Of all my experiences as a political journalist, the 1965 election that followed publi- cation of Renegade in Power is the one forever etched in my mind as a pivotal event. I may well be the last journalist still writing who witnessed that mysti- cal campaign riding the back of a train. I watched it develop from its baleful start in Halifax to its climax in the howling halls of the Great Plains. That western part of Canada was never an offspring of what Donald Creighton called ”œthe Empire of the St. Lawrence,” but a proud land on its own. Its people, who swarmed the platforms to welcome the Diefenbaker train, wanted one thing understood, plain and simple: they were nobody’s country cousins, now or ever.
I soaked up the atmosphere of those rural way stations and grabbed the chance to immerse myself in Canada’s political heartland. In 1965, Canadians were beginning to lose their link with the land. The country’s accel- erating urbanization had mostly destroyed the connection between identity and landscape. Instead of being the defining element of our lives, our sense of place had been reduced to a mere backdrop to events. But not aboard the Diefenbaker train. We were the event. In many instances we were the last passenger train, all four cars, ever to snake through the sparsely settled terrain, stopping at set- tlements that would never again play a part in national elections.
When I decided to include this chapter in my memoirs I deliberately adapted my original dispatches from that epic journey. They alone caught the immediacy of those never-to-be- repeated, heart-tugging moments. At Yarbo, Raymore, Watrous, Biggar, Wadena, Mortlach, Morse, Maple Creek, Taber, Fort Macleod, Claresholm, Nanton, Vulcan, Barons, Three Hills, Findlater, Aylesbury, Lumsden, and Gull Lake ”” these, not in that order, were some of the main way stations.
The election itself was less a cam- paign than a guerrilla war, fought with unreliable troops and eccentric lieu- tenants. The Canadian Prairies became a land for Diefenbaker to flee across, every whistle stop a destination, a momentary reprieve from the partisan fury that had erupted among urban voters who no longer responded to his call. At some point early in the cam- paign, Dief transformed himself into a figment of his own imagination. He ignored his dismal prospects and bap- tized himself the personification of the national will.
While his political rivals were com- fortably lodged in jet planes, issuing press releases as they flew from one air- port to the next, ”œthe Man from Prince Albert” was jolting into small towns at twenty-minute intervals aboard his chartered train, pushing its punishing way across the country. His advisers had warned him that such a campaign would prove disastrous, because in the age of the airplane and automobile, rail- way stations no longer figured in most Canadians’ lives. But Diefenbaker wanted to see his people one last time. To him, the tracks were not rusting rib- bons of steel but umbilical cords to his past. If the train stations were there mainly for their symbolic value, well, so was he. The hoot of the locomotive in the night had been the classic sum- mons to adventure in the days when he was young, and he was bound to relive that time of his life and the lives of his followers.
I had known Diefenbaker as a politician like no other ”” I had, in fact, written the book ”” but this would be the first land-bound passage I would take with him of such extended dura- tion and poignancy. It was his fifth national campaign, and my disen- chantment with Diefenbaker was by then complete, but I felt only admira- tion for his odyssey from these steppes to the nation’s highest office. Each day, I rose at dawn to a pewter sky, which soon turned to a crisp autumnal light.
Even by the standards of the mid- 1960s, it was an incredibly primitive operation. The brakeman riding the rear caboose could communicate with the conductor or locomotive engineer only through hand or lantern signals. The only way the press could stay in touch with their home office was to send telegrams along the way; these were plucked from the moving train with pincer-like gizmos held out by local telegraph operators.
Everyone sensed that a clear Liberal sweep was in the offing, so the press car was filled with second-tier reporters. Diefenbaker had been reduced to a curiosity. The press car resounded to the Chief’s high oratory as the radio correspondents played and edited their tapes. ”œWhat was that?” some print reporter would shout. ”œPlay that again.” The news reporters on a daily cycle were neither required nor allowed to stray far beyond a faithful reporting of Dief’s speeches; by the end of the campaign, many could lip-synch his oratory word for word.
In his private car, Diefenbaker dic- tated and signed three hundred letters a day to well-wishers along his route. Between whistle stops, particularly late in the day, fatigue would dissolve his face into deep creases and lines. The greatest campaigner Canada had ever known was showing his age. One night, I was in his carriage to clarify something or other, and he appeared in his bathrobe. He spoke to me while shuffling around with hunched shoul- ders, dodging and ducking like a prize- fighter preparing for the ring.
The campaign had started in Halifax, where the omens had not been good. Our motorcade from the train station to his first speech at the Queen Elizabeth High School auditori- um was escorted by a lone motorcycle cop, and a fat one at that. Always anx- ious to identify with his locale, Diefenbaker must have felt particularly desperate. ”œHad it not been for the trade winds between here and Newfoundland,” he declared with a straight face, ”œmy great-great- grandmother would have been born in Halifax.” The geographic nonsense did not matter, as those who came to see him were by then such die-hard Diefenbakerists that he could have said his ancestors arrived on favourable intergalactic winds from the star Betelgeuse and nobody would have noticed. A grizzled veteran with a han- dlebar moustache drooping at one end, waving a Union Jack, told me his name was George Fader, that he was eighty-four years old and had come all the way from Truro to glimpse Diefenbaker. Was that a hardship? ”œPraise God, no,” he replied. ”œI’ve lived to see him.” It dawned on me that record- ing the story of this campaign would be less about the politician than about his people.
Dief had to make a token appear- ance in Quebec, the province he never understood and which now treated him as an alien from another planet. He gamely tried a few words of French in Matapedia, where five off- duty trainmen and three stray dogs turned out to meet him. At Rimouski, seven lonely Tories were waiting on the platform. Diefenbaker didn’t rec- ognize the local candidate, though it turned out to be one of his former MPs, Gerard Ouellet. At Amqui, I hap- pened to be standing beside Dief when he was introduced to a M. Legris, who in turn presented his son, standing beside him. ”œC’est mon fils,” he said, proudly.
Diefenbaker smiled and extended his hand. ”œBonjour, Mon-sewer Mon- feece,” he said.
It wasn’t until the Diefenbaker train hit the Prairies that the cam- paign really started. At each way- point, the station platform was filled with a (genuine) crowd bearing plac- ards aloft, carrying their handwritten campaign slogan: ”œHe cared enough to come.” Nothing else mattered. Diefenbaker cared and he had come. Pearson, who was firing salvos of canned Liberal propaganda from his chartered jet, hadn’t come and, by implication, didn’t care. What’s more, if he did come he wouldn’t understand. It was a political gimmick, but to those of us who were there, it rang true.
The Chief moved like a legend over the land. Everywhere his train stopped, clusters of people would seek the sight of him under the slanting autumn sun. Men with fingers hooked into their broad belts gazed at the for- mer prime minister, their wind-creased faces showing a warm glow of recogni- tion. The wind fluttered the hair of the women as they shyly shook his hand to extend a mute blessing, occasional- ly performing a rusty curtsy. I walked through them and looked back at Dief, framed by the impatient train and a crowd that wanted him to stay at least another hour, and realized I was wit- nessing a unique tableau of gratitude and anger. The locals who turned out at these soon-to-be-abandoned way- points had shown up because Diefenbaker reminded them of the time when they had been at the fore- front of Canadian civilization. For that they were grateful, but there was anger as well. Theirs was the politics of resentment. For a while the Chief had offered hope ”” a hope, his people now realized, that would vanish with him.
Their fathers had turned the vir- gin sod and planted wheat fields, fed the eastern multitudes, and fought the good fight in two European wars. In return they had been pushed aside by a world they never made and sel- dom visited; they had seen their influence and legacy lost to the moneyed, urban East. They retreated into the hard nut of patient opti- mism that made their humour drier than the soil after a season’s drought and their spirits more resilient than stinkweed. They had survived bliz- zard, locust, hail, and freight rates, but they knew they could not survive Dief’s departure ”” there were no other Chiefs in line.
Diefenbaker’s rapport with his peo- ple was not built solely on remembering their names, shaking their hands, or reciting comforting homilies. It was mystical and it was palpable when he stood silently on the station platforms, looking into men’s eyes and women’s feelings, seeming to share their worries and fear of the future. He could do little now to improve their lot, but it was the contact ”” the sight of him ”” they wanted, and that was enough.
He was comfortable among them, at his playful best as he called out to some old-timers in Melville, Saskatchewan: ”œWhen did you get here?”
The oldest among them proudly replied that he had arrived in 1903.
”œWhen in ’03?” Diefenbaker retorted.
”œSeptember, I recall . . .”
A gleeful Diefenbaker shot back: ”œWe came in August!”
At Morse, local musicians serenaded him with an unsteady version of ”œThe Thunderer.” I couldn’t file my copy because the telegrapher was playing drums in the civic band; all I could do was hang around the caboose, watching. As the train pulled out, the band struck up ”œGod Be with You (Until We Meet Again.”) I hopped on board the departing train and saw, for the only time in my life, John Diefenbaker in tears.
Later in Swift Current, Saskatchewan (known to residents as ”œSpeedy Creek”), two dozen blue- gowned ladies from some church choir swayed in time to the music from the back of a flatbed truck. When they broke into an emotional rendition of ”œLand of Hope and Glory,” Diefenbaker’s sound baritone voice joined the chorus. It was my turn for tears.
At Duck Lake, he told a cluster of adoring supporters: ”œThey say I’ve made mistakes. But they were mistakes of the heart.” Somewhere along the route, an old man sat by the tracks in the fading light, holding up a crudely lettered sign as the train rolled past: ”œJohn, you’ll never die.”
He spoke mostly from the back of the train over a great megaphone, his beloved wife, Olive, beside him, and never said anything much except that he was sure glad to be there. It was a communion that no other politician could comprehend, much less replicate. In such company, with my background and high profile, I stood out like an evil creature from Hades. It was important for me to bird-dog Diefenbaker as close- ly as possible to pick up the small details so essential to my style of writing, and we had more than a few ”œelevator moments” where he either looked right through me, shot me a look with the venom of a snake’s tongue, or just gazed at me while cursing under his breath. But he never upbraided me publicly and he allowed me to stay on the train. What I wrote was no longer important to him; he had come to be with his folk, and nothing else mattered.
In Taber, we enjoyed a boil-up of the sweetest fall corn in Christendom. The Chief told a hush of schoolchild- ren: ”œI only wish that I could come back when you’re my age to see the kind of Canada that you’ll see. So dream your dreams; keep them and pursue them.”
In support of my nascent theory that kookiness increases in direct rela- tion to the proximity of the Pacific Ocean, it was in the foothills town of Fort Macleod, Alberta, that I heard a pensioner whisper in the Chief’s ear: ”œThat Pearson is a devil! He wants to give away the Crowsnest Mountain to Quebec!” That terse prediction sent me out to walk the land and relax a bit. It was a wet day, and I remem- bered classical composer Igor Stravinsky’s comment that ”œthe smell of Russian earth is differ- ent.” The smell of damp Prairie soil at harvest time is different too, I thought. Stravinsky also said that ”œsuch things are impossible to forget,” and I have never lost the nurturing scent of that good black loam. The story of a country emerges slowly from its landscape, through dinosaur bones, arrowheads, and the memories of what once moved. Dief, I knew, would not be forgotten in his own land. We moved north then, across the Alberta badlands.
At Stettler, two raggedy kids were proudly waving a huge, hand-lettered cardboard sign: ”œDief For Dheif.”
By the time we hit Calgary and Edmonton, his campaign was on fire. We were being escorted in style, with three sleek outriders on each side of the Chief’s car and saluting police offi- cers waving us through intersections.
What endowed the whistle-stop tour with its thin ration of sub- stance was Diefenbaker’s nightly orato- ry at high schools, Legion halls, and community centres. His speeches were reminiscent of old-time tent revival meetings, where the language of exhortation took the place of logical discourse. As Diefenbaker rose each night, his manner was at first halting, his voice muted, as though gathering strength, unwilling to expend his remaining energy. The crowd would hush to catch his words. Once his lis- teners had committed their attention, his voice would take on an infectious rhythm, clipped consonants alternat- ing with long open vowels, the Biblical cadence of a fired-up evangelist, har- vesting souls for the Lord. The left hand would hold back his ever-present imaginary lawyer’s robes, while his right hand swooped down in accusato- ry chops. The whole man swayed to the melody of his words, giving physi- cal expression to his outrage. After attending dozens of these rural pag- eants, I realized they were not political events at all, but a shared celebration of faith. Diefenbaker reminded his lis- teners of a simpler time when people lived in one house all their lives, with one woman, one God, and one hair- style. He invoked a time when people did a little business so they could socialize, instead of the other way around; when they still entertained themselves with games of cribbage and ”œ500,” and the wives cooked hot cross buns on Sundays.
He would take on a highly formal and tragic tone while reciting the woes of the Liberal government, like some gruff ship’s captain performing a burial at sea. The next instant, with the ener- gy born of gloating, he would call down hellfire on the wicked Grits. When the moment demanded, he would invent words (”œThose crimesters who support the Liberal Party”), man- gle his metaphors (”œI never look a gift horse in the eye!”), and clang together head-shaking non sequiturs: (”œI owe you all so much! Why do I continue in public life?”).
When we reached Diefenbaker’s home riding of Prince Albert two days before polling day, a foot or two of snow lay on the ground. It was not the same country where the election had started, in either mood or weather. We were moved into the Marlboro Hotel while the official party remained aboard CNR Car 97 at the railway station.
That Sunday evening before the vote, I went for a walk through Prince Albert. The town was deserted, lines of street lights setting off the evergreens that marched in dark and serried still- ness toward the northern horizon. I must have come too close to one of the ”œhome-occupied houses” because a dog barked, setting off a chain reaction of yelping pups up the street. I walked by the old Lincoln Hotel and went across Central Avenue, past the two- storey Toronto-Dominion Bank build- ing, prominently proclaiming: ”œDiefenbaker, Cuelenaere & Hall, Law Offices.” The town had been an impor- tant fur trade depot, and the Hudson’s Bay Company sheds were still there.
The election results poured in the next day. Considering the circum- stances, the vote was a triumph for the Old Chief. He held the Liberals to a minority government. Outside Quebec, he won fourteen more seats than the Liberals. All of his western whistle stops had gone solidly Tory, but only one Conservative (Lincoln Alexander) survived in the fifty con- stituencies of Canada’s largest cities. It was clear that Dief was Yesterday’s Man and would have to go, whether he wanted to or not.
Diefenbaker died fourteen years after his last national campaign. On August 22, 1979, he was laid to rest by the side of his second wife, Olive, on a grassy knoll overlooking the South Saskatchewan River at the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon. His papers and archives are stored at the nearby Diefenbaker Centre and a human rights institu- tion that operates in his name. He was an inveterate pack rat: his archive com- prises three million docu- ments. A bronze plaque at the graveside marks his resting place with a brief tribute. It is a peaceful spot, with the lazy river making its stately progress north and the prairie winds rustling softly through the willows. John Diefenbaker and I were opponents, certainly, but respectful ones. His casual anti-Semitism and petty-minded streaks could be par- doned; his failure to translate his vision into reality once in office could not. I owed him, not only for inspiring in me the confidence to believe I could go anywhere and do anything despite my ethnic background. He also gave my pen the raw materials it needed for getting me there. He was a shooting star that flashed across the sky, then fell back to earth in the silent heart of the country, whence he came.
Excerpted from Here Be Dragons: The Memoirs of a Passionate Outsider, from McClelland & Stewart, the Canadian Publishers, 2004. By permis- sion of the author and publisher.