Last week a columnist, Michael Zwaagstra, who writes for the same newspaper I do, described the unforgettable legacy of Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. I have no doubt, as Mr. Zwaagstra contends, that John Diefenbaker made some important contributions to our country. However, he remains an unforgettable character to me for two very different reasons.
My younger brother had a difficult time pronouncing the Prime Minister’s name, so when we were children he always called him Mr. Beef and Bacon. In our family that’s how we came to refer to Mr. Diefenbaker. Mr. Beef and Bacon is still the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name of Canada’s thirteenth Prime Minister. The second reason Mr. Diefenbaker is unforgettable for me is because in 1986 I read a book written by Simma Holt called The Other Mrs. Diefenbaker. It was the biography of John Diefenbaker’s first wife Edna May Brower. John married her in 1929 and Edna died of leukemia in 1951.
In 1953 John got married for a second time to Olive Diefenbaker and never mentioned his first wife again. Author Simma Holt claims that when Diefenbaker wrote his memoirs he did not even record his twenty-two-year marriage to Edna May. He only added a statement about it at the urging of his advisors who said his autobiography would lack authenticity if he did not.
John did not pay for a cemetery plot for Edna but buried her with his mother and father. According to many sources, Edna and John’s mother did not get along at all.
Why did John act this way towards his first wife after she had died? Did he just miss her so desperately that he dared not speak of her? Did he want his second wife to be absolutely certain of his devotion to her? He had briefly dated his second wife Olive a few years before he met Edna.
The first Mrs. Diefenbaker, Edna May Brower was born in Wawanesa, Manitoba. She was vivacious and outgoing and worked as a schoolteacher in Saskatoon before her marriage. John had run for political office unsuccessfully many times but with the friendly and personable Edna May at his side, he finally won a seat in Parliament. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says that Edna May offset John’s rather dour presence with her warmth and spontaneity.
Edna threw herself into advancing her husband’s political career, editing his speeches, acting as his chauffeur and helping him overcome his shyness. She would visit towns on the campaign trail in advance of her husband to gather valuable information before he arrived. She had a regular seat in the House of Commons’ Visitors Gallery and facilitated a warm relationship between her husband and the press.
Edna suffered from some mental health issues for a number of years. Author Simma Holt suggests this was as a result of Edna discovering that her husband had been unfaithful to her. In the last decade or so two men have come forward claiming to be John Diefenbaker’s illegitimate sons. Despite Edna’s protests, John had Edna institutionalized and authorized electric shock treatments for her. During Edna’s terminal battle with cancer, John remained faithfully at her side. Several Members of Parliament rose to pay tribute to Edna’s contributions to the country after her death in 1951. This was an unprecedented honor for a Canadian who was not an official member of the House.
Learning about John Diefenbaker’s intelligent and gifted first wife and his intriguing relationship with her, is part of what has made him an unforgettable historical figure for me.