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Andrew Cohen: Baird’s Diefenbaker hero worship unfounded

If there is a Society for the Veneration of John George Diefenbaker, its president, treasurer and recording secretary is John Russell Baird.

If there is a Society for the Veneration of John George Diefenbaker, its president, treasurer and recording secretary is John Russell Baird.

There is no Conservative more dedicated to the celebration of Canada’s former prime minister, none more convinced of his greatness, than Canada’s current foreign minister.

Baird’s reverence for Diefenbaker is irrepressible. Reading his speeches, you would think Diefenbaker was Saskatchewan’s Messiah.

That’s fine, personally. But it is deeply cynical for a minister and his government to lavish praise on a former prime minister of their party while consciously ignoring — if not disparaging — the memory of those who were not.

And so it is with the strange triangle of John Baird, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson, an exquisite illustration of this government’s politicization of history.

We now have, for example, the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award. Baird’s predecessor, Lawrence Cannon, established the award in 2010 to recognize those “who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedom.”

It was Diefenbaker, gushes Baird, who “dedicated attention and energy to protecting and promoting freedom and human rights” at home and abroad.

See where this is going? The latest prize ceremony took place — wait for it — in the John G. Diefenbaker Building on Sussex Drive. The building, the former Ottawa City Hall, was renamed for Diefenbaker in 2011.

A few days ago, Baird was at it again: he unveiled a painting of Diefenbaker to hang in the building bearing his name where the prize in his memory is awarded. It was an opportunity to hail Diefenbaker’s two “totemic” issues: his opposition to communism and to apartheid.

“I think, overall … history should judge Diefenbaker well,” Baird said.

The besotted minister speaks as if Diefenbaker left office just yesterday. As for history, he seems not to have read much.

History has dismissed and discarded Diefenbaker. More than a half-century after his defeat in 1963, historians find him a failed prime minister — a blowhard, fantasist and paranoiac who was so irrational and reckless that Pierre Sevigny and other ministers called him “crazy.”

A populist of boundless ego, Diefenbaker planned a state funeral like Churchill’s and a sprawling archival library, the only prime minister to do so. He could be vengeful and nasty, and according to Peter C. Newman, his chronicler, was given to anti-Semitism.

Yes, he opposed apartheid, and that helped force South Africa out of the Commonwealth in 1960.

He appointed the first female cabinet minister and won three consecutive elections, the first Conservative to do so since Sir John A. Macdonald. Beyond that, he was a calamity.

In foreign policy, Diefenbaker promised to divert 15 per cent of trade to Britain (which failed) and opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market (it entered). Anti-American in instinct, he declined to support the U.S. during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and refused to honour Canada’s commitment to NORAD to accept nuclear weapons in 1963. John F. Kennedy, who loathed him, called him a liar and blackmailer.

At home, his “northern vision” was limited to roads and rhetoric. His Bill of Rights was noble but unbinding; meanwhile, he let the Mounties purge the public service of “security threats,” which included homosexuals. He lost his historic majority of 1958 in a collapse in 1962 so staggering it inspired an adjective: “Diefenbakeresque.”

As Opposition leader, from which his party had to unseat him, he opposed official bilingualism and Canada’s new flag.

Both were the work of Lester Pearson, his successor, whose Nobel Peace Prize he deeply resented. Apparently Baird does, too.

As Canada’s foreign minister, Baird pointedly does not mention Pearson; he treats this country’s most celebrated diplomat like a contagion. Mysteriously, he had “Lester B. Pearson Building” (where he works) removed from his gold-embossed business card.

Then again, Pearson was a Liberal, like Pierre Trudeau, Louis St. Laurent, Mackenzie King, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and other extraordinary Canadians whom this government forgets when it evokes the past.

Of course. For the Conservatives, there is only one history of Canada, and it exalts John Diefenbaker.


Andrew Cohen is founding president of the Historica-Dominion Institute.