Elmer's English 304 Magazine
A Necessary Evil?
Elmer G. Wiens
Many people hold politicians in contempt. That is the easy thing to do, because of the many examples of incompetence or wrong doing by politicians. Politicians are, however, just people, and they are probably just as competent and honest as you or I. My respect for politicians developed from working on an election campaign at an early age. At the time of the federal election campaign in 1958, I was in grade seven, interested in Social Studies and imbued with a love for politics from listening to the CBC news on the radio with my grandfather. Grandfather and my Uncle Jake were avid Conservatives, and it was my uncle, as the campaign manager in my hometown of Yarrow in the Fraser Valley, who brought Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to town. Meeting Prime Minister Diefenbaker, a man of great wisdom and integrity, convinced me that politicians are an essential part of a democracy. Besides, how can you have a democracy without politicians? If you hold politicians in contempt, you also hold democracy in contempt.
Yarrow was a bastion for fundamental Christianity. A few hints from the pastor ensured that parishioners voted as a bloc for the candidate representing the Social Credit Party, a party whose policies reflected the values of the church elders. However, my grandfather Derksen and Uncle Jake, who had moved from Saskatchewan after the great depression, wanted no part of Social Credit's monetary theory (or C.C.F.'s socialism). I can still see my grandfather, standing in his yard next to the church trying to convince parishioners to vote Conservative. He couldn't argue politics on the churchyard because that was unacceptable in a church that stressed (preached) separation of church from state.
When John Diefenbaker became the Prime Minister in 1957, grandfather's elation was diminished because Yarrow voted Social Credit. Consequently, he escalated his campaign. With plants from Uncle Jake's nursery, grandfather extended the row of Dieffenbachia on his yard next to the church parking lot, their flowers a subliminal message to parishioners. When Diefenbaker went to the polls in March 1958, seeking a majority government, Jake Derksen turned a vacant office of his lumberyard into the campaign headquarters for the Conservatives in Yarrow. My mother enlisted to run the office in the afternoon: answering the telephone, serving cookies and postum, and distributing leaflets to interested people. I helped her on Saturdays and after school on weekdays when she went home to prepare supper for the family.
For two hours each afternoon, during the 1958 Election Campaign, I ran the Conservative campaign headquarters in Yarrow. I gave out campaign information on the phone, served postum and--even coffee to drop-ins, and argued politics with any Social Creditors who dared to enter the office. John Diefenbaker never knew the policy decisions this neophyte politician made on his behalf. When the Conservative candidate for the Fraser Valley called one afternoon, Uncle Jake was off running his many businesses, and so I filled him in on his campaign in Yarrow. After establishing who I was, the candidate told me that he and I were related-distant third cousins. That a relative could also be a politician impressed me. I increased my effort for him by delivering his campaign pamphlet to every house in Yarrow.
A strange thing happened that year. A Western Canadian had a chance to become the Prime Minister with a majority government. The number of people who dropped into the office increased. My sister delivered more cookies from home, whenever it was necessary. One afternoon a person from the Conservative campaign headquarters in Chilliwack called to say that John Diefenbaker was coming to Chilliwack. I immediately relayed the message to Uncle Jake. The next afternoon he rushed into the campaign office. John Diefenbaker was coming to Yarrow! I should call everyone and relay the amazing news.
Somehow I wrangled a half-day absence from school on the day of the Prime Minister's visit. Our school's principal, Mr. Ferguson -- a staunch Liberal, refused to give anyone else the day off. Feeling very important, I stood with my grandfather in front of Funk's Grocery Store. The other townsfolk lined Central Road on either side of us in "downtown" Yarrow. Everyone waited expectantly for the arrival of "Dief the Chief." Finally, a cavalcade of cars arrived from Chilliwack. John Diefenbaker--the man from Saskatchewan--his R.C.M.P. guard, the Conservative candidate, and Uncle Jake walked along the street, shaking hands and being introduced. Grandfather said his name, Derksen, when Diefenbaker shook his hand. Diefenbaker asked him if he was Senator Derksen. Everyone laughed when my grandfather said that he was Julius Derksen. I, too, shook John Diefenbaker's hand that day. He had a nice firm grip, and his friendly eyes sparkled from his foxy-looking face. Diefenbaker exuded charisma.
I had expected some special treatment. I understood why my mother didn't meet Diefenbaker, because she was minding the campaign office. I think I expected him to thank me for all the work I had done. After all, I had delivered all those pamphlets, called all those people, made all those policy decisions, and served all that coffee. Perhaps Mr. Diefenbaker thought my Uncle Jake had done all the work. But, I was not disappointed. I was in grade seven and I had shaken soon-to-be Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's hand. Diefenbaker moved on to the people next to us. Later, I was elated when the Conservative candidate took a majority of the votes in Yarrow and the Fraser Valley, along with Diefenbaker's landslide national victory. The Chief's victories were also my victories.
By the time I reached grade twelve, I was a Liberal, a party that believed in a more active Government role in the economy and a greater re-distribution of income than the Conservative Party. That year (April, 1963) Diefenbaker went to the polls, again looking for a majority. Our school held elections to a Mock Parliament during the campaign. In my speech to the Student Assembly as the Liberal's campaign manager, I began with Anthony's speech (modified) from Julius Caesar:
Friends, students, teachers, lend me your ears;
I come to bury John Diefenbaker, not to praise him.
The good that men do lives after them;
The evil is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Diefenbaker.
For the first time in the history of Chilliwack Senior Secondary School, the Liberal candidates won a majority of the classrooms, a landslide victory. I, too, won a seat, parachuting into a class with no Liberal candidate. As the Liberal Prime Minister, my classmate, Doug, appointed me the Minister of Finance to our Mock Parliament. And during the real election, I worked for the Liberals, scrutinizing the ballots as they were counted.
In August 1979, I lived in Ottawa. John Diefenbaker died and his body lay in state in the Hall of Honours at the House of Commons. I, too, paid my respects, standing in line and walking by his flag-draped coffin. It was then I remembered working on his campaign in 1958, meeting him in person in Yarrow, and giving my speech to the Chilliwack High School Student Assembly in 1963. I regretted that after High School I had become apolitical, doing little more than voting on Election Day. Working on John Diefenbaker's Election Campaign, meeting him, and, later, being a student politician myself instilled a respect for politicians I might otherwise not have acquired. I resolved that I would become more active in political events in the future.