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  Dief Centre

by Sarath Peiris

A first-time visitor expecting to find a dreary mausoleum full of musty papers, dusty curios and fusty curators is in for a pleasant surprise at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, nestled in the heart of the picturesque University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.

Instead of a sombre museum in keeping with the Chief's image, what's greeted visitors in recent years has ranged from the historic Magna Carta to awesome Kenyan handicrafts to a painstakingly crafted scale-model display of battleships, warplanes and automobiles.

As amiable curator Bruce Shepard explains it, instead of focusing solely on the life, times and interests of the former prime minister, the museum has become the 'human history travelling exhibit centre for Saskatoon'.

'Dief the Chief', and much more.
'Dief the Chief', and much more.

The idea, he says, is to operate it as a centre for Canadian studies and incorporate the themes of citizenship, leadership and Canada's role in the international community to reflect Diefenbaker's career. While the themes give the museum general direction, they provide it lots of flexibility in programs and exhibits. For instance, a Smithsonian exhibit on Abraham Lincoln -- one of Dief's heroes -- fit well under the leadership theme. Shepard says the centre explores the various dimensions of leadership and the exhibits go beyond politicians:

"If there was one on Mahatma Gandhi, or V.I. Lenin or Karl Marx we would bring it in."

The citizenship theme has featured displays ranging from the origins of Canada and Confederation to -- perhaps stretching the idea a bit -- the recent display of scale models, which Shepard suggests might be construed as the modellers' expression of their interest in the past.

The Kenyan crafts display several summers ago was a case of the centre interpreting its 'Canada in the world' theme to mount what became a popular exhibition of international culture. Similarly, the centre's millennium display served to convey the idea that a 2000-year millennium is a highly Eurocentric concept. The exhibit featured models of housing over the centuries.

Diefenbaker centre curator Bruce Shepard.
Diefenbaker centre curator Bruce Shepard.

Such exhibits change five to sevens time a year, along with periodic changes made to the permanent Diefenbaker displays.

"The idea is that you break away from the 'Been-there-done-that -got-the-T-shirt' cycle to 'What's new at the Dief?', and go again," Shepard explains.

The focus of the museum, of course, is on Canada's 13th prime minister, who ushered in a new era in national affairs with his social justice agenda after the Conservatives' 1958 re-election recorded the largest-ever win by a Canadian political leader.

Shepard suggests that Diefenbaker's notion to create a prime ministerial centre came after a visit to the Truman presidential library in the U.S., when he concluded that Canada would also benefit from such regionally based but nationally focused institutions. The Chief followed up by announcing at the U of S in 1969 -- he was chancellor of his alma mater at the time -- that he would bequeath all his papers, personal library and memorabilia (including a sizable collection of manuscripts, books and historic furniture related to Sir John A. Macdonald) to the university on condition that it would build and maintain a centre bearing his name.

Diefenbaker worked to make his vision a reality by raising funds to build the centre. He died a year before the facility opened in 1980. To say that Diefenbaker donated ALL his collections, papers and memorabilia to the centre is an understatement. While it may be unfair to call him a pack rat, there's hardly a thing he didn't save. There's even a ribbon from the first Elbow fair he attended in 1903, as an eight-year-old boy. He saved it because it was the year his family arrived in Saskatchewan.

The replica of Dief's office includes a reproduction of Louis St. Laurent's desk, the original of which was used by Dief.
The replica of Dief's office includes a reproduction of Louis St. Laurent's desk, the original of which was used by Dief.

Carefully catalogued, tagged and preserved in the bowels of the centre are 4,000 to 5,000 artifacts, among them nearly every pen, pin, plate or knickknack Diefenbaker was ever given. Along with such trinkets, the collection includes such valuables as intricately carved ivory prayer stands and Macdonald's maple desk -- the most significant piece of Sir John A memorabilia in Dief's collection.

As well, the centre houses some three million documents and nearly 8,000 photographs relating to Diefenbaker -- items which are drawing steady interest from researchers and scholars from around the world, usually via the Internet, mostly on Cold-War era issues. Renewed public interest in the controversial Avro Arrow aircraft scrapped by the Diefenbaker administration also ensures the archives and research functions of the facility are kept humming along.

From a museum standpoint, however, what's most likely to capture a visitor's interest are the replications of the historic prime minister's East Block office and the Privy Council Chamber. The PM's office features many original items, including the lights and most of the furniture, while the cabinet room consists mostly of replicas except for the portraits of prime ministers up to Louis St. Laurent, which are on loan from Ottawa.

"This is the only place in Canada where you can actually see the prime minister's office and the cabinet room," Shepard notes, because these areas, now restored to their original 1867 appearance, have been closed off to visitors to Parliament Hill.

In addition to an opportunity to view the life and times of the former prime minister, a visitor to the centre can also get a glimpse of the Chief's final resting place. Diefenbaker and his second wife, Olive, are buried near the museum, their grave site just one of two on campus grounds. Former Northwest Territories premier Sir Frederick Haultain is buried near the Memorial Gates.

Shepard chats with a visitor to the models exhibit.
Shepard chats with a visitor to the models exhibit.

Despite the Chief's efforts to promote more regionally-based, historical institutions, the Diefenbaker Canada Centre remains the only facility of its kind in Canada. In fact, after Diefenbaker made arrangements to donate his collections to the U of S, the National Archives Act was amended to prohibit anyone else from following suit and prime ministerial papers were designated as state records. Today there are only two collections of such papers outside Ottawa -- a those at the Diefenbaker Centre and the papers of R.B. Bennett, which are part of the collection of the University of New Brunswick library.

"We're here because Mr. Diefenbaker felt the citizens wanted it," Shepard says. However, he notes, Ottawa stopped funding the centre as a repository of national records in 1990 and the Diefenbaker Society, established as a national fundraising agency for the centre, ran out of gas a couple of years ago.

The centre now relies on income from three endowment funds, some fundraising activities and small admission fees to operate independently of the university. The museum is open Monday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesday to Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. It's closed on major holidays.

Check out the centre's Web site for news, exhibits and admission fees.

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