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John Diefenbaker for the defence

The Story

Jack Atherton seemed jail-bound. The railway telegraph operator stood blamed for the 1950 crash of a train that killed 21 men near Canoe River, B.C. John Diefenbaker, the Saskatchewan MP and famous defence lawyer, agreed to take the case, we hear in this CBC Radio clip looking back at the sensational trial. Diefenbaker spent weeks studying telegraph procedures and waged "psychological warfare" against the prosecutor. The jury took only 40 minutes to find Atherton not guilty of manslaughter. "I would say that John Diefenbaker is the greatest man in Canada," Atherton says. "He fought unwaveringly, as far as I'm concerned, for the little man in the street." 

Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning
Broadcast Date: Aug. 19, 1979
Guest(s): Jack Atherton, John Diefenbaker, Allister Grosart
Host: Patrick Martin, Terry Moore
Duration: 6:45
Photo: National Archives of Canada / C-000499

Did You know?

• Although known as "the man from Prince Albert," John George Diefenbaker was actually born in Neustadt, Ont., on Sept. 18, 1895. He was born four years after the death of his hero - John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister.

• Diefenbaker married Edna Mae Brower in 1929.
• It was Edna Diefenbaker who convinced her husband to take what became known as the "Canoe River case." She had read about it while in hospital with leukemia. She became convinced the young railwayman was being used as a scapegoat. Edna died on Feb. 7, 1951, 34 days before the start of Jack Atherton's preliminary inquiry.

• The acquittal of Atherton, in what Diefenbaker said was his 581st jury trial, generated national headlines. Diefenbaker was by then a veteran lawyer and King's Counsel - an honorary title bestowed by governments on distinguished lawyers - as well as an outspoken Conservative MP. He remained a practising trial lawyer in both civil and criminal cases until he became Canada's 13th prime minister in 1957.

• The case against Atherton hinged on a message sent to the telegraph operator that he then relayed to the conductor of a train full of Korea-bound soldiers. Prosecutors said Atherton omitted the words "at Cedarside" from one sentence. The words would have told the conductor of the troop train where to pull into a siding to avoid an oncoming Transcontinental passenger train.

• At trial, Diefenbaker got railway staff to concede that unreliable telephone wires could be responsible for the omitted words. He also turned the trial into an indictment of Canadian National Railways for using wood-sided railcars to move troops. Seventeen soldiers and two crew members died on the troop train while two crew members, but no passengers, died on the Transcontinental with its all-steel railcars. (The narrator of the clip is mistaken when he says 21 soldiers died.)

• Before he entered politics, and while he was an MP and federal Conservative leader, John Diefenbaker was one of Saskatchewan's most prominent lawyers. He graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a bachelor of laws in 1919 and argued 62 jury trials in his first year, winning about half of them. His first law office was in the central Saskatchewan town of Wakaw. In 1924, Diefenbaker moved his practice to Prince Albert, Sask.

• One of Diefenbaker's first cases was defending a farmer accused of trying to kill a neighbour with a shotgun. Diefenbaker argued that, in the darkness, the farmer mistook the victim for a wolf. The young lawyer was shocked when his client was cleared. A few days later, the jury foreman told Diefenbaker the jury agreed on acquittal because it was Diefenbaker's first case and "his birthday too." He had turned 24 during the trial.

• The Diefenbaker family - father William, a school teacher and farmer, mother Mary, John and his little brother Elmer - moved twice in Ontario before heading west in 1903, when John was 8. They went first to the Fort Carlton region of the Northwest Territories (now part of Saskatchewan). They then headed south, eventually settling in Saskatoon in 1910.

• When John's mother asked 10-year-old John what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied: "I'm going to be the prime minister of Canada."
• Diefenbaker's life spanned the settlement of frontier Canada all the way to the computer age. To hear him reminisce about his early Ontario years and his family's trek across prairie still strewn with buffalo bones, go to the clip "A prairie settler."



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