John Diefenbaker Would Probably Hate Stephen Harper

Diefenbaker in Parliament

Diefenbaker in Parliament

Stephen Harper on the other hand seems to quite admire John “The Chief Diefenbaker”. Almost since becoming Prime Minister, Harper has praised Diefenbaker and sought to defend his legacy. At a 2007 speech at Toronto’s traditional home of Toryism, The Albany Club, Harper argued that, “If ever there was a Conservative prime minister whose reputation needs to be reclaimed from Liberal slander, it is the Chief, ‘Honest John'”. As part of his rehabilitate Diefnebaker plan, in 2008 the Harper Government announced that Canada’s new flagship icebreaker (which may never get built) will be names the John Diefenbaker.  In 2011 Ottawa’s Old City Hall, which the Federal Government bought in 2003 was renamed the John Diefenbaker Building. And just yesterday (September 24th, 2015) Harper announced on the campaign trial that Diefenbaker’s birthplace in Neustadt, Ontario will be made a National Historic Site.

So Canada’s 13th Prime Minister is getting the honour that Stephen Harper and other Conservative Party members (presumably?) feel he deserves. I am sure that Diefenbaker, who was always keen to have his successes lauded by others, would probably be thrilled at the attention if he was still with us. But beyond sharing superficial similarities (Conservative PMs who were born in Ontario, moved to the prairies as children and imagined themselves as political outsiders), the two men’s politics differ radially. On matters relating to Quebec, Diefenbaker would be hard pressed to support Harper’s flagship policy.  Similarly on foreign policy, other than a strong embrace of Queen Elizabeth II, Harper has renounced Diefenbaker’s principled multilateralist approach. Most importantly however, it is in their basic ideological approach to politics that the two men differ the most. Diefenbaker was both a partisan and an ideological Progressive Conservative.  Harper is simply a Conservative. It is this ideological difference that creates a massive gulf between the two Prime Ministers and makes Harper an unlikely champion of Diefenbaker’s legacy.

The two men’s approach to Quebec and their vision of its place in Canada clearly demonstrates their divergent ideologies. Diefenbaker was a staunch defender of a “One Canada” policy, going so far as to use it as the title for his two volume memoirs. Diefenbaker saw Canada as one nation, with one national culture that the government should actively promote. Thus, he was suspicious of Quebec and nascent demands for cultural autonomy and french-language rights. Furthermore, even after being forced out as leader of the PCs, he was an active critic of Trudeau’s policies of bilingualism and multiculturalism. Comparatively, Harper in 2008, introduced a bill to recognize Quebec as a nation within a united Canada. While this motion in the House of Commons was largely symbolic, it represented a much different approach to Quebec than Diefenbaker. Harper, and particularly Jason Kenney, has also embraced (largely) a multicultural vision of Canada while marginalizing critics in the Conservative party who speak out against bilingualism multiculturalism.

Diefenbaker’s legacy in foreign policy is largely defined by his fractured relationship with American President John F. Kennedy and the Bomark Missile Crisis.  Much has been written about Diefenbaker’s incoherent policy regarding whether Canada should accept nuclear warheads for the Bomarks or not and I won’t rehash it here. Rather, Diefenbaker’s most successful foreign policy initiative was his support of the non-white Commonwealth Nations and their objections to South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth in 1961. In 1960 South Africa’s white population voted to become a republic. As per Commonwealth rules, South Africa would then have to reapply for admission to the club. However, due to their apartheid policies, the newly independent African members, as well as India and Malaysia, refused to support South African re-admittance. In contrast, the white majority nations of Britain, Australia and New Zealand all supported South African re-entry. This divide threatened to split the Commonwealth until Diefenbaker made it clear that Canada would oppose South Africa’s bid unless they renounced apartheid policies. Aware that they would be rejected, the South African government withdrew their application. Without Diefenbaker’s decisive support of African and Asian nations, it is entirely possible than most non-white nations would have left the Commonwealth. What particularly stands out about this event is that Diefenbaker was willing to break with Canada’s traditional allies to support an ideal of racial equality. More pragmatically, it also demonstrated Diefenbaker’s desire to preserve what he saw as an important international institution.

Compare Diefenbaker’s actions to Stephen Harper’s approach to foreign policy.  On issues of human rights, Harper has generally been completely unwilling to break with Canada’s traditional ally, the United States. This approach is most notable in Canada’s unwillingness to criticize Israel or support Palestinian actions at the UN, no matter how mild. It is also further manifested in Canada’s continued support of Saudi Arabia, despite its horrendous human rights record; all the while brokering billions of dollars worth of arms sales to this repressive regime. Furthermore, while taking a principles stand, Diefenbaker was willing to engage with the South Africans to seek a negotiated settlement.  Harper instead chooses to remove Canada totally from the international stage, associating negotiation and discussion with weakness. Harper’s approach is best demonstrated with his boycott of the 2013 Commonwealth Conference in Sri Lanka due to that country’s terrible treatment of its Tamil minority. However, unlike David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister who used his visit to Sri Lanka as a platform to raise global awareness of the Sri Lankan government’s actions, Harper chose to stay in Canada. No engagement, no negotiation.

For further proof of the divergent foreign policy approaches of the two leaders look at their approach to the UN. Diefenbaker committed Canadian troops to the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo and throughout his tenure as PM saw the UN as a useful international forum that Canada should support. Compare that to Harper, who has been reluctant to support any UN initiatives, preferring to work with the United States and a limited group of allies. Overall, the present Conservative government has made their distrust of the United Nations very clear, which stands in stark contrast to the Diefenbaker government’s support of the global institution.

Finally, and most importantly, Diefenbaker embraced both the progressive and conservative aspects of his party. During his tenure as Prime Minister, Diefenbaker demonstrated a remarkable desire to bring many previously excluded groups into government. Under his watch, Canada finally achieved universal suffrage when Aboriginal Canadians were given the right to vote federally in 1960. Diefenbaker also appointed the first women to cabinet (Ellen Fairclough), and was responsible for appointing, in the terms of the day, the first ethnic cabinet minister (Michael Starr was Ukrainian).

Diefenbaker was also driven by a strong desire to protect the rights and freedoms of Canadians. Driven by his experience as a lawyer in Saskatchewan and the rampant discrimination he witness against minority groups, particularly the Jehovah’s Witness and Metis, he sought to provide legislative protection for all Canadians. Thus, he was instrumental in bringing in the Bill of Rights in 1960 which for the first time in any Commonwealth Country, codified the civil and political rights enjoyed by citizens of that country. While the Bill of Rights was rightly criticized due to its limitations, it was also important for raising public attention to the need for constitutionally enshrined protections for rights and freedoms. Furthermore, it was due to Diefenbaker that the Canadian Citizenship Act was amended in 1960 to ensure that Canadian citizenship was irrevocable.

Compare that to the actions of the Harper Conservatives, whose bill C-24 explicitly reversed Diefenbaker’s changes to the Citizenship Act. The present Tory government has also introduced multiple pieces of legislation, most notably Bill C-51, that substantially infringe on Canadians’ civil liberties. When combined with the Fair Elections Act that makes voting substantially more difficult for many marginalized population, it is clear that the Harper government has largely fall on the security side of the security/liberty divide. And while defenders of the current government can claim that these measures are required in the era of ISIS and other terrorist groups, remember that Dief was in the PMO when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened; a different threat but the same overwhelming climate of insecurity.

Finally, Diefenbaker was also a staunch defender of parliamentary democracy throughout his career. He saw parliament and the debates that happened there as integral to preserving Canadian democracy. Diefenbaker’s commitment to protecting Canadian democracy is best exemplified by his actions during the Pipeline Debate. In 1956 the government of Louis St. Laurent sought to introduce legislation to provide a loan guarantee for American owned TransCanada Pipelines, to allow them secure financing so as to build a west to east natural gas pipeline. However, Diefenbaker, even the economic nationalist, opposed Canadian money being given to an American company. Thus his Progressive Conservative Party, supported by the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), sought to filibuster the legislation, delaying its passage until after the June 6th deadline for financing the project. In order to force the bill through the house, the Liberals introduced closure to limit debate at every stage. Combined with heavily whipping each vote, the Liberals did manage to secure passage of the bill by June 6th. However, Diefenbaker protested against these “Little Ceasers” and their “trained monkeys” every step of the way. Arguing that by limiting the powers of parliament, St. Laurent and the government were acting as dictators. For Diefenbaker, parliament and democracy were synonymous. Any action that limited the power of the institution also undermined democracy as a whole.

Now, compare Diefenbaker’s principled defense of parliamentary debate against the record of the Harper government. Now only have the Conservatives introduced closure over 100 times throughout the tenure of their government, they have systematically sought to stymie parliament. From denying MPs information on government spending, to introducing massive budget omnibus bills to relying on the Senate to kill legislation the Conservative’s don’t like, the Harper government has made it clear that parliament is not an institution to be respected, but rather, one to be subverted. It is in their different approaches to parliament that the two men differ most clearly.

As demonstrated, the two Conservative Prime Ministers have differed greatly in their approach to Quebec, Canada’s place in the world and  the importance of the rights of Canadian citizens in a parliamentary democracy. Overall these differences can largely be explained the importance of progressive and conservative ideas to the politics of John Diefenbaker, as compared to the American inspired Neo-Conservative politics of Stephen Harper and the old Reform Party. However, despite the clear political differences between the two PMs, Harper’s championing of “Dief the Chief” makes a degree of sense. Rather than seeing any ideological cap, most modern Canadians simply see the partisan affiliation of the two and assume  a degree of continuity. It is this continuity that Harper and other modern Conservative Party leaders so desperate want. They want to portray their party as the party of Macdonald, Borden and Diefenbaker. They want the legacy and history of the old Progressive Conservative Party. What they apparently don’t want is the policies that party supported.





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