I’m helping the daughter of an aunty of mine with her History Summative. It has to be on a Canadian Prime Minister. She chose John Diefenbaker. I was happy about this because since reading Canadian philosopher George Grant’s “Lament for a Nation“, I have been fascinated by John Diefenbaker and his involvement in promoting civil rights in Canada.
John Diefenbaker led the Conservative Party to victory in 1957. He was the Prime Minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963. Growing up, I absorbed some snippets of Diefenbaker’s history from TV, but like most Canadians my age, I didn’t learn much about Canadian history and frankly felt that our history was boring.
I knew about the Diefenbunker and wanted to visit there some day (I still haven’t managed to yet). I knew that Diefenbaker didn’t get along with President John F. Kennedy but I didn’t really know why. I knew that Diefenbaker had cancelled the Avro Arrow but didn’t know why. I also had come to my own conclusion that Diefenbaker was one of our ugliest Prime Ministers.
But while reading Grant’s Lament for a Nation I discovered that Diefenbaker was something of a progressive for his time, despite being the leader of the Conservative Party.
Diefenbaker once said “I am the first Prime Minister of this country of neither altogether English nor French origin. So I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration.”- March 29, 1958, Maclean’s. Diefenbaker believed in promoting an “unhyphenated” Canadian identity, and that protecting the rights of all Canadians, regardless of race or national origin, was key in building the idea of Canada as “one nation”. However, this position make him quite unpopular among the Québecois.
Here is a list of some of the positions, decisions, and accomplishments of Diefenbaker that I think were pretty progressive and important for more Canadians to know about:
1) Diefenbaker opposed the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II
While an MP in the Conservative Opposition, Diefenbaker was appointed to the House Committee on the Defense of Canada Regulations. This committee was an all-party committee responsible for examining the war-time rules related to arrest and detention without trial. When Mackenzie King’s Liberals sought to forcably relocate Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast and interned them, Diefenbaker was against such actions. I wonder how much this had to do with his background as a German. At the time, Diefenbaker was concerned about Canadians accusing German Canadians of disloyalty and during his early political career he had been called a “Hun” and faced harassment because of his obviously German last name. It should really be no surprise that redress for the internment of Japanese Canadians were made under the Conservative Government of Brian Mulroney, seeing as this had been an action that Conservatives like Diefenbaker had opposed.
2) Diefenbaker and First Nations’ Rights
On March 31, 1960, First Nations and Inuit peoples were given the right to vote in Canada by the Diefenbaker Conservatives. This allowed Registered Indians living On-Reserve the right to vote in federal elections for the first time. Before this, if a Registered or Status Indian wanted to vote, he had to renounce his Status.
Although Cree by birth, James Gladstone was adopted by the Blood/Kainai Tribe, a member of the Blackfoot Nation, because he was born on one of their reserves. He was President of the Indian Association of Alberta and was appointed to the Senate in 1958, two years before Status Indians were given the right to vote in federal elections. Gladstone’s presence in the Senate was key in pressuring Parliment to grant Status Indians their civil rights.
4) Diefenbaker’s Appointment of Ellen Fairclough, the First Woman Cabinet Minister
In 1957, Diefenbaker appointed the first woman federal cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough. She held the posts of Secretary of State, and later Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. During her time in Parliment, she worked on issues related to the status of women, including private members bills pushing for equal pay for equal work for women.
5) The Canadian Bill of Rights
Taken from Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights by Thomas Axworthy:
John Diefenbaker was a passionate advocate for the rights of the downtrodden, and as early as 1936 he had begun to draft a Canadian Bill of Rights. Elected to the House of Commons in 1940, Diefenbaker began to introduce annually a private member’s bill enunciating a made-in-Canada Bill of Rights. Becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1956, Diefenbaker stunned Canada with an upset victory over the Liberal Party in 1957, and work on a Canadian Bill of Rights began immediately. Believing that Canada’s internment of the Japanese during World War II was a disgrace, he told the House of Commons that a Bill of Rights “would make Parliament freedom-conscious.” In August of 1960, his cherished Bill of Rights was proclaimed.
Mr. Diefenbaker made the strategic decision that his Bill of Rights would apply only to the federal jurisdiction. He did not believe that the provinces would agree to amend the Constitution. “Let us clear our own doorstep first,” he told critics who said he did not go far enough.
6) Diefenbaker and Aparteid South Africa
Taken from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:
Despite his vehement rejection of the South African policy of apartheid, Diefenbaker was hesitant to consider exclusion of South Africa from membership in the British Commonwealth on the ground that the association should not interfere in the domestic affairs of its members. Political pressure for action intensified after disorders and a police massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville in March 1960. At a meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers in May Diefenbaker worked with Prime Minister Macmillan to avoid a split among the leaders along racial lines. They found their escape in convenient delay. The conference offered South Africa time to revise its policies by agreeing that in the event it chose to become a republic, it would have to request consent from other Commonwealth members for readmission to the association. When South Africa’s whites voted that October in favour of a republic, Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd announced that he would seek continuing Commonwealth membership at the meeting in March 1961. Diefenbaker arrived at that meeting carrying divided counsels on South Africa, some calling for its exclusion, some for renewal of its membership coupled with a Commonwealth statement on racial equality, and others for further delay. As the conference opened he was undecided, but at the suggestion of Bryce he advocated a declaration of principles to be adopted before a decision on South Africa’s readmission. The effect would be to force a choice on South Africa rather than on the other members. When Verwoerd called for additional wording which would exclude his country’s practices from blame, Diefenbaker sided with the non-white leaders in rejecting the proposal. Verwoerd withdrew the South African application and left the meeting. Following South Africa’s departure, the conference dropped the effort to adopt a declaration of principles, but Diefenbaker told reporters that non-discrimination was an “unwritten principle” of the association and that it was “in keeping with the course of my life.” He accepted the outcome as the least divisive one possible and received wide praise at home and abroad for his defence of the principle of non-discrimination.
Diefenbaker’s position negatively affected his relationship with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who already thought Diefenbaker was a nuisance because of his interference in Britain’s economic policies. Diefenbaker was the only one of the white Prime Ministers to take an unequivocal stand against aparteid and spoke of a Commonwealth that opposed racial discrimination. He had be well advised by Civil Servant and ardent Keynesian, Robert Bryce that if Aparteid South Africa, with British support, had been allowed to remain in the Commonwealth most of the Asian and African countries would leave, defeating the purpose of the Commonwealth and making it nothing more than a whites-only club.
Lament for a Nation by George Grant
Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the world 1945-1984 by Robert Bothwell (To learn more about Diefenbaker and the Commonwealth of Nations)
Yesterday, I went to see d’bi.young in blood claat: a one oomaan story at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. d’bi.young wrote and performs every role in the play, which is directed by Weyni Mengesha. The play follows 15 year old Mudgu Sankofa who lives in a poor neighbourhood in Kingston, Jamaica.
All the characters in the play are portrayed by d’bi.young herself. These characters range from the precocious Mudgu, her strict grandmother, her mother in Canada, her Rasta dope-dealing boyfriend Johnny, her Jesus-praising aunt, her sexually abusive uncle, a stammering bus conducter, and the legendary Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons! To say that d’bi.young is an amazing and brillant performer is an understatement.
The play opens with a barebreasted d’bi.young portraying Queen Nanny, the former Ashanti princess who was enslaved by the British and sent to Jamaica where she soon escaped her masters and became leader of the Windward Maroons of the Blue Mountains in the 1730s. Mudgu’s mother claims that her family is descended from Queen Nanny and therefore has a strong bloodline, strong enough to overcome any hardship.
Several images of blood interplay throughout the story, from Mudgu’s menstrual blood which stains her sheets as she sleeps, to the bloodshed resulting from gunshot wounds and machete attacks, to the blood connecting us to our ancestors, to the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed to cleanse Mankind of all sin.
I have grown up knowing that blood claat is a term of disrespect in Jamaican Patois but d’bi.young attempts to reclaim it in this piece. Mudgu’s mother explains that blood claat stands for blood cloth which is the cloth women use to absorb their menstural blood. She explains that women who practiced obeah, a Jamaican variation on the traditional religions of West Africans, would use their menstrual blood and their blood cloths in their magic in order to protect themselves or those they loved.
The play was written by d’ bi.young and is part of a planned trilogy that will follow Mudgu and her family to Canada and back to Jamaica over several decades. She writes:
blood claat is the first story in the sankofa trilogy which charts the journey of three generations of afrikan-jamaican-becoming-afrikan-canadian womben: mudgu sankofa, her daughter sekesu sankofa, and sekesu’s daughter oya sankofa. the second play benu is about a new mother’s journey through the fire of childbirth and mother-lessness. and the third word! sound! pawah! is about familial reconciliation, forgiveness, and a mythologized revolution of dubpoetry in jamaica.
It is clear that elements of the play are autobiographical. d’bi.young herself was born in Whitfield Town in Kingston, Jamaica, where the play is set. She writes:
i am a biomyth-monodramatist. biomyth-monodrama (as i pratice it) is theatrical solo-performance work, written and acted by the same person, inspired by parts of the creator’s biographical experience using poetry, music, myth, magic, monologue and dialogue (primarily with the audience) to weave the story together.
It is clear that interaction with her audience is important. During the play, characters interact with the audience, most notably when Mudgu gets on her bus at which point d’bi.young walks through the rows of seated audience members, speaking to them as if they were passengers on the bus.
d’bi.young held a ‘talk back’ session after the play which gave the audience a chance to discuss the play with her. During this discussion, d’bi.young said that she did not think about how others would receive her work while writing it. This is apparent in her incorporation of Jamaican history and culture into her play. As many non-Jamaicans are not familiar with Jamaican history, languages, and culture, there is a lot that could be lost on them. d’bi.young is right to not let this stop her exploring what she wants to explore. Although she does explain who Queen Nanny is and what the meaning of blood claat is, there are many cultural references that are not explained for the audience but those who are familiar with Jamaican history and Afrocentric motifs will immediately recognize them.
For example, Mudgu’s last name is Sankofa. Sankofa is an word of Akan origin (an ethnic group from present day Ghana). The word Sankofa relates to the concept of taking what is good from the past and using it in the present. In Afrocentric circles, this relates to the need for peoples of African descent to learn the history, cultures, and spiritual traditions of our ancestors in order to enrich our lives in the present. Also in the play, Queen Nanny often uses the word Kromanti. Kromanti is a ritual language derived from Twi (a language spoken in present day Ghana) that was used by the Maroons of the Blue Mountains and their descendants, particularly in Moore Town, during ceremonies in order to communicate with ancestors. It is still spoken by some elderly Jamaicans today.
d’bi.young is currently on a world tour with blood claat. I encourage you to see the play if it comes to a theatre near you. You can see her tour dates on her website.
Review of the play in the Ottawa XPress (2009)
Review of the play in The Financial Post (2006)