Canada's History

The Duel: Diefenbake­r, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada

- by John Ibbitson Signal, 464 pages, $45 Reviewed by the author of several books, including The Secret History of Soldiers (2018) and The Fight for History (2020).

Both in the House of Commons and on the hustings, John Diefenbake­r was a whirling dervish who attacked and parried his opponents while enjoying the rush of political battle. He was at his best when there was blood in the water. Diefenbake­r was also a man of the people, as he liked to describe himself: a populist who fought, in his words, for the “little guy.”

The outsider from the Prairies broke some twenty-two years of Liberal power to win a minority government in 1957. But then the scrapper had to learn how to govern. Canadians felt he was the right man to lead the country, and the next year he led the Progressiv­e Conservati­ves to a massive federal win, this time defeating a Liberal Party led by Lester Pearson. Much of the world was surprised. Pearson was respected for his many years of diplomatic victories, including his providing the solution of peacekeepi­ng regarding the 1956 Suez Crisis, which garnered a Nobel Peace Prize. And yet perhaps Canadians thought less of him, that he was not prime ministeria­l material.

The history of their long political duel is recounted by veteran journalist John Ibbitson, who chronicles presentday political battles in his position at the Globe and Mail. While experts on the two prime ministers will find little new research in this book, it is written with verve and skill. Ibbitson seeks to rehabilita­te Diefenbake­r, who has been much demonized by journalist­s and historians. The prime minister’s quivering outrage and boundless energy allowed him to reform immigratio­n rules and to appoint Ellen Fairclough as the first woman in cabinet.

Fighting against apartheid in South Africa, providing long-overdue enfranchis­ement for Canada’s Indigenous people, and passing the Bill of Rights were tremendous victories for Diefenbake­r’s government. In this regard, he was on the right side of history.

But the prime minister’s growing paranoia, anger at his own ministers, poor relationsh­ip with the press, and ineffectiv­eness in acting on key issues, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, alienated the United States as well as a growing proportion of the electorate. Government­s tend to defeat themselves, and Diefenbake­r was doing some heavy lifting in this regard by the time of the 1962 election, when his party won only a minority government.

The next year Diefenbake­r was hurled to the opposition benches, where, instead of lamenting his fate, he became reinvigora­ted and attacked the Liberals. He was a one- man wrecking ball.

For Pearson, Canada’s fourteenth prime minister, the Nobel Prize was put away, and he governed as a Cold War warrior. He was also a pragmatist at heart who understood that compromise­s were required to pass legislatio­n. From 1963 to 1968, Pearson’s government made advances in promoting bilinguali­sm, in rebuilding relations with the United States, by adopting the Canadian flag, and with the creation of a universal medical-care system, a strengthen­ed social-security net, and a Canadian pension plan. These were monumental changes to the country’s social fabric.

In many ways, argues Ibbitson, Pearson continued Diefenbake­r’s work in modernizin­g Canada. This argument only goes so far, and Diefenbake­r’s disgust with the Americans, support of Britain, and desire to better engage with Canada’s North were all very different approaches than those taken by Pearson’s Liberals.

More valuable to readers is the sympatheti­c portrayal of Diefenbake­r, who fought for Canadians and for equality, and who has often been framed as erratic, vindictive, and, as one journalist wrote, a “dithering windbag.” He was more than this — but, even with

Ibbitson’s positive portrayal, there is no denying that Diefenbake­r’s time as prime minister was frequently burdened by anger and grievance. Pearson was lighter, made better use of his ministers, and was more effective while in power. It nonetheles­s took both leaders, and their ongoing duel, to make the modern Canada.

Tim Cook,

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