Visiting Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario: the statue by Leo Mol of Prime Minister of Canada John G. Diefenbaker

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Statue of John G. Diefenbaker on Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Statue of John G. Diefenbaker on Parliament Hill, Ottawa | Source
John G. Diefenbaker, M.P., speaking in the House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada
John G. Diefenbaker, M.P., speaking in the House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada | Source

Undoubtedly a great Parliamentarian and orator; but was he crazy, too?

Well, Leo Mol's statue of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, situated to the West of the Centre Block, is a sober affair, really, when the man himself was such a character, anything but as staid as his representation.

But first, some comments about the sculptor. Leo Mol (1915-2009) emigrated to Canada from Ukraine, Mr Diefenbaker represented a Prairie constituency for many years; the Ukrainian presence in the Prairies is very great. Since he was identified with the integration of Canadians of non-English and non-French heritage, the fact that a Ukrainian-Canadian (pardon the hyphen, which Mr. Diefenbaker didn't like!) was responsible for the permanent, sculpted representation of him on Parliament Hill is particularly appropriate. (Other works of Leo Mol include a large collection in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Among these is a representation of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.)

Anyway, the sight of Leo Mol's statue of John Diefenbaker — itself a fine work of art — is, for those familiar with the life of the meteoric and tempestuous Parliamentarian, a slight anti-climax. Solid and restrained, showing a figure standing upright and formally attired, one might be almost be tempted to think that the person depicted was an Establishment figure. John. G. Diefenbaker was, in fact, a rather complex personality.

Because Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (1895-1979) was unique: Especially when in Opposition, his oratory and incisive questioning in the House of Commons, of which he was an elected Member for nearly 40 years, made generations of less confident Ministers almost quake, sometimes, to the undoubted entertainment of the press gallery. His range of rhetorical devices, facial expressions and gestures (some of them learned in the courtroom, years previously) made any debate in which he participated a most lively and memorable affair.

Mr Diefenbaker was a strong defender of the rights of the individual and of Canadian unity; in this, he may be said to have anticipated some of the major themes of Pierre Trudeau, another, unique and charismatic character to occupy 24 Sussex Drive only 5 years after John Diefenbaker left the Prime Minister of Canada's residence: interestingly, they led opposing parties, though not at the same time.

Then there is the question of whether he was crazy.

No; I'm being serious. Personally, I'm not qualified to say whether in fact John G. Diefenbaker was actually crazy or not. No expertise there.

All I can do (and a lot of people, besides) is simply record the fact that many of Mr. Diefenbaker's political colleagues thought he was crazy. This is not simply a case of digging up isolated quotes of people making gratuitous remarks, of which all politicians, to some extent, are the subject. There is, rather, a whole literature out there, with copious material, indicating that this is what many of Mr. Diefenbaker's colleagues indeed thought.

His colleagues, mind you! — never mind what his Liberal opponents thought; forget what the Kennedy Administration thought of their Bomarc missiles being acquired by the Diefenbaker government and then filled with sand; leave aside what the White House thought of Mr Diefenbaker publicly advocating a UN enquiry to establish whether there really were Soviet missiles in Cuba, whereas President Kennedy had already sent him photographs of the missile sites.

(I digress.)

Mr Diefenbaker and his Progressive Conservative colleagues, both before being in government, during the governing period 1957 - 1963 and afterwards, experienced an often strained relationship. When he became the Federal Progressive Conservative leader in 1956, some of his colleagues thought him mentally unstable. During his period of office, this impression was often confirmed in the eyes of not a few of his colleagues. Once in resentful Opposition again, his traits of character, never bland at the best of times, seemed to be more accentuated. All this is not merely a matter of partisan hyperbole. A few of the more notable comments about Mr Diefenbaker may be cited.

Biographer Denis Smith records that he was called a 'raging lunatic' by Progressive Conservative ministers (1).

Historian Michael Bliss records that ministerial colleague Alvin Hamilton stated: 'he was completely off his rocker' and 'You had to admit it, he was unstable' (2).

Finlay MacDonald said of him: 'He's certified mad. We've got a prime minister who's a lunatic' (3).

These comments date from 1963. Concerns about Prime Minister Diefenbaker's sanity were not limited to his Progressive Conservative Cabinet colleagues. In 1961, to Progessive Conservative party organizer Eddie Goodman, the Premier of Ontario Leslie Frost said of Mr. Diefenbaker: 'Sometimes I really believe he's crazy' (4).

In response to Premier Frost's remarks, Mr Goodman retorted: 'Why only sometimes?' (5)

Defence minister Douglas Harkness found the Prime Minister's position on missiles 'completely illogical' (6), claiming to have said so to his face.

Maybe, however, the comment by his Finance Minister, Donald Fleming: 'He was the most egocentric person I have ever met' (7), falls technically short of substance for craziness quotient.

So, too, does a staffer's comment, which rated Mr Diefenbaker 'an extremely difficult but nevertheless human old curmudgeon' (8).

Thus it is hard for me to be dogmatic about the craziness thing.

But equally hard to ignore, also.

This is why Leo Mol's sculpted representation of John G. Diefenbaker seems quite staid and restrained, especially to those who know about the mercurial traits of character of this most unconventional and meteoric of Canadian parliamentarians, who, in the view of historian Michael Bliss, 'defies rehabilitation' (9).

Notes

(1) Denis Smith, Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker, Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, 1995, p. 478.

(2) Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, Toronto: HarperPerennial Canada, 2004, p. 208.

(3), Bliss, p. 207.

(4) Bliss, p. 186.

(5) Bliss, p. 186.

(6), Smith, p. 469.

(7), Bliss, p. 203.

(8), Smith, p. 461

(9), Bliss, p. 186.

Also worth seeing

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, contains a wealth of interest to the historically minded visitor. The statue of John Diefenbaker is one of several sculptures of monarchs and of prominent Canadian statesmen. Tours are available of the striking Parliament building, the Peace Tower of which has become a symbol of Ottawa and, indeed, of Canada itself. Included among many other visitor attractions on Ottawa are: Laurier House, the National War Memorial of Canada, the Rideau Canal, the Château Laurier, the Currency Museum of the Bank of Canada, Rideau Hall and many others.

Gatineau , Quebec (distance: 2 kilometres from Downtown Ottawa) contains the Museum of Canadian Civilization and the Maison du Citoyen (Citizen's House), with an art gallery and worldwide cultural artifacts.

...

How to get there: Air Canada flies from various North American destinations to Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport / Aéroport international Macdonald-Cartier d'Ottawa; car rental is available; however, visitors may wish instead to use OC Transpo public transit for travel within the Ottawa / Gatineau area. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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