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Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker at the Federal Provincial Constitutional Conference in Ottawa on Feb. 11, 1969.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

John Ibbitson is writer at large at The Globe and Mail. His latest book is The Duel: Diefenbaker, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada.

Though he was recovering from pneumonia, John Diefenbaker agreed to meet Lester Pearson in the prime minister’s office in East Block on Friday, Dec. 11, 1964, to discuss the case of Gerda Munsinger. Diefenbaker knew the room well. It had been his office for six years, until Pearson defeated him in the 1963 federal election.

Pearson had learned from the RCMP that Munsinger, an attractive German refugee, prostitute and possible Soviet spy, had slept with at least one former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister. He had sent Diefenbaker a letter demanding to know what the former prime minister had done about it. I ordered the minister to end the affair, Diefenbaker told Pearson at the meeting. Pearson said he feared national security had been compromised. It wasn’t, Diefenbaker insisted. The conversation grew heated.

In his memoirs, Diefenbaker said Pearson, whom everyone called Mike, tried to lower the volume. “We should not talk to each other like this, John.”

“I didn’t write the letter that you sent to me, Mike.”

Pearson maintained that he was not really a politician. “I am a diplomat.”

“You are no diplomat,” Diefenbaker shot back, as he walked out the door.

The Munsinger affair became public in March, 1966, one of a succession of scandals – the Lucien Rivard affair would curl your hair – that tormented the Pearson governments. Diefenbaker and Pearson came to despise each other during a decade of warfare in the House of Commons and on the election trail. The Canadian public came to despise the two old men, clawing at each other while seemingly oblivious to the Sixties’ social revolution under way. In 1968, voters turned to Pierre Trudeau to bring Canada a new generation of, and approach to, leadership.

Popular wisdom today holds that Diefenbaker was a failed prime minister, the leader who presided over two recessions, who cancelled the Avro Arrow and who made a fool of himself during the riotous Coyne affair, when his government tried and failed to fire the rebellious governor of the Bank of Canada. (James Coyne eventually resigned of his own accord, after pleading his cause before the Senate.) Pearson, in turn, is credited with the Canada Pension Plan, medicare, the immigration points system and the national flag.

That perception masks a deeper truth. Even as they fought each other, Diefenbaker and Pearson together constructed the social safety net that supports us today. They demonstrated what can be achieved when the political class draws from a deep well of social and political consensus. And their achievements stand as a warning of what we could lose if we let polarization tear down what they helped build.

A healthy democratic society encourages rivalry grounded in trust. Political parties debate whether to raise or lower taxes, expand or limit social programs, support or oppose a certain foreign policy. But they and the citizens they represent accept the integrity of institutions: legislatures, the justice system, schools, the military, the media. In the 1950s and 60s, Canadians had good reason to trust those institutions. The country had fought alongside its allies to defeat the Axis powers. After the war, the federal government brought in new programs to educate and house returning veterans, built highways and airports and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and guided a rising prosperity that created a new suburban middle class. Big Government had won the war. Big Government had won the peace. Big Government wanted to do more.

Before the war, those who could not afford to pay a doctor depended on charity or did without. Recent years had witnessed amazing discoveries: new antibiotics and vaccines and anesthetics and surgical procedures. There were even new treatments, however imperfect, for heart disease and cancer. But who could afford these miracle cures?

Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1957, Diefenbaker embraced a program developed but not implemented by his predecessor, Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent. The Diefenbaker government, in co-operation with the provinces, created universal public hospital care. Those who were seriously ill no longer needed to fear the financial cost of a trip to the emergency ward or life-saving surgery.

Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas decided to go further, extending the program to family physicians. Should the rest of Canada do the same? Diefenbaker asked Supreme Court justice Emmett Hall to provide the answer. The prime minister and the judge had been friends since law school; Diefenbaker well knew what Hall would conclude. By the time the Royal Commission on Health Services released its recommendations in 1964, Pearson was prime minister. He implemented most of Hall’s recommendations. Medicare came to Canada.

Until the late 1950s, officials in the immigration department dedicated themselves to preventing anyone who was not white from obtaining citizenship. Diefenbaker, who had suffered discrimination throughout his life because of his German name, appointed Ellen Fairclough, the first female cabinet minister, to the immigration portfolio. With his support, Fairclough cleaned out the department and, in 1962, announced a new order-in-council.

“Any suitably qualified person from any part of the world can be considered for immigration to Canada entirely on his own merits without regard to his race, colour, national origin or the country from which he comes,” she told the House of Commons. Henceforth, Canada would select its immigrants “without discrimination of any kind.”

When the Liberals took office, they built on the Progressive Conservatives’ reforms by creating the race-blind points system for selecting immigrants, one of Pearson’s, and Canada’s, finest achievements. Diefenbaker and Pearson together forged the policies that created today’s multicultural Canada.

Diefenbaker won the election of 1957 in part by criticizing the St. Laurent government’s miserly approach to funding old-age pensions. He substantially increased them while in office. But it was Pearson who negotiated, masterfully, the Canada Pension Plan, by using all his skills as a Nobel Prize-winning diplomat to bring the premiers onside.

Working out the equalization system, reforming the Bank of Canada, supporting the emerging nations of the developing world – Pearson essentially invented foreign aid, while Nelson Mandela in an address to the House of Commons in 1990 thanked John Diefenbaker for being one of the first international leaders to oppose the apartheid regime in South Africa – the list goes on.

Despite these achievements, by the centennial in 1967 the squabbling, bickering, scandal-mongering fights between the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives had most Canadians wishing both leaders would leave the stage, and they did – Pearson of his own accord, Diefenbaker kicking and screaming. What the public didn’t notice was that Canada had been transformed over the past decade through universal public health care, government-funded education, welfare supports, public pensions, open immigration. The Diefenbaker and Pearson governments had delivered the Canada we live in today.

The video shows Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre approaching a house in the Ontario riding of Durham. A woman at the door berates Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom she believes is bringing the country down. “His dad started it a long time ago,” she complains. “Well, they’re both Marxists,” Mr. Poilievre replies.

The breakdown in social solidarity was already under way when Diefenbaker and Pearson were still prime ministers. The decline of deference began in the intergenerational warfare between the boomers and their parents. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was the fun part – even I wore my hair long and played music my father found appalling. For American youth, the fight against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War made things serious. In Canada, Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was well under way.

Conservatives counter-reacted, making Ronald Reagan U.S. president in 1980. Things escalated and deteriorated: the fight over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, the invasion of Iraq, Sarah Palin, Obamacare, the rise of social media, Donald Trump, Jan. 6.

American society has become so polarized that, on the right, many appear to have given up on the institutions of government and even democracy itself. The far left has substituted identity warfare for class warfare. Some of their screeds are almost as alienating as those of the ultra-conservatives. The United States is broken, and much of Europe is not far behind.

From the 1960s till recently, Canada had managed to escape the worst of this social corrosion. Declining deference isn’t a bad thing: It opens closed doors and forces elites to justify or lose their privilege. People who were silenced – women, Indigenous people, racial and sexual minorities – have found their voices and made them heard. As a result, Canada is a more open, tolerant, diverse society than it was back in the DiefenPearson years. But bit by bit, civility in this country is deteriorating, standards are lowering, exaggerations devolve into lies.

The Liberals started it, maintaining in the 2004 election that the federal Conservatives had a hidden agenda to ban abortion and privatize health care, canards they have repeated in every election since. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper sought to humiliate his opponents rather than just criticize their policies. Justin Trudeau was every bit as tough on Conservative leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. But Pierre Poilievre is a different kettle of fish. His is a kettle of piranhas.

The Conservative Leader consorted with the anti-vaccine protesters who took the national capital hostage in 2022. He plays footsies with the paranoids who accuse the World Economic Forum of trying to convert Canada into a woke, authoritarian, corporate, socialist dictatorship, or something like that. He calls Justin Trudeau a Marxist, which he knows is not true.

The Trudeau government is, however, tired. Inflation, interest rates, housing prices, uncontrolled immigration flows – the Liberals seem neither to understand what is happening nor able to do anything about it.

And who knows, maybe some younger voters who despair over ever being able to own their own home or even to afford a decent apartment are listening to some of what Mr. Poilievre is saying on the fringes. Maybe that’s part of the reason some polls have the Liberals in third place among younger voters.

We know polarization has arrived in Canada: The rigs that clogged Ottawa and blocked border crossings in the midst of the pandemic proved it. Those protests revealed that a significant minority of Canadians believe mask and vaccine mandates were government tools that sought to strip them of their God-given freedoms, and that only through civil disobedience could they make their voices heard. If it hadn’t been masks and vaccines, it would have been something else.

Justin Trudeau did nothing to lower the temperature when he said the protesters “don’t believe in science or progress and are very often misogynistic and racist.” It’s as though both mainstream parties find it politically convenient to demonize the other side, mindless of the cost of an eroding consensus.

A recent Public Policy Forum report on political polarization in Canada found, through a poll, that 68 per cent of Canadians feared “growing political and ideological polarization” as a concern, while 59 per cent worried about an “acute decline in our democratic institutions” and 57 per cent expected “a dark and diminished economy for the next generation of Canadians.”

“Faith in our democratic system is weaker than we may think,” and points to “a deeper frustration with the state of the country,” the report concluded. “At the centre of that problem is polarization.”

Mr. Poilievre is beginning to offer policy alternatives to the Liberals: fast-tracking foreign accreditation through a federal “blue seal” program, making federal grants to municipalities conditional on loosening restrictions on development.

But when Mr. Poilievre tells folk at the door that the Prime Minister is a Marxist and consorts with anti-vaxxers or derides the legacy media, he stokes fires of distrust in the very institutions he seeks to lead.

Canada has had any number of populist political leaders and movements: the United Farmers, Bible Bill Aberhart, Tommy Douglas, Preston Manning. But John Diefenbaker has been Canada’s only populist prime minister. Pierre Poilievre would like to be the second.

There is a world of difference, however, between the populism of Diefenbaker and the populism of Mr. Poilievre.

As a boy, John Diefenbaker helped his father break the Prairie sod of their homestead. He absorbed the complaints of farmers who suffered at the hands of grain merchants. He burned with resentment at the people who looked down on him and made fun of his German name.

He translated that resentment into a career as a lawyer who represented the most vulnerable. He sat in a jail cell with an impoverished woman who explained, sobbing, why she had hidden her baby’s birth and then tried to hide its death by burying it. He listened as a wife explained why she had shot her abusive husband. He fought to save a young man with the assessed mental capacity of a child from the gallows. He represented First Nations and Métis clients. He never charged those in need.

“One never had to worry about who was looking after the interests of the powerful; they had minions without number,” he wrote. “The individual, uncertain of his rights, with limited means, too often frightened by the pomp and panoply of the courtroom, required not only every advantage that counsel could obtain for him but, most of all, the belief that justice would be done him.”

He never lost his faith in “the little guy,” as Ontario Premier Doug Ford calls them, and the little guy never lost faith in him. As the train bore his casket from Ottawa back to Saskatoon, people gathered along the route to say farewell. “Workmen holding hard hats in their hands as the train went by,” The Globe and Mail’s Joan Hollobon wrote. “Old men standing at attention. Women waving. Young people.” And 10,000 who waited past midnight in Winnipeg.

Mr. Poilievre, who was elected to Parliament at the age of 25 and who has been there ever since, wants to reach the modern equivalent of these people. He promises to push past and push aside the “gatekeepers” who keep ordinary people down.

But the Chief never sought to tear down, only to build up. On his watch, First Nations became eligible to vote in federal elections, his government helped farmers sell their grain abroad, he arranged work for the unemployed through government jobs programs. And he protected every citizen from the abuse of arbitrary power through the Canadian Bill of Rights, his greatest achievement.

“I am a Canadian,” he declared in the House of Commons as he introduced the bill. “A free Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship God in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.”

If Pierre Poilievre does become Canada’s second populist prime minister, he will have much to live up to.

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