In October, 1962, Canada’s prime minister, John Diefenbaker, found himself swept into a crisis that threatened to end life as we knew it.
The U.S., under President John F. Kennedy, had discovered that Russia was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba that were capable of striking targets in the U.S. or Canada. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade around Cuba, Russia refused to back down, and for 13 days the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war.
Diefenbaker’s self-destroying role during the Cuban Missile Crisis – a role rooted at least partly in his legendary indecisiveness and his dislike of Kennedy — is the subject of Dief the Chief, the two-hander written by Ottawa’s Pierre Brault opening at The Gladstone April 16.
The play premiered in 2017 as a site-specific show called Dief the Chief: October 62 at the Diefenbunker, the massive underground bomb shelter built in Carp in the late 1950s to protect key government figures in the event of a nuclear attack. The Diefenbunker is now a Cold War museum. I saw the show there last year (it’s back at the bunker this May), and it was enthralling.
The show at The Gladstone has had a few script changes, but is essentially the same as the original. Then, as now, Peter James Haworth played Diefenbaker and Brault was Alphonse Tremblay, a fictional character with a connection to the prime minister.
Then, as now, Peter James Haworth played Diefenbaker and Brault was Alphonse Tremblay, a fictional character with a connection to the prime minister.
Brault recalls Diefenbaker, who was Progressive Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963 and died in 1979, only vaguely from his own younger days.
“He continued in the House of Commons for 16 years after (being prime minister). To me, he was this kind of lurking figure that the press would occasionally go to for a sound bite about his curmudgeonly opinions on Dominion Day or the flag. We got to laugh at Dief’s fusty ways … I didn’t know that much about him but I did know my father had a deep respect for him, and I didn’t really know why.”
It wasn’t until the late ‘90s, when Brault was writing his breakthrough play Blood on the Moon, about the 1868 assassination of Canadian politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee, that the playwright started digging into Diefenbaker. His research for that play included a look at the history of capital punishment in Canada.
“I was surprised to learn that Diefenbaker basically led the charge against (capital punishment). He was a Conservative, so why would he be against the death penalty? It’s because he was a lawyer, and he saw at least two of his clients go to the gallows … and he was fairly sure that at least one of those people was innocent.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s a little different than I thought.’”
He did some more digging and discovered that Diefenbaker had also supported Indigenous rights, the place of women in politics and other crucial – and, in some circles, unpopular — causes.
“He really put the Progressive in Conservative,” says Brault. “You wouldn’t see that now.”
Flash forward a couple of decades. Brault secured a Canada 150 grant to create a play about the former prime minister to be staged at the Diefenbunker and he decides to zero in on Dief during those fateful days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
That’s when the PM, for multiple reasons, hesitated over Kennedy’s request to raise the Canadian Forces alert status to “DEFCON-3.” While the clock raced toward Doomsday, Diefenbaker seemed only to dither. The missile crisis was ultimately averted, but the prime minister’s inaction resulted in a deep fissure within his own government, a damning perception of indecision among voters and a worsened relationship with Kennedy.
“This was to me the turning point of Dief’s career where it all came apart,” says Brault. “After that he lost the election and became irrelevant. Before then … he was the happiest guy in the world, leading the Conservatives with the biggest majority in Canadian history, and then it all just crumbles.”
The perception of indecision is damning in politics, says Brault, but in the play’s depiction of the crisis, “We see another side of Diefenbaker.” We have to ask ourselves, he continues, whether it was just dithering or was he trying to delay other actions that concerned him, including the long-simmering dispute over the arming of Canadian weaponry with nuclear warheads, a dispute that contributed to the end of his tenure as PM?
Thrown into the mix are factors like Diefenbaker’s solitary nature, his distrust of others, and his strong, albeit traditional, sense of right and wrong. “I like to point out both the good and the bad,” says Brault. “In theatre especially, there’s always room for ambiguity.”
In creating the play, Brault was also interested in Diefenbaker’s relationship with Kennedy, including an important telephone conversation during the crisis. A lot of the latter, of course, is pure speculation, says Brault.
Asked why a long-dead politician and a long-ago crisis matter in 2019, Brault points to the ever-present threat of nuclear war, the continuing conflicts over the relationship between Indigenous people and the rest of Canada, ongoing civil rights issues, and Diefenbaker’s brand of conservatism.
“As a Conservative, he’d be virtually unrecognizable today. He would be a Liberal or, God forbid, even an NDP. I’d say the Conservatives could take some lessons from Diefenbaker.”
Dief the Chief is at The Gladstone April 16-20 (preview April 15). Tickets: Gladstone box office, (613) 233-4523, thegladstone.ca