbaker to the Left of St. Laurent, or is that distinction unhelpful in understanding the role of ideas in the era’s politics?

JOHN COURTNEY: Well, let’s start with that last question first. I don’t think “Left” is particularly useful in a description of Diefenbaker in this case. I think a more apt one is a populist, a prairie populist as it turns out, and we can come to that later, but in terms of the great success of St. Laurent and before that, the Mackenzie King government, they were very much attuned to Canada. They were accommodative of various interests, whether they be regional or linguistic, and they were also very tightly tied to corporate Canada. They were close to corporate Canada, and corporate Canada was actually close to them because, let’s face it, the post-war economy in Canada really boomed.

There was an awful lot of construction, immigration, new investments in Canada. The job market was booming. That period from about 1945, ’46 at the end of the war until about 1956, ’57, and then you could see the clouds of the economy changing a little bit and heading into a recession, and that happened to coincide with the Diefenbaker period. But in terms of the Liberals, their great success was being able to judge what was appropriate to the moment. They were, in fact, very conservative. Although the Liberal title would suggest that they might be small L liberals as well, but in fact, they were much more conservative. They were hesitant to open up the public purse, for example. If they embarked on a new venture, they wanted to make sure they had money in the bank before they did that.

You can see that, I think St. Laurent, in particular, was very attuned to—let me put it this way—how fine the distinctions were amongst Canadians of various parts. He was a great accommodator. He was popular. Known as Uncle Louie in Quebec. He was also Papa Louie, so there was a great personal attachment to St. Laurent. He had personal popularity. He was in touch with what was going on in the country, but gradually they began to lose touch. They became more entrenched in their own well-being. 22 years in office, that’s a long stretch. Diefenbaker rode out of the West and brought that to an end in 1957.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to that election and then the subsequent one when Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives win a large majority government, but before we get there, Professor Courtney, I just want to talk a bit more about Diefenbaker’s political identity and the issues and worldview that animated him. A key part of Diefenbaker’s political identity was what one might describe as nationalist. His 1957 policy platform even spoke of “Canada first.” Where did his nationalistic worldview come from? What explains it, and how did it manifest itself in the way he thought and spoke about public policy?

JOHN COURTNEY: Diefenbaker was, without a doubt, a proud Canadian nationalist. That is almost oxymoron that he, in fact, saw himself as a proud Canadian nationalist. The roots of that, I think can be traced to possibly a couple of different elements. He was very fond of the British, and had a British connection. The flip side of that was there was a latent anti-Americanism, which eventually came to the fore with John F. Kennedy when he became president in 1960, ’61. In the meantime, Diefenbaker saw the British connection as being important. His own heritage was Scottish on his mother’s side and German on his father’s side.

Put that together with the fact that he lived and worked on the prairies for many, many years before he entered federal politics and you can begin to see something quite different in Canadian politics. He was not the usual Quebec-Ontario politician. He was from the West, which was largely an unknown and for that matter, untapped area. Other prime ministries had been from the West, Bennett and Meighen, and of course, notably Mackenzie King, but they were not of the West, whereas Diefenbaker was. His roots were distinctly prairie roots.

He grew up in a small town, practiced law in a small town, lived in a small city, Prince Albert. Around him were who people had come from all over Europe. I can’t think of a more polyglot situation than what Diefenbaker grew up with.

He learned the differences amongst Canadians and he saw one thing that held them all together and that is they were all Canadian. Not hyphenated Canadian, but Canadian. As a result, he was a strong proponent of what he called “One Canada.” Not a hyphenated, as I say, but a One Canada. That got made him very popular for a while, but also was part of his undoing when he failed to recognize, for obvious reasons, the growing nationalism of Quebec. That was part of his undoing five or six years later.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up, Professor Courtney, with a question about Diefenbaker’s focus on national development. The same 1957 platform that I mentioned spoke of a quote, “Positive national policy of development in contrast with the present negative, laissez-faire and haphazard one.” Do you want to speak about Diefenbaker’s economic nationalism and how it differed from the technocratic liberalism of the post-war era?

JOHN COURTNEY: Absolutely. Well, that’s a key, key point about Diefenbaker. Let’s recall what he proudly called himself. He was a Red Tory. He was not afraid to use the tools of the state. He felt the state had an obligation. In fact, in his own words, “The state has an obligation to look after those who were less well off and who need help from governments.” He wasn’t afraid to use the tools of the state. That was revolutionary given the 22 years of the Liberals. That was not the usual spin that the Conservatives, in Ontario especially, would’ve put. Think about the Old Tory party of Toronto that had been years and years and years in the wilderness—federally, I’m talking about not provincially—it was clear that he was breaking with traditions, not only with the Liberals but also within his own party and setting a new course, a new path for them. He advanced his own views of Canada as being One Canada.

SEAN SPEER: He also spoke of a sacred trust rooted in the vision of Macdonald and Cartier that seemed core to his own political identity. How did Diefenbaker understand the historical origins of his own worldview, and how did his conservatism ultimately tie back to Macdonald’s?

JOHN COURTNEY: Well, let’s begin with the simple fact, and that is Diefenbaker idolized John A. Macdonald. Among other things, he went out of his way to collect whatever he could in the way of artifacts that might have belonged to Macdonald, and that was a signal, actually, that he thought the world of him and would often make Macdonald the reference point in his speeches. Now, in fact, Macdonald, as we know in the 1870s, proposed and had adopted the national policy. Diefenbaker often spoke of the new national policy, and out of that came this link, over a hundred years or whatever it was at that point, to Macdonald—maybe 60, 70 years, back to Macdonald.

The fact that he was drawing on this very important economic development idea, which made it possible for Diefenbaker to say we need to open up the North. We need to look after regions that are less well-advantaged, Northern Ontario, Atlantic, Canada, parts of Quebec, and the Prairies. He linked this always to Macdonald and the idea that Macdonald was willing to use the tools of the state to put through a railway, for example. He often used the railway, by the way, in some of his speeches he would refer two or three times to the building of the railway and what he had in mind was opening up the North in a way that Macdonald had also built a railway.

SEAN SPEER: In reading the book and reading Diefenbaker’s speeches, Professor Courtney, one is reminded of the old body of thinking and scholarship concerning political economy, and in a way, I tend to think of Diefenbaker as a man of political economy. If we can continue down this vein about the world of ideas, I understand that the famous conservative historian Donald Creighton, wrote some speeches for Diefenbaker and it made me wonder. What was his relationship to the country’s intellectual class?

JOHN COURTNEY: That’s a double-edged sword. He had great admiration for some of the intellects you referred to, Creighton, George Grant, some of the others as well, and I think there’s no doubt about it, he was convinced that they were right in their understanding of Canadian history. Whether they were right or not is another matter, but Diefenbaker had a warm attachment to the president of the University of Toronto, a very distinguished lawyer, who was president for 15 years, Sidney Smith. He talked Sidney Smith into becoming his first secretary of state for external affairs.

Diefenbaker had held that position, by the way, for three or four months until he got Smith elected in a by-election in the fall of 1957. He was very close to him and sadly, for Diefenbaker and of course, for Sidney Smith, Smith died within a year or two of taking over in office. In that sense, he was close to academics, but I’m going to throw a wild card in there, and that is a man in his own cabinet, Diefenbaker’s cabinet, who was full of ideas. Now, he was also prepared to wrestle with the rest of them and the tug-of-war of politics, that was Alvin Hamilton. Alvin Hamilton was an idea man. He was spinning ideas. He was known in Ottawa as an idea man.

Now, you asked about intellectuals. He doesn’t fit the classic example of an intellectual, but he was full of ideas and the ideas paid off. For example, “Let’s sell wheat to China in 1960,” which was unheard of. The Western alliance was appalled to think that Canada was going to communist China and selling wheat. That was Alvin Hamilton’s idea. The idea to set up the World Food Bank in Rome in whatever it was, 1961 paid off enormously. In fact, 50 years later, the Nobel Prize was awarded to the World Food Bank for its work.

The establishment of ARDA, the Agricultural rehabilitation commission, which led to the Department of Forestry. The establishment of the road , which led to the Ministery of the Environment meeting. This is the first time that the environment was ever really introduced into the federal agenda, 1960, ’61, that was all Alvin Hamilton. I would say, although not a classic intellectual and certainly used to the rough and tumble of politics, he was nonetheless an idea man, and that paid off.

Now that’s on one side of the equation. The other side is that Diefenbaker had a distrust, which grew actually into a paranoia over the years, but a distrust of the public service. He thought they were a bunch of liberals, especially at the senior levels, and some of them may very well have been, but that’s not the point. It was the public service and he soon learned that he was at odds with some of them. He would doubt some of their advice, whether it was good or bad is not the point, but he became distrustful of the public service. I think for the average Joe, that was a clue of what you might call a latent anti-intellectualism on Diefenbaker’s part.

SEAN SPEER: That’s fascinating, especially given of course, that Pearson and other members of the Liberal parliamentary caucus themselves, come out of the federal public service. If he was in search of evidence to affirm, as you say, his growing paranoia, there would have been some staring him in the face in the House of Commons. Professor Courtney, early in the conversation, you described Diefenbaker as a populist. May I ask that you elaborate a bit on that descriptor? Why does it fit?

JOHN COURTNEY: First of all, there were very few populists in Canadian history. Certainly not in the same league as Diefenbaker. But a populist is someone who ignores traditional institutions, goes directly to the people, speaks directly to the people. It would be someone who, I would say, has powerful oratorical abilities, which Diefenbaker did in spades. There was no question about that whatsoever. Also, at the same time does not rely on traditional institutions. I’ll give you an example of that. Diefenbaker made his name in the country as a huge supporter, or advocate, I should say, of civil liberties going back to his early years in the legal profession on the Prairies.

Diefenbaker argued cases successfully right across Canada. He became a member of the BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario bars in order to argue cases. He was a powerful courtroom lawyer and out of that he developed this strong oratorical ability and that’s one of the characteristics of a populist, someone who ignores the institutions that stand in the way and is at the same time a powerful orator. Now, he was a good House of Commons man, but he didn’t make his mark. We tend to think that Diefenbaker made his mark in the House of Commons. He really wasn’t up there with some of the really great ones like Stanley Knowles and Davie Fulton and certainly some of the frontbench CCF and Conservative members at that time. He made his mark outside Parliament and, in a way, circumvented the traditional route of getting to the top.

Now, one other characteristic of Diefenbaker, which is really important, and that is understanding his populist roots. A populist is often seen as an outsider, as a loner, as someone who operates very much on his or her own, and that fits Diefenbaker to a T. He didn’t have the majority support going into the ’56, ’57 period, certainly ’56 leadership of the Conservative front bench. They were divided between Davie Fulton and Donald Fleming. He didn’t have the support of many of the backbench members of Parliament, but he had a huge public following.

With a delegated convention in 1956, he was able to tap into that, and he won handily with over 60 percent of the vote on the first ballot, simply because he had reached out to and could talk to Canadians right across the country and was able to bring them right into the Conservative fold. There’s that about it. A loner, someone who’s seen as an outsider who has got a way of connecting directly to the population through what I would call unmediated institutions.

SEAN SPEER: In today’s political discourse, there’s a tendency to think of populists as practitioners of a zero-sum politics, but a key part of Diefenbaker’s political success was a big-picture narrative that was aspirational, futuristic, and I would argue, positive sum. I love his Massey Hall speech from the 1957 election campaign, for instance, in which he puts greatness on the agenda. Do you want to talk a bit about Diefenbaker’s vision for the country?

JOHN COURTNEY: Here we’ve talked about Diefenbaker having great admiration for Macdonald, but he also had great admiration for Sir Wilfrid Laurier. He had heard Laurier speak once or twice when he was a child, and he was taken by Laurier’s advocacy of Canada. Remember it was Laurier who said the 20th century will be Canada’s century, and that made an impression on him. There is also a story that Diefenbaker’s father was actually a supporter of Laurier, so there was possibly a Liberal link at that point, but he was convinced that that would be manifested itself in one Canada. Let’s face it, that’s his consistent mantra, that’s his worldview of politics. “One Canada, we’re all the same.” For better or worse, that was what got him into office and got him out of office as well.

SEAN SPEER: That seems like a good segue, Professor Courtney, to turn from Diefenbaker himself to some of these broader political trends, including the 1957 and 1958 elections. As you said earlier, the Liberals were in office for the previous 22 years. What were the sources of the Liberal’s political success, and perhaps to ask it differently, what were the sources of the Conservative’s political failures?

JOHN COURTNEY: [laughs] I think I pointed out the success: tight relationship with corporate Canada, which paid off not only in money but also in also the contacts that they had, especially in Toronto and Montreal and parts of Ontario and Quebec. That was very important to the Liberal success. The Liberals, of course, they understood accommodation. They brokered Canada very well. They were a brokerage party, a classic umbrella party that took everybody in, and they brokered these various interests quite successfully. The Tories, on the other hand, were at odds with themselves, and they had been ever since the defeat of R.B. Bennett’s government in 1935.

In that period, from ’35 to ’56, they went through seven different leaders. That’s no way to build a successful political party. They were often at odds with one another over policies. Not some of the standard policies that you would expect. They were stridently anti-communists as were the Liberals at that point. They had a strong attachment to the Crown, but they only had 40 or 50 members of Parliament, and they were almost all from Southern Ontario, particularly Toronto. When you speak of the Toronto Tories, that’s really what the Conservative Party was federally.

Diefenbaker led a party in Western Canada in 1957 that was actually fourth in the polls. The Liberals were first, the CCF second, Social Credit, because of their dominance in Alberta, third, and the Tories were fourth. Diefenbaker instructed his speech writers and his advertising gurus never to refer to these third parties in Canadian politics because he said, as a fact, the reality that the Conservatives are really the third party out here.

SEAN SPEER: Oh, that’s fascinating. It’s a great contextual point before we get into the elections themselves. You’ve mentioned a couple of times, Professor Courtney, the importance of the notion of one Canada to Diefenbaker and his rejection of a hyphenated conception of citizenship. My sense is that that was a worldview that actually resonated a lot with first and second, and third-generation immigrants, which was ultimately reflected in the 1958 election result. Based on your research, how were Diefenbaker’s views on immigration received by immigrants themselves?

JOHN COURTNEY: The immigration question was really interesting because going back to time immemorial, actually, in Canada, the immigration policy was largely, almost exclusively White and almost exclusively European. Think of the fate of Asian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century in Canada, it was pretty grim. Very few non-European and non-American immigrants in Canada.

By the way, at the end of the Second World War, there had been a very large influx, not only of displaced persons from Europe, Hungarian refugees after the Hungarian Revolution but also of Italians in that period of ’46, ’47, for the next decade. This was largely driven by the fact that Ontario factories were starting to look for labour forces in agreement with the St. Laurent government to open the gates for Europeans, and especially, in this case, Italians. A lot of the Italian ancestry goes back very, whatever that is, 60, 70 years ago.

In fact, the immigrants viewed the immigration policy favourably, but this clashed with the Diefenbaker government’s view of immigration, which is to say if they were going be true to their own Canadian Charter of Rights, they had to open the gates to non-white, non-Europeans. This is where Ellen Fairclough, who, by the way I think is one of the probably unjustly ignored ministers in the Diefenbaker government, comes into play. She was a big proponent of opening the gates to immigration and she succeeded in that. We opened up the immigration doors and we allowed the first of the Caribbean, the African, the Asian immigrants, and we’re seeing that now, in spades, the consequences of that, and justly so.

The immigrants who came right after the war, or indeed the early waves in the Prairies in the early part of the 20th century, were having to make room for all kinds of new Canadians.

That was, I think, one of the legacies of the Diefenbaker government, which was the success of the immigration policy. It’s now based on point systems, and it’s much more refined than it was at the outset, but still, I think it’s an important point to make. Immigration was a success, and I think it’s one of the lasting legacies of the government.

SEAN SPEER: Professor Courtney, one question that I was keen to put to you from the moment we arranged our conversation is, how did Diefenbaker make such huge gains in Quebec between the 1957 and 1958 elections? If my memory served me correctly from the book, he goes from nine seats in ’57 to 50 seats, a majority of the seats in the province in 1958. Help us understand how he and the Conservatives do that.

JOHN COURTNEY: To understand why there were only nine seats in, whatever, 1957, you have to remember that this was a Conservative party that was not trusted, not liked, not voted for in Quebec ever since conscription was introduced in the 1917 election. The Tories would be lucky if election after election after election, they elected three or four members from Quebec, and they would all be Anglophone members from Montreal. Come 1957, they doubled their representation from Quebec, which was in itself rather remarkable, but then suddenly, nine months later, they shot right up to 50 seats out of 75, so they won two-thirds of the seats. The answer to your question is simply one word, Duplessis. The premier of Quebec, Union Nationale, had been, at one point in his early political career, a conservative and then had gradually he became more nationalist and established the Union Nationale party. That was the beginning of his long dominance of Quebec politics. He had a first-rate organization. He had close ties to the Catholic Church. He dominated most of the public debate in Quebec. He was ruthless in putting down some strikes by trade unions. He dominated the province, but he saw an opportunity as Diefenbaker was riding up in popularity from ’57 to ’58, and the Tories were really going up in the polls at that point.

’57, ’58, he saw an opportunity to get in on the action. That’s when he pulled out all the stops and put his organization to work, and they elected men. I don’t think there were any women elected from Quebec in 1958. I’m sure there weren’t. They elected men who had little or no knowledge of or attachment to Ottawa or to federal politics, but they were Duplessis men. That had dire consequences three or four, five years later when most of them went down to defeat at the hands of the rejuvenated Liberals under Lester Pearson and also this upstart guy from Northern Quebec, Raul Coette, who was in the Social Credit movement.

It was really Duplessis’s organizational skills that paid off, and Diefenbaker, I would argue, failed to take advantage of the opportunity to establish his party in Quebec. It was a golden opportunity, but Diefenbaker didn’t understand Quebec. He didn’t allow the Quebec members to caucus in Parliament to discuss issues of their own before they caucused with the Conservative Party. On and on, it just seemed to have little understanding. He spoke very, very poor French. It really is quite alarming when you hear his speeches in French, but it was a sign of the man that he was a true believer in this doctrine, his mantra, as I say, of One Canada.

Believe me, that had its dire consequences in Quebec when they went from 50 seats down to about 12, I think, in the ’62 election, and then fewer than that in 1963. His principal minister from Quebec, Léon Balcer, who finally quit the party over the flag debate in 1965, said, as he quit the Conservatives, “there is no room in the Diefenbaker party for a French Canadian”.

SEAN SPEER: How should we think about Diefenbaker’s policy record in office? Was he a successful prime minister, in your view? In addition to some of the other examples that you’ve raised so far, what would you characterize as his biggest accomplishments?

JOHN COURTNEY: Well, let me put it this way. I think it’s a very mixed legacy. The polls at the time show that Diefenbaker was not popular, which he wasn’t, and that he ranked near the bottom, if not the bottom of the post-war prime ministers in terms of public popularity. Pearson, on the other hand, ranked pretty well at the top. You’ve got this contrast between the two men, but Diefenbaker had certainly a mixed legacy. There’s no doubt about it. I think on the plus side, there were a few things that should be noted.

He started the ball rolling on making Parliament and making the cabinet and making public institutions more representative and more diverse than they had ever been before.

He appointed the first woman to the Cabinet, Ellen Fairclough, the first cabinet minister of Ukrainian descent, Mike Starr, from Ontario, and a number of different firsts that he made.

He also was instrumental in advancing the cause of First Nations People. He appointed James Gladstone, an Indian from Alberta, to the Senate in 1958. Gladstone was an acknowledged leader of the Indigenous community. Diefenbaker was very keen on advancing that.

He also, two years later, granted the last remaining group of Indigenous people to be denied the vote, that is status Indians, and he became very popular with First Nations. He was made an honourary chief of at least two, maybe three different bands in Canada. He also did a lot to rejig Federal-Provincial financial relations and we don’t really acknowledge this very much, but he really brought to an end the old tax rental agreement of the early war years. That was very popular with the premiers at the time. Some of them regarded it as Diefenbaker’s finest move—but of course, they have self-interest there—to make sure that there was more equitable Federal-Provincial financial relations.

He was a great defender of civil liberties, and that led him to the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960, which was approved by the Parliament. That was both its strength and its weakness because it was a parliamentary statute. Really it had no constitutional standing apart from simply an act of parliament, that’s all, but it is often seen and often described as a precursor to the Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms of 1982, I guess it was. You’ve got that on, but I would say one of his greatest legacies was making it obvious to Canadians that they stood for something that is not just domestically but internationally. This was his very principled stand against Apartheid in South Africa.

He joined with the group of non-aligned, often third-world countries in the Commonwealth in leading South Africa to withdraw. This is much against the wishes of the White prime ministers, such as Menzies in Australia and McMillan in Britain, but he broke with the other White prime ministers and advanced the cause of fighting Apartheid. As a result, years later, when Nelson Mandela came over to Canada and was made an honourary citizen by the Mulroney government and had spoken in Parliament, Mandela singled out John Diefenbaker as having put a light in the window and having made such a contribution to the ending of Apartheid. That’s a pretty great endorsement for my money.

Now, that’s on one side. On the other side, the Diefenbaker government fumbled the ball on many occasions. Trying to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada. It was misguided much in all as many economists and bank officials actually felt the policies that James Klein and the bank were following were completely at odds with the reality of the Canadian economy. Nonetheless, Diefenbaker and Donald Fleming pursued that and decided to go ahead and fire James Klein and they handled that badly. Also, I returned to the point I made earlier, his failure to understand Quebec, that’s in Canadian terms, egregious.

Let’s face it, I mean, we’re talking about 25 percent of the population, one of the founding nations of this country, one of the founding peoples, and Diefenbaker failed to acknowledge that. Thirdly, his distrust of the public service, his distrust of the media, his dislike of Kennedy and the Americans, led him to make several mistakes over the years. Most notably, his failure to respond as he should have under the NORAD agreement to the Cuban Missile Crisis by mobilizing the Canadian Air Force, as was supposed to be the case. I can certainly understand the frustration on the part of the Americans because he was delaying, indecisive. He was not an effective leader in situations of that sort.

Part of what I would argue, and have from the outset, is that Diefenbaker was very decisive in the first couple of years. He knew where he wanted to go. He knew what he wanted to accomplish, and as a result, they opened the floodgates in terms of public spending, which was needed at that point, and they saw the way to develop the North. They acted on that accordingly, but then he made the big mistake, which he’s remembered for rightly or wrongly, as the cancellation of the Avro Arrow in 1959, and it’s become part of Canadian mythology. Now, you can make a case that the Arrow should have carried on, but I think you can make a far stronger case that it needed to be canceled.

The days of the manned interceptor supersonic aircraft were over. Sputnik had launched in 1957, ironically, the very day that the first Arrow was rolled out of the hangar in Malden, Ontario. Once we knew we were into that, then the days of intercontinental ballistic missiles were ahead, and the manned bombers were a thing of the past. I think Diefenbaker made the right decision, but he paid terrible political consequences for that. The Conservatives had won every one of the Toronto and York County seats, every one of the 18 seats in that area, in 1958. They lost every one of them but one in 1962. He played a political consequence. On balance, as I say, I think the legacy is mixed.

I should mention, by the way, one final thing, and that is the legacy in terms of his royal commissions, transportation, broadcasting, that sort of thing, was considerable, but the big one was health care. Establishing the commission under Emmett Hall that brought eventually under the Pearson government—there’s a nice continuity there between the ideas that came out of the Diefenbaker government and that were acted upon by the Pearson government. One of them, possibly the best known of them all, is the establishment of the Canada Health System, the Medical Care Act, and all that kind of stuff. Mixed legacy? Yes.

Final note on legacies: the party system. He revolutionized the party system. The Liberals, as a result, who had been the dominant party through Western Canada for as long as anyone could remember, were no longer a factor. The CCF was folded. The Social Credit was folded. The NDP no longer can count on strong support provincially or federally in Saskatchewan. Social Credit is a thing of the past in Alberta. You get the legacy of the party system and the fact that the parties have changed so fundamentally in Western Canada, that’s one of the big legacies of Diefenbaker. He could not broker a brokerage party. As a matter of fact, it’s very difficult for any of his successors to broker a brokerage party by bringing people from all regions, all backgrounds, all different provinces, and so on, very difficult to bring them together.

SEAN SPEER: That is a comprehensive answer, Professor Courtney, for which I am grateful. I’m also grateful for the generosity of your time. If I can just put a couple of final questions to you. George Grant famously lamented that Diefenbaker’s eventual defeat signaled the end of an alternative to a dominant liberalism overtaking the country. Was he right? Did Diefenbaker really represent an alternative path for Canada or was he merely a voice for a different shade of liberalism?

JOHN COURTNEY: I think Diefenbaker had one principle difference from the Liberals and that is he believed strongly in the use of the government. As I said earlier, using the tools of the state to advance the cause of those who were less well off. Was he a voice for a different shade of liberalism? I don’t think so. I think he had a different voice, period. It’s just a different way of looking at politics, which had its good side and its bad side. Was Grant right in making this analysis? Part of my reading of George Grant is that it’s a nostalgia for a Canada that could no longer exist.

By the mid-1950s, Canada had become a very different country. It was no longer as pro-British, as seen as part of the British connection and all that kind of stuff. I think Diefenbaker saw that. I shouldn’t say he saw it, but he was part of the change. The change was moving away to a much more, what I would call egalitarian Canada. George Grant, actually, if you read him in one way, is an elitist. He’s a very distinguished philosopher, obviously and widely read, and had a big impact on the way in which we understood politics in the mid-’60s, but there was an element of wanting the past to return, a nostalgia for the past and that’s not Diefenbaker.

SEAN SPEER: Final question, I’m struck that contemporary Conservatives have not tended to lionize Diefenbaker in the same way that Liberals elevate, say, Pearson or Trudeau. Though, of course, in the past year or so, new Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has come to regularly speak of Diefenbaker. Two questions for you. First, why do you think Diefenbaker has been neglected by Conservatives, and second, why do you think he may be making a comeback?

JOHN COURTNEY: An answer to your first question, he was widely seen at the time as a failure. Peter Newman brought a book out in the 1960s, soon after Diefenbaker stepped down or was defeated, I should say in ’63, The Distemper of Our Times. It was a severe indictment of the Diefenbaker government. You can’t read it any other way. That became part of the mythology around the Diefenbaker government, that it had had all these failures that didn’t have really much in the way of redeeming qualities, and so on.

Popular magazines, Blair Fraser was editing Maclean’s magazine at the time, and Maclean’s was not really easy on Diefenbaker. Blair Fraser, he’s a very distinguished editor, but he was not a fan of Diefenbaker. The stage was set at the end of the Diefenbaker period for ignoring the man, setting him aside, and that’s indeed what happened. Let me finish that first point. That is that Diefenbaker, because he was shunted aside, there was no gain to be made from eulogizing the man. However, Diefenbaker was admired by Stanfield at various points in his career, Mulroney, Joe Clark, and later, Stephen Harper. Stephen Harper named an icebreaker after Diefenbaker and named a building in Ottawa after Diefenbaker. There is that side of it, but an icebreaker and a building in Ottawa, that doesn’t really cut it much.

Now, come to the present time, I think there is underway a revival of Diefenbaker, a package of that period, what was called by the CBC in a legendary series of documentaries that they made called The Tense Decade, that you can’t look at Diefenbaker without Pearson because the two really—the one set the agenda and Pearson picked up on it. Now, that’s an exaggeration, I know, but there are elements of continuity from one government to the next. I would say right now, there’s probably a relooking, a reexamination of Diefenbaker and some of the initiatives that his government took.

SEAN SPEER: Well, this has just been a fascinating conversation, what a masterclass in such an interesting political figure in Canadian history, and, I think, as you’ve persuasively outlined today, in hindsight, a formative period in our history. Are there any final thoughts or views or ideas, Professor Courtney, that you’d like to impart on Hublisteners?

JOHN COURTNEY: Yes, one thing I would mention is the title to this book that you introduced at the outset is Revival and Change. I chose that word revival very carefully because in many ways—this goes back to our discussion about populism—Diefenbaker was, in many ways, a classic evangelical preacher. He was a revivalist. First of all, he was not very good with scripted text. He would often just set that aside and just adlib it the whole way. That’s how he got such a warm relationship with so many of his audiences in ’56, ’57, ’58. He was able to speak directly to them. That was good, for him, at least, and for the Conservatives, obviously.

At the same time, what did he have to say? He would say things like, “You refer to the greatness of Canada” in the Massey Hall lecture. He also talked about the North. Language like, “I have a vision.” “I have seen in a vision. The vision is the North. Follow me. Follow John.” Now you listen to the language of that, that’s Billy Graham. It’s straight, evangelical revivalism. That’s where Diefenbaker’s great strength came from, in his oratorical style, his oratorical ability in the ’57, ’58 period. That’s the last thing I can mention I think.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a great way to wrap up the conversation. As you say, the book is Revival and Change: The 1957 and 1958 Diefenbaker Elections. Listeners will no doubt want to read it after this comprehensive and interesting conversation. Professor John Courtney, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

JOHN COURTNEY: Thank you so much for having me. I’ve enjoyed it very much.

00:00:00
00:00:00