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“I am Canadian,” John G. Diefenbaker famously declared, “free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”
It is a testament to Liberal hegemony that Diefenbaker, our 13th prime minister familiarly known as The Chief, is rarely recognized as a human rights icon. Those of us subjected to years of Canadian “social studies” must be forgiven for knowing almost nothing about him (I remember only a mention of his cancellation of the Avro Arrow.) The populist lawyer from Saskatchewan who led the Progressive Conservatives to the largest majority government in Canadian history in 1958 was almost never mentioned. Neither was the fact that his entire career was dedicated to the promotion and preservation of human rights.
How many Canadians know, for example, that Diefenbaker fought the racist Mackenzie King government tooth and nail when they decided to forcibly relocate and intern Japanese-Canadian? Or that his maiden speech in the House of Commons on June 13, 1940 was dedicated to asserting that Canadians of German descent were loyal to Canada? Or that it was Diefenbaker who championed a Bill of Rights, thundering that it was “the only way to stop the march on the part of the government towards arbitrary power”? And Diefenbaker stuck to his guns even when the cause was unpopular, opposing Mackenzie King’s decision to imprison Soviet spies without trial.
It was Diefenbaker who successfully marginalized the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1960, South Africa formally applied to remain in the British Commonwealth of Nations. Some leaders opposed the application, and some supported it. Diefenbaker proposed that the application not be rejected—but that a statement be issued affirming that racial equality was one of the Commonwealth’s fundamental principles. The statement was adopted, South Africa withdrew, and as biographer Peter C. Newman put it: “Diefenbaker flew home, a hero.”
Every Canadian university student is asked to read and admire Pierre Trudeau’s Towards A Just Society and applaud the Liberal idea of racial reconciliation. It is rarely mentioned that it was Diefenbaker’s government that first granted the vote to Inuit and First Nations peoples, or that Diefenbaker frequently spoke at length about his absolute “hatred” of race-based discrimination. When he lost the 1963 election, he told one friend that he came to Ottawa “to see what I could do for the common people and the big people finished me—the most powerful interests.”
Considering his pristine human rights record, I have long wondered what Diefenbaker thought about the rights of pre-born children in the womb. If he made any public statements on abortion, I cannot find them. Diefenbaker was one of 43 Progressive Conservative MPs to vote against Pierre Trudeau’s Omnibus Bill which, among other things, decriminalized abortion for the first time in a century, but his speech on the 1968-69 Criminal Law Amendment Act didn’t mention abortion. (“We live in an age that more and more is becoming a permissive age,” Dief said. “Some say there is no God—that each man should be able to live his own life as he will as long as he does in private. I do not find any support for that philosophy in the Scriptures.”)
Several years ago, rummaging through some old boxes from a soon-to-be-closed Right to Life office in Vancouver, I stumbled across two letters that finally shed light on Diefenbaker’s position. The papers featured the House of Commons letterhead and constituted one side of correspondence between veteran Vancouver pro-life activist Betty Green and the office of “The Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker, P.C., Q.C., M.P.” The first letter, sent from Ottawa and dated June 12, 1973, reads as follows:
Dear Mrs. [Betty] Green,
Mr. Diefenbaker has had to leave Ottawa to complete speaking engagements in the West, but he asked me to send warm thanks for your letter.
He agrees with you completely that to liberalize the law of abortion would ignore the rights of the unborn. He will speak out on this subject whenever he is able.
As to your justified criticism of the C.B.C., he suggests you write at once to the President, Mr. Laurent Picard, Box 8478, Ottawa K1G 3J5, voicing your objection to the programme [concerning abortion] you described. The more complaints the C.B.C. receive the sooner there might be action.
Mr. Diefenbaker sends his best wishes to you and kindest regards.
(Mrs) Theresa Flower,
Another letter, from the following month on July 17, 1973, was sent by another staff member in Diefenbaker’s office:
Dear Mrs. [Betty] Green:
Mr. Diefenbaker has asked me to write and thank you for your recent letter in which you enclosed the letter from the CRTC which you received upon complaint of their program on abortion. You acted in a responsible manner in voicing your objection to the presentation for it is only in knowing the reactions of the public will constructive change occur.
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Mr. Diefenbaker believes that the present laws should not be relaxed as he has a great reverence for life and that includes the life of the unborn.
With all good wishes on Mr. Diefenbaker’s behalf, I am
(Mrs.) Margaret Garrett,
These letters clearly illustrate Diefenbaker’s “reverence” for the lives of pre-born children and his belief that abortion violated their “rights.” In this, he was consistent in his view that every Canadian—regardless of age, ethnicity, race, or culture–were entitled to protection under law. Often, this meant being protected from the government as much as by the government.
Diefenbaker not only stood up for those oppressed by apartheid, Japanese-Canadians persecuted by their own government, and First Nations peoples denied the right to vote. Diefenbaker also sincerely believed that abortion—the destruction of a human life in the womb—had no place in a civilized society.
In a more thoughtful country, John G. Diefenbaker would be recognized as a pioneer for human rights and honored for his accomplishments. The consistency of his beliefs on human rights and his dedication to ensuring that the rights of all were protected—born and unborn—would now render him ineligible to run in all but one of Canada’s three major political parties. But as he stated on June 30, 1960, while making the case for the Bill of Rights: “We must vigilantly stand on guard within our own borders for human rights and fundamental freedoms which are our proud heritage.”