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John Diefenbaker: Staring down South Africa

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."

It's John Diefenbaker day in Ottawa. The prime minister has just returned from London, England, where he stood up to apartheid South Africa. The racist state was applying to be re-admitted to the British Commonwealth after becoming a republic. Diefenbaker proposed that the country could only be welcomed back into the fold if it joined other states in condemning apartheid in principle. South Africa withdrew its application, we see in this CBC Television clip.

Everyone in Ottawa is eager to hear about the showdown. After briefing a packed House of Commons, Diefenbaker brings the annual meeting of the Conservative party to life. He tells his party that he fervently hopes South Africa will change its ways. "There will always be a light in the Commonwealth window." 
. In 1961, the British Commonwealth was quickly becoming a multiracial organization as former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia became independent nations. Non-caucasian citizens of the Commonwealth outnumbered whites. Britain argued that South Africa's application to rejoin the Commonwealth should be approved automatically. Several African states, particularly Ghana, lobbied for South Africa's exclusion.

. Diefenbaker's decision that apartheid had to be kept out of the Commonwealth was not an automatic one. A great fan of Britain, he wavered on whether to defy its wishes. His decision came less than a year after passage of his Canadian Bill of Rights and under pressure from human rights advocates including journalist Pierre Berton. Diefenbaker also worried that the issue could split the Commonwealth down racial lines and threaten its very existence.

. To hear Diefenbaker reflect on the prime minister's conference a decade after the fact, go to the clip "South Africa out of the Commonwealth" from the topic Canada and the Fight Against Apartheid.

. The London Observer newspaper opined: "Mr. Diefenbaker's role was of decisive importance. Not only did he provide a bridge between the old white dominions and the new non-white members, he also demonstrated the importance of somebody giving a lead."

. Established by South Africa's National Party 1948 as a way to segregate blacks and to maintain their subservience to the white minority, apartheid ended in the early 1990s. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 and rejoined in 1994.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC News
Broadcast Date: March 17, 1961
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker
Host: Earl Cameron
Reporter: Norman DePoe
Duration: 4:07

Last updated: April 18, 2013

Page consulted on March 28, 2014

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