Reading: Arthur Slade, John Diefenbaker: An Appointment with Destiny, Quest, Lantzville, BC: YYZ Pub., 2001: A Review

 Election leaflet for Diefenbaker 1958
Election leaflet for Diefenbaker 1958 | Source

Tending to the hagiographic but clearly written

Reading: Arthur Slade, John Diefenbaker: An Appointment with Destiny, The Quest Library, Lantzville, BC: YYZ Publishing., 2001: A Review

...

This book does not compare with the magisterial biography of John Diefenbaker by David Smith (1), issued in 1995, which, in various ways, cannot conceivably be surpassed.

But for all this, Arthur Slade's short biography is a useful and clearly written introduction to the life of this complex, contradictory and volcanic personality.

Part of the key to this book, indeed, is in the clarity and simplicity of this book's language. The writer is a specialist in fiction, and is from Saskatchewan, to boot. So, if the protagonist comes across far more sympathetically in Mr. Slade's short book, compared with his presentation in David Smith's weighty and meticulously crafted tome, then it is hardly surprising. Slade gives accounts of various events in Prime Minister Diefenbaker's long career using reports of imagined conversations, and this is a very valid literary device; it should not, however, be confused with historical accuracy. One can only conclude that it is part of the craft of this writer to create 'his' Diefenbaker as an appealing character.

In parts the book's own varying accounts of proceedings during the life of the Diefenbaker government seem somewhat to contradict themselves. For example, on p. 110, Slade states that Governor Coyne of the Bank of Canada was removed by Parliament. (This is strictly untrue; what actually happened is that the Diefenbaker government tried and failed to get a bill through the Parliament of Canada declaring Mr Coyne's post to be vacant; in other words, the government bungled their attempt; and Mr Coyne was able to resign with a measure of dignity thereafter.) On p. 168, Slade is on record as recognizing that Mr Coyne did indeed resign from his post (2).

One very interesting point which Slade brings out very well is, on the one hand, Diefenbaker's support in the early years of the Pearson government for a national flag based on symbols which represented both the English and French elements in Canadian society. Later Slade records that Diefenbaker was to claim that he had always supported a multicultural vision of Canada with no special deference to one particular racial or cultural group, particularly objecting to a document which referred to 'deux nations'. Slade himself does not develop the point, but a careful reader should pick up the apparent dichotomy between these two rather divergent aspects of Diefenbaker's often vehement rhetoric.

On p. 120, Mr. Slade speaks of the Kennedy Administration's blockade of Cuba. In international law, a blockade is an act of war, and the Kennedy Administration was careful to refer to their actions in interdicting nuclear missile-carrying shipping into the Caribbean as a 'quarantine'. There is no indication that Mr. Slade grasped these fine but important distinctions.

There are also various typos which could easily have been weeded out prior to publication.

But in all, this is a very readable, if short, introductory work about this sometimes most bizarre of Canadian Prime Ministers, which might whet the appetite of some readers to read David Smith's more substantial biography.

It would not be untrue to suggest that in places Mr Slade's treatment of John Diefenbaker is hagiographic; but for all this I enjoyed the book, and felt it to be a worthwhile contribution to the literature on a period of rapid change in Canadian society.

January 15, 2013

Notes

(1) Denis Smith, Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker, Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, 1995

(2) Former Governor Coyne enjoyed a long retirement, passing away in 2012.

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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