Rex calls Harper's naming of an Ottawa office building after a former prime minister "the Diefenbaker Renaissance". Will it catch on?
Read the transcript of this Rex Murphy episode
Celebrating our Past
Thursday September 29, 2011
The Conservatives recently named a public building in Ottawa after John Diefenbaker, the great jowl-shaking, harrumphing, incomparable Chief. Now, some saw this as the Harper government's attempt to put more of a Blue slant on recent or not-so-recent political history. Well, regardless, it was a good thing. I don't care why they're remembering Diefenbaker; just that they are remembering him.
There are mixed views of Diefenbaker, but that he was an original in Canadian politics, an early icon for the West, that he had platform oratorical gifts that were singular, a set of mannerisms that belonged to no one else - all this is inarguable. His back and forths with Lester Pearson, over time, had something of the quality of a great "act" - a kind of Laurel and Hardy feel - as if the two of them were joint performers in some unspoken comedy.
We're in a kind of leadership trough right now, and the active recall of some of the larger people from the public scene of times past might serve as some kind of goad or inspiration for the performance of those currently in office.
The Americans, by contrast, do this stuff splendidly. They don't let even their second-tier historical figures slip from popular recall. Even here in Canada, I'd guess we know more about Davy Crockett than we do about, say, Robert Borden. The Americans saturate every medium - from the most popular - Disney, comic books - to the scholarly - with accounts of their heroes and public figures. They also generously monumentalize them: The great Lincoln memorial, Mount Rushmore, the Arlington cemetery, these are part of America's homage to its past.
By contrast, here in Canada, we're wary of "bragging" about the past. The result? Some people think Diefenbaker’s the name of a car.
It's true on a small scale, too. Back home in Newfoundland, the largest figure of the past 70 years (for good or ill), is Joey Smallwood. Yet there is nothing commensurate with his stature to summon his memory and achievements. There are schools named for him, a sad highway marker, but nothing on the scale to match his significance.
I asked someone in Newfoundland about Smallwood a while back, and the answer brought tears. "Wasn’t he some kind of encyclopedia salesman?"
Nor can we claim (it was never true), that Canadians have no appetite for this kind of approach. To take the most recent example, the acclaim given to "John A. Macdonald, The Birth of a Country", tells us that the old platitude about our history and dullness was never right.
Being "shy" of boosterism, or embracing the sad false cliché about Canadians being deliberately "self-effacing" and "unoffensive", should have never held us back from celebrating, of infusing into the national memory, the great players - good and bad - that have marked our turbulent, various, and astonishing history.
So, three cheers for the "Diefenbaker renaissance", even if, for now, it's only a name on the building. The Chief deserves the attention; the country could use a lot more of the same.
For the National, I'm Rex Murphy.