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Farewell Dief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada alight with his vision of a bountiful land on the threshold of greatness. Yet many feel the Saskatchewan lawyer's promise as prime minister exceeded his deeds. His own party eventually turned against him. But nobody can deny that "Dief the Chief" forged an intense bond with his beloved "average Canadians."

The Chief is dead. John Diefenbaker, stricken by a heart attack, collapsed at his Ottawa home today. In this special edition of CBC Radio's The World at Six, Diefenbaker's contemporaries pay tribute to one of the most colourful and controversial figures in Canadian politics. Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark calls Diefenbaker the first populist prime minister who reached out to the underprivileged and the ignored. "He was a great human force who changed the history of the country," Clark says.

Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau, Diefenbaker's arch-nemesis on the other side of parliamentary chamber, makes what he calls the "strange admission" that he considered the pair "political friends." As a young man, Trudeau says, he was struck by Diefenbaker's vigorous defence of human rights. Nowhere are more tears being shed than in Prince Albert. Many are openly weeping for the proud Saskatchewan son who was elected an MP in 1940 and represented them until his death.
• John Diefenbaker designed his own elaborate funeral. After lying in state in Ottawa, his body was carried on a special funeral train to Saskatoon, making stops so people could say farewell. He was buried Aug. 22, 1979, on a hilltop on the University of Saskatchewan campus beside his second wife Olive. Her remains had been transported from Ottawa, where she was first buried after her 1976 death.

• Many believe the funeral train was inspired by Diefenbaker's friend Winston Churchill. The former British prime minister's body floated on a barge down the Thames River. Diefenbaker borrowed the title of his funeral plans from Churchill: "Operation Hope Not."

• About 25,000 people filed past Diefenbaker as he lay in state in Ottawa. Thousands more turned out at all hours to see the special three-locomotive train during its 3,000-kilometre journey. Aboard were almost 80 people, including family members, Conservative Health and Welfare Minister David Crombie and representatives of the other federal parties. Also included were 38 reporters and cameramen. Diefenbaker's gleaming mahogany casket was in a specially converted baggage car.

• In Winnipeg, an estimated 10,000 people waited at midnight in a one-kilometre line to file past the casket which made the trip draped in a Canadian flag and Diefenbaker's beloved Red Ensign. Winnipegger Don Young told Canadian Press he went "to pay respects to the greatest Canadian ever born. He will go down in history." In Melville, Sask., an elderly mourner collapsed and died in front of the coffin.

• Diefenbaker's body lay in state for a second time at the University of Saskatchewan. At the funeral, Prime Minister Joe Clark gave a moving eulogy. Diefenbaker the perpetual campaigner, he said, "mainstreeted through life." Clark said his predecessor "opened the nation to itself and let us see our possibilities. He changed the vision of our country."

• At the funeral, 34 natives from the Mosquito Reserve pounded drums and sang in Diefenbaker's honour as a tribute to his contribution to native rights. Diefenbaker gave natives the right to vote without losing their treaty rights and appointed the first native senator.

• Mary Greschuk, one of 8,000 mourners at the funeral, told the Globe and Mail through tears that it "was the end of a part of Canada. He stood for so much that was solid and good. He was a famous man but he never forgot that ordinary working people built this country."

• Some people felt the Diefenbaker-designed week of mourning was excessive. In a column in the Toronto Star, political commentator Larry Zolf called the funeral a "Las Vegas hurrah" and "pure and unalloyed idolatry." Zolf knew Diefenbaker well from covering him on Parliament Hill. Zolf said a plain Baptist service would have been more fitting for someone who prided himself on his connection with the common man.

• Diefenbaker's friends said his final years were lonely ones, especially after his beloved second wife Olive died on Dec. 22, 1976.

• When Diefenbaker was elected for a thirteenth term, just three months before his death, he started his thank-you speech to Prince Albert voters by lamenting that Olive wasn't at his side.
Medium: Radio
Program: The World At Six
Broadcast Date: Aug. 16, 1979
Guest(s): Joe Clark, Robert Coates, John Diefenbaker, Glen Green, René Lévesque, Paul Martin Sr., Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Host: Bob Oxley
Reporter: Dan Karpenchuk
Duration: 9:40
Photo: National Archives of Canada

Last updated: August 19, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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