By Jonathon Van Maren
On Canada’s 150th birthday, social conservatives are expected to review our nation’s legacy and admit defeat. The Sexual Revolution muscled into Parliament by Pierre Trudeau and the mop-up operations underway by his less impressive son Justin have been enormously successful, cutting across every layer of social strata and permeating nearly every aspect of Canadian life. But taking a moment to examine Canadian history presents Canadians of our generation, looking to the future and deciding what sort of a nation we want to live in, with a legion of titans to admire and take inspiration from.
One such figure was John G. Diefenbaker, Canada’s thirteenth prime minister. Those of us who were subjected to years of Canadian “social studies” throughout elementary and high school must be forgiven for not knowing much about him—the only mention of Diefenbaker that I can recall was about his cancellation of the Avro Arrow project. The fact that Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to the largest majority government in Canadian history in 1958 was never mentioned. The fact that he helped the Tories win their first electoral victory in nearly thirty years didn’t come up, either. And that makes a lot of sense: The Liberal Party, which has always seen itself as Canada’s natural governing party, could realistically claim that title until a populist lawyer showed up from Saskatchewan and rocked them back on their heels.
Diefenbaker’s accomplishments should be remembered. People don’t remember that he fought the racist Mackenzie King government tooth and nail when they decided to forcibly relocate and intern Japanese-Canadians. Diefenbaker’s belief was that if you were a Canadian, you were entitled to all the rights of a Canadian—his maiden speech in the House of Commons on June 13, 1940, was dedicated to his assertion that most Canadians of German descent were loyal to Canada. Later, it was Diefenbaker who called for a Bill of Rights, thundering that it was “the only way to stop the march on the part of the government towards arbitrary power.” He was utterly consistent in his belief in small government and the individual rights of Canadians, even opposing Mackenzie King’s use of imprisonment without trial in his pursuit of Soviet spies.
That’s not even to mention Diefenbaker’s role in marginalizing—and thus eventually bringing down—the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1960, South Africa formally applied to remain in the British Commonwealth of Nations. The other leaders were divided—apartheid was already gaining international notoriety. It was Diefenbaker’s plan that won the day—he proposed that the application not be rejected, but that a statement be issued affirming that racial equality was one of the Commonwealth’s fundamental principles. The leaders adopted the statement, South Africa withdrew its application, and as biographer Peter C. Newman put it, “Diefenbaker flew home, a hero.”
Perhaps it is because John G. Diefenbaker pushed back against the Sexual Revolution and the legalization of abortion that his lifetime of commitment to individual liberty and racial equality has been ignored. How many people know, for example, that it was Diefenbaker’s government that first granted the vote to the Inuit and First Nations peoples? Or that Diefenbaker spoke at length about his absolute “hatred” of race-based discrimination? When I was studying history at a Canadian university, we were asked to read Pierre Trudeau’s Towards A Just Society and applaud the supposedly Liberal idea of racial reconciliation. Diefenbaker’s pioneering contributions were not recognized.
Perhaps that is in part because while Pierre Trudeau had a vision for a new Canada with new principles, Diefenbaker had no desire to see Canada’s pre-born children lose their rights under the law or Christianity as a guiding moral force discarded. He was one of the forty-three Progressive Conservative MPs to vote against Pierre Trudeau’s Omnibus Bill, which among other things, decriminalized abortion for the first time in a century. Diefenbaker stood to give a speech during the debate on the 1968-69 Criminal Law Amendment Act, and made his position perfectly clear:
“We live in an age that more and more is becoming a permissive age. Some say there is no God—that each man should be able to live his own life as he will as long as he does in private. I do not find any support for that philosophy in the Scriptures…the Government is saying to young people of this country: ‘You are in a new age, you are over 20.’ A lad asked me how homosexuality worked and I said, ‘You will have to consult with the Government.’”
While Diefenbaker’s vote on decriminalizing abortion speaks for itself, his lack of public statements on the issue has led some to wonder what his heart-felt position really was (although he did once tell a journalist that “Canada must populate or perish.”) Rummaging through some old boxes from a Right to Life office in Vancouver, I was thrilled to find, in a yellowing folder, two letters with the House of Commons heading and the name, “The Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker, P.C., Q.C., M.P.” The first letter, sent from Ottawa and dated June 12, 1973, reads as follows:
Dear Mrs. [Betty] Green,
Mr. Diefenbaker has had to leave Ottawa to complete speaking engagements in the West, but he asked me to send warm thanks for your letter.
He agrees with you completely that to liberalize the law of abortion would ignore the rights of the unborn. He will speak out on this subject whenever he is able.
As to your justified criticism of the C.B.C he suggests you write at once to the President, Mr. Laurent Picard, Box 8478, Ottawa K1G 3J5, voicing your objection to the programme [concerning abortion] you described. The more complaints the C.B.C. receive the sooner there might be action.
Mr. Diefenbaker sends his best wishes to you and kindest regards.
(Mrs) Theresa Flower,
Another letter, from the following month on July 17, 1973, was sent by another staff member in Diefenbaker’s office:
Dear Mrs. [Betty] Green:
Mr. Diefenbaker has asked me to write and thank you for your recent letter in which you enclosed the letter from the CRTC which you received upon complaint of their program on abortion. You acted in a responsible manner in voicing your objection to the presentation for it is only in knowing the reactions of the public will constructive change occur.
Mr. Diefenbaker believes that the present laws should not be relaxed as he has a great reverence for life and that includes the life of the unborn.
With all good wishes on Mr. Diefenbaker’s behalf, I am
(Mrs.) Margaret Garrett,
These letters illustrate, in blunt terms, that Diefenbaker’s “reverence” for the life of pre-born children and his belief that abortion violated their rights. He was consistent in his view that every Canadian—regardless of age, ethnicity, race, or culture–were owed rights that the government had no right to infringe on. Not only did Diefenbaker stand up for those oppressed by apartheid, Japanese-Canadians being imprisoned by their own government, and First Nations who had been denied the right to vote for so long. Diefenbaker also sincerely believed that abortion—the violent destruction of a human life in the womb—was also a horrible act that had no place in a civilized society.
As Canada’s 150th birthday approaches, the government is urging Canadians to ask themselves what it means to be a Canadian, to explore our past and our traditions. I think the life of John G. Diefenbaker is a good place to start: A conservative who fought to preserve our heritage and traditions while demanding that the government respect the rights of each and every Canadian, including those still in the womb.