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Diefenbaker's North
An article from Timespan


New project celebrates the ‘prairie politician’ who championed international human rights - and famously clashed with Kennedy.

Helmsdale may be a tiny village on the north east coast of Scotland but when it comes to linking up with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow it more than lives up to its title of Creative Place 2014.

Although the games are a good 500 miles away, Helmsdale’s museum and heritage centre, Timespan, is marking the occasion with a project called Diefenbaker’s North based on John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), the 13th Prime Minister of Canada who was instrumental in creating the New Commonwealth.

Diefenbaker was a Cold War Prime Minister in office during some of the most critical moments of the Nuclear Age (21 June 1957 – 22 April 1963). He was descended from the Bannerman family who were forced to leave their home in Strath of Kildonan just outside Helmsdale during the Highland Clearances in 1813.

The Bannermans made the treacherous Atlantic voyage to Churchill in Canada, before embarking on the year-long journey overland to the Red River Valley settlement.

Timespan’s Diefenbaker’s North project tells the story of what came after the Clearances; what happened to those who left Kildonan, and the lives of their descendants in new countries.

Diefenbaker clearly inherited his family’s pioneering spirit as not only did he reach high office, he was also instrumental in developing the New Commonwealth of the post war years, as well as aligning Canada’s trade policy and foreign affairs with the UK and other Commonwealth nations.

During his first year as Prime Minister in November 1958, Diefenbaker visited Scotland as part of his global Commonwealth tour, taking time to make an ancestral pilgrimage to Sutherland as a side-trip to the official UK visit.

When his official party arrived in Helmsdale for the weekend, Diefenbaker met up with many local people in his search for his ancestors’ Kildonan home. Such was the enthusiasm that the official convoy of eight cars swelled to 23 as locals followed Diefenbaker up the Strath of Kildonan.

Diefenbaker later recalled: “All that remains there today is the occasional ruin. The ruin of my great grandfather’s cottage is still to be seen and is not more than two or three feet high.

“My great-grandfather and grandmother became attached to the Selkirk settlement. They had a very bad time. They were to be disembarked at York Factory but dumped off at Churchill. My great-grandfather played the bagpipes during the march to York Factory to keep spirits up.”

Diefenbaker made a return visit to Kildonan in the summer of 1968, this time in a personal capacity to unveil a plaque dedicated to his ancestors at Kildonan Church, and also to unveil a memorial cairn in Rogart to the parents of the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A MacDonald, who like Diefenbaker was descended from a Kildonan family.

The two families had lived only miles apart in Kildonan, and in a later interview, Diefenbaker said: “So if it hadn’t been for the Highland Clearances, the first and thirteenth Prime Ministers of Canada might not have been.”

Author and historian Jim Hunter who is writing a book on this part of Clearance history said: “Just before Christmas, in temperatures of around minus 35 degrees C, I visited Churchill on Hudson Bay where – exactly 200 years ago – George Bannerman and other refugees from the Sutherland Clearances were spending the winter.

“It tells you all you need to know about our landlords that they were responsible for kicking out of Scotland people of such courage, tenacity and enterprise. But if their going was our loss, it was very much Canada’s gain. They could have helped make Scotland a better place. As it was, they took the lead in turning Canada into one of the modern world’s great countries.”

As for the Kennedy connection, Kennedy and Diefenbaker were leaders of their respective North American countries at the same time. The animosity between them was as personal as it was political - from Kennedy deliberately mispronouncing Diefenbaker’s surname to the Canadian challenging Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis.

Diefenbaker combined Conservative politics with social justice issues and during his six years as Prime Minister, his government obtained passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights and granted the vote to the First Nations and Inuit peoples. It was Diefenbaker who appointed the first female minister in Canadian history to his Cabinet, as well as appointing the first aboriginal member of the Senate.

As the country builds up to the Commonwealth Games in July, what better time to reflect on this key Canadian statesman of direct Scottish descent who ‘stood for a fascinating and still relevant combination of individual and egalitarian values’.

Project Manger Jacquie Aitken says: “Throughout this year, Timespan is exploring the theme of ‘Remote North’ and the Diefenbaker project will reflect on how developments in travel, communication and trade have impacted on our lives since his visits 46 and 56 years ago.

“We’ve struck gold with a wonderful collection of photos of local people in the Saskatchewan University Archive. These rare archival images will be revealed for the first time by our project coordinator Jeff Rule at our launch event.

“We’d love to hear from anyone with information on Diefenbaker’s visits and Bannermans from Kildonan. Please call 01431 821327 or email and follow us on Facebook.”

The project launches with a talk in Timespan on Thursday 20 February at 7.30pm followed by an oral history reminiscences session on Saturday 22 February at 11.30am.

The culmination of the project coincides with the Festival of Museums Weekend (16 to 18 May) with maps encouraging visitors to follow in Diefenbaker’s Footsteps and travel north. Visitors can also view the Diefenbaker' North montage at Timespan featuring archival images from his trips north, interviews with people who met him, and the Diefenbaker Croft display.

A Diefenbaker 1950’s Highland Hop rounds off the weekend – would ‘Dief the Chief’ have approved?

Documentary portrait on politician John Diefenbaker. People on the street comment on his past performance as prime minister and opposition leader. Journalist Jack Webster, after a news conference, talks about Diefenbaker's personality and his accessibility to the news media. On an early morning fishing trip on Vancouver Island, Diefenbaker jokes with his companions and recalls historical quips from Canadian politicians. In his office on Parliament Hill, Diefenbaker comments on the accomplishments of past prime minister Mackenzie King. Sequences of Diefenbaker walking his dog in Rockcliffe Park and attending church services with Mrs. Diefenbaker. On a train from Saskatoon to Prince Albert he recalls his childhood and early law practice. Diefenbaker speaks to his hometown kinsmen club, greets townsfolk, and is re-elected leader at the Conservative Party leadership convention. Back in his office on Parliament Hill he answers questions from producer Douglas Leiterman.

Part 1 of 4


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