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“This is the vision,” Diefenbaker shouted on the hustings
in 1958. “One Canada. One Canada, where Canadians will have
preserved to them the control of their own economic and
political destiny. Sir John A. Macdonald saw Canada from
east to west: He opened the west. I see a new Canada –
a Canada of the North. This is the vision.”
It was 50 years ago Sunday that collectively as Canadians we began to “Follow John.” On June 10, 1957, John Diefenbaker did the impossible and removed the Liberals from the government benches in Ottawa after 22 years in power.
And what a journey it was, as the drama of Diefenbaker and what became known as the Tenth Decade (leading up to Centennial year in 1967) played out before us.
The final scenes in the storied legend – a train to return him to his beloved Prairies for burial, as ordinary Canadians came out and stood at rural sidings in respect for the great man as he went by a final time – are now ingrained in our collective memory and history.
As they should be.
For all his faults, and they were legion, Diefenbaker was indeed a great Canadian, a man whose vision for Canada shook us up, excited us, exasperating Canadians as well, but never boring us.
You could like Diefenbaker and you could dislike Diefenbaker. You could never ignore him.
Canada’s journey with Dief the Chief had its highs – the Bill of Rights, his passionate opposition to apartheid – and lows – his dithering during the Cuban missile crisis, his inability to even attempt to understand Quebec and French Canadians, and the dawn of party in-fighting of the type we weren’t to see again until Paul Martin Jr.’s day.
No one, however, then or now, could ever question his patriotism, love of Canada and reverence for our institutions and history, even as his, and our, world changed all around him during the turbulent 1960s.
At age 41 today, I wasn’t even born in 1957. Despite this, Canada’s 13th prime minister had a profound effect on my life and how I view my country, its greatness and endless potential even as we enter a new millennium, 28 years after Dief’s death.
In June 1957 my late father was 25 years old, early in his career as a history teacher in Scarborough. Like countless thousands at the time, he was caught up in the movement that year to “Follow John” and it forever changed his concept of Canada. Thanks in part to Diefenbaker, my father was able to shuck off an insular view of Canada formed by a childhood in Orange and staid Ontario.
The Canada John Diefenbaker spoke about encompassed Canadians of neither French nor English ancestry, including Ukrainians, aboriginals and so many more. It now dazzled a young man’s imagination and included the west, the North and other far-off places for a Toronto-born teacher named Milnes.
For the rest of this column, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/222987