- Title: The Duel: Diefenbaker, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada
- Author: John Ibbitson
- Genre: Non-fiction
- Publisher: Signal
- Pages: 456
Historical political writing routinely runs the risks of mawkish nostalgia and hagiography. Some writers, seeking to avoid these liabilities, overcorrect, producing a different kind of unidimensional assessment of the past that excoriates peoples and times, stripping them of context and evaluating the past against the expectations of the present. While the present is by necessity a lens through which we filter the past, it can play a more or less prominent role in our evaluations. We can’t escape it, though we can manage it.
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In The Duel: Diefenbaker, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson has managed to deftly navigate through the Scylla and Charybdis of golden-ageism and presentism. In a deeply researched study of two consequential and, indeed, at times complementary prime ministers, he manages to examine the men, their era and the context, events, motivations, successes and failures that shaped Canada as it came of age in the postwar years.
Throughout the book, Ibbitson switches back and forth between a narrative that focuses on the Progressive Conservative prime minister John G. Diefenbaker and Liberal prime minister Lester B. (Mike) Pearson. The narrative construction of the book works, reading like a cat-and-mouse game in which we know, from page one, that a showdown of consequence looms. It’s slow to build, with a hefty part of the tome dedicated to the early years of each man’s life, dragging at times. But the build is worth the payoff and by midway through the book, the story seems to tell itself.
Toward the end, in the epilogue, Ibbitson writes, “One purpose of this book has been to attempt to dispel the false narrative that the two Pearson governments accomplished much while the three Diefenbaker governments accomplished little.” He succeeds in this task. One of the book’s theses is that ministries from the earlier days of the Canadian state through to the Pierre Trudeau, and, in fact, even Brian Mulroney years build on one another. Mulroney’s efforts to oppose apartheid in South Africa were rooted in Diefenbaker’s efforts to do the same decades earlier. Universal health care, pensions, the St. Lawrence Seaway, multiculturalism, race-blind immigration, recognizing Mao’s China, patriation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and plenty more are policies for which governments may lay claim, but whose origins and development precede them and for which the accolades that accompany success ought to be shared.
The Duel relies on tension that emerges from contrast to tell the story of Canada over six decades or so. Much of that contrast is between Pearson and Diefenbaker themselves. Accordingly, the book is more than a chronicle of the men and their times, it is also a psychological study of Pearson, Diefenbaker and their rivalry. The latter is framed as a Nixonian character, something out of a Greek tragedy. The U.S. writer Garry Wills once wrote of Richard Nixon as “Nixon agonistes” – Nixon the fighter, Nixon the struggler. Ibbitson’s portrait of “Dief the Chief” reads similarly. As he notes, “Diefenbaker was vain, untrusting, indecisive and, as the years went on, increasingly paranoid.” He was a populist who struggled for the working class, for the outsider, for the downtrodden. But he was too much of himself, which proved to be his undoing as he collided with scandal, poor decisions and a rocky – to say the least – relationship with the John F. Kennedy administration.
In contrast, Pearson was, Ibbitson writes, “fundamentally decent, collegial, funny at his own expense, a team player, someone people wanted to have as a friend.” Like Diefenbaker, he too was eventually brought down the way governments tend to be brought down – by one bad decision, event and scandal at a time until that government, which is to say the prime minister, defeats themselves. Same as it ever was.
The stories told in The Duel resonate today for a few a reasons. For one, the book sweeps across the history of monumental events that shaped Canada and the world and still do – events that hold a semimythical status today, much of them conflicts. The First World War, the Depression, the Balfour Report, the Statute of Westminster, the Second World War, the rise of Red China, the Avro Arrow, the advent of birth control, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, women’s liberation, decolonization, Expo 67 and even Trudeaumania.
But the book also resonates because the country’s past often looks a lot like its present. A government grows tired, a prime minister becomes entrenched, scandals build up, personalities clash, the House of Commons falls into disarray and indecorous shenanigans, an upstart Conservative leader prepares to unseat an arrogant Liberal prime minister.
In other ways, the path illuminates the present by the light of contrast. Pearsonian diplomacy and foreign policy seem more than a time of respectability and consequence compared with Canada’s foreign policy – or lack thereof – today. Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in managing the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. He took part in forming the United Nations and helped win Canada a temporary seat on the Security Council. He helped preserve the Commonwealth in such a way that the Guardian, as Ibbitson points out, wrote that Pearson was “the lifeline that held the Commonwealth together.” It’s hard to imagine that Canada is today the same country on the world stage that it once was. Because it’s not.
Ibbitson has written a book worth reading to understand not only Canada’s past, but its present. He has also done a service to the legacies of both Diefenbaker and Pearson, treating them not as dearly departed saints, but men, flawed and accomplished, fundamentally human, and bound up with one another in history for as long as we remember them and for as long as Canada remains.