Man calls for removal of Saskatoon Diefenbaker statue because he says it is based on lies

A Regina man says a political statue in Saskatoon is based on something that never happened and should be taken down.

Diefenbaker statue art, not journalism: Saskatoon StarPhoenix editor responds to author

A statue in Saskatoon, located at the intersection of First Avenue and 21st Street, shows a young John Diefenbaker selling a newspaper to then Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

A Regina man says a political statue in Saskatoon is based on something that never happened and should be taken down.

The statue on the corner of First Avenue and 21st Street shows a young John Diefenbaker selling a newspaper to then-Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier on July 29th, 1910.

Saskatchewan lawyer turned author Garrett Wilson wants the statue removed, saying the event it depicts was invented by Diefenbaker.

Wilson penned Outlier: Life, Law and Politics in the West, which has a chapter on the subject.

He said much of what Diefenbaker claimed throughout his life was "mythology."

'An early Trump'

According to Wilson, the story emerged for the first time during the 1963 election, when Diefenbaker was campaigning in Quebec.

Wilson said the former prime minister was a politician similar to Donald Trump now, and the Liberals put together a "truth squad" that followed him around correcting the false information he was spreading.

Garrett Wilson says John Diefenbaker told outlandish stories on the campaign trail, one of which was later turned into a statue.

"He laid all that stuff out and the compliant media picked it up," Wilson said. "There is nothing in the family history about that event. It didn't get mentioned for 53 years."

"Could you imagine him sitting on a story that good for 53 years before he mentioned it?"

Wilson said Diefenbaker retold the story many times after and was listed as the only source for the story in his biography.

"The Diefenbaker family certainly remembers that he said as a kid, 'I'm going to be Prime Minister some day — but a 15-year-old newsboy who sold a newspaper to the Prime Minister would've tore home that morning and told his family. But, not a word."

History of a statue

The monument in Saskatoon started out with a plaque on the wall and 20 years later a statue was added by the city, funded by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

The Diefenbaker Canada Centre later created a replica of the statue.

According to Wilson, the Saskatoon Club presented Diefenbaker with a copy of the July 29, 1910 newspaper, dug up from the archives, which is still pasted to the roof to this day.

"It's really been carried away. It's an icon in Saskatoon and the whole damn thing is bullshit."

Wilson wants the paper to take initiative in removing the statue.

"I'll admit it's kind of a charming little thing, but to have it there as an example of history is false and it should be embarrassing to the StarPhoenix because they perpetuated this thing so carelessly at the beginning."

'The statue should remain in place'

Heather Persson, editor of the StarPhoenix, referred CBC to an article published by the paper's editorial board

The editorial acknowledges that Wilson is likely not the first person to question Diefenbaker's "fantastic" story. It also said it is not the job of a paper to criticize someone who questions statements made by politicians. 

"A statue is a work of art, not a piece of journalism," the paper says in its defence, adding Wilson raises a fair point but does not definitely disprove the account.

"The statue should remain in place. Its presence in no way sullies the journalistic reputation of this newspaper, and serves an important purpose."

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning