Kildonan’s Kennedy?

The ‘prairie politician’ who championed international human rights and famously clashed with Kennedy

He may not have set the heather on fire in the same way as Jack Kennedy but John Diefenbaker’s complexities make him no less fascinating

Helmsdale may be a wee village of just 600 souls but when it comes to linking up with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow it more than lives up to its title of Creative Place 2014.

Although the games are a good 500 miles away from this north east coastal village, Helmsdale’s museum and heritage centre, Timespan, is marking the occasion with a project called Diefenbaker’s North based on John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), the 13th Prime Minister of Canada who was instrumental in creating the New Commonwealth.

So far so internationally fraternal, but where does Diefenbaker aka ‘Dief the Chief’ dovetail with North East Sutherland and did the man who was once unfairly described by President Kennedy as ‘the most boring son-of-a-b…. I’ve ever met’ deserve such a presidential put-down?

John Diefenbaker was a Cold War Prime Minister (21 June 1957 – 22 April 1963) in office during several of the most critical moments of the Nuclear Age. He was descended from the Bannerman family who were forced to leave their home in Strath of Kildonan just outside Helmsdale during the Highland Clearances in 1813. .

The Bannermans made the treacherous Atlantic voyage to Churchill in Canada, before embarking on the year-long journey overland to the Red River Valley settlement.

Timespan’s ‘Diefenbaker’s North’ project tells the story of what came after the Clearances; what happened to those who left Kildonan, and the lives of their descendants in new countries.

Diefenbaker clearly inherited his family’s pioneering spirit as not only did he reach high office, he was also instrumental in developing the New Commonwealth of the post war years, as well as aligning Canada’s trade policy and foreign affairs with the UK and other Commonwealth nations.

During his first year as Prime Minister in November 1958, Diefenbaker visited Scotland as part of his global Commonwealth tour.  His ancestral pilgrimage to Sutherland was a side-trip to this official UK visit and after the formal ceremonies were concluded in London, Diefenbaker and his party headed north to Edinburgh then to Inverness where he was welcomed by a distant cousin John Bannerman.

The motorcade continued north to Sutherland and when the official party arrived in Helmsdale for the weekend, Diefenbaker met up with many local people in his search for his ancestors’ Kildonan home.  Such was the enthusiasm that the official convoy of eight cars swelled to 23 as locals followed Diefenbaker up the Strath of Kildonan.

Diefenbaker later recalled: “All that remains there today is the occasional ruin. The ruin of my great grandfather’s cottage is still to be seen and is not more than two or three feet high.

“My great-grandfather and grandmother became attached to the Selkirk settlement. They had a very bad time. They were to be disembarked at York Factory but dumped off at Churchill. My great-grandfather played the bagpipes during the march to York Factory to keep spirits up.”

“When we attended church, some 12 miles from Kildonan, there was never a reference indirectly at all by the Minister to our presence but in the last two minutes he said:  ‘and I think having regard to those in the congregation today, I ought to say, that the heart of the Highlands has never been forgotten by the descendants, however far removed they may be’.”

Diefenbaker made a return visit to Kildonan in the summer of 1968, this time in a personal capacity to unveil a plaque dedicated to his ancestors at Kildonan Church, and also to unveil a memorial cairn in Rogart to the parents of the first Canadian Prime Minister, John A MacDonald, who like Diefenbaker was descended from a Kildonan family.

Indeed, the two families had lived only miles apart, and in a later interview, Diefenbaker said: “So if it hadn’t been for the Highland Clearances, the first and thirteenth Prime Ministers of Canada might not have been.”

Author and historian Jim Hunter who is writing a book on this part of Clearance history said: “Just before Christmas, in temperatures of around minus 35 degrees C, I visited Churchill on Hudson Bay where – exactly 200 years ago – George Bannerman and other refugees from the Sutherland Clearances were spending the winter.

“It tells you all you need to know about our landlords that they were responsible for kicking out of Scotland people of such courage, tenacity and enterprise. But if their going was our loss, it was very much Canada’s gain. They could have helped make Scotland a better place. As it was, they took the lead in turning Canada into one of the modern world’s great countries.”

As for the Kennedy connection , Kennedy and Diefenbaker were leaders of their respective North American countries at the same time and the animosity between them was as personal as it was political; their relationship has been dubbed as ‘a toxic swamp’ (some of have gone as far as to say that it would make a great movie).

One a devout Baptist from a family of douce Scottish pioneers, the other from a wealthy Catholic family, the feud which has formed the basis of many a thesis was even more acute than the Blair v Brown battle.

From Kennedy deliberately mispronouncing Diefenbaker’s surname to the Canadian challenging Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis, and the infamous Bomarc dispute which saw Diefenbaker resisting plans to store nuclear warheads in Ontario and Quebec, the two statesmen lost no time in locking horns.

Diefenbaker may not have had the charisma of Kennedy but was nonetheless known as an ‘entertaining and theatrical speaker’. More importantly, Diefenbaker combined Conservative politics with social justice issues and during his six years as Prime Minister, his government obtained passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights and granted the vote to the First Nations and Inuit peoples.   It was Diefenbaker who appointed the first female minister in Canadian history to his Cabinet, as well as appointing the first aboriginal member of the Senate.

As the country builds up to the Commonwealth Games in July, what better time to reflect on this former Prime Minister of Canada of direct Scottish descent who ‘stood for a fascinating and still relevant combination of individual and egalitarian values’.

Throughout this year, Timespan is exploring the theme of ‘Remote North’ and the Diefenbaker project will reflect on how developments in travel, communication and trade have impacted on our lives since his visits 46 and 56 years ago…

Project Manger Jacquie Aitken said “We were delighted when local lady Mary Findlay of Marrel gasped with delight when she saw her grandmother pictured with Diefenbaker outside Bunillidh Church when he visited in November 1958. We’ve struck gold with a wonderful collection of photos of local people in the Saskatoon University Archive. These rare archival images will be revealed for the first time by our project coordinator Jeff Rule at our launch event.”

The project launches with a talk in Timespan on Thursday 20th February at 7.30pm followed by an oral history reminiscences session on Saturday 22nd February at 11.30am.

The culmination of the project coincides with the Festival of Museums Weekend (16 to 18 May) with maps encouraging visitors to follow in Diefenbaker’s Footsteps and travel north. Visitors can also view the Diefenbaker’ North montage at Timespan featuring archival images from his trips north, interviews with people who met him, and the Diefenbaker Croft display.

A Diefenbaker 1950’s Highland Hop rounds off the weekend – would ‘Dief the Chief’ have approved?

The project is funded by BIG Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland, Heritage Lottery Fund and sportscotland which will focus on the Commonwealth and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. We’d love to hear from anyone with information on Diefenbaker‘s visits and Bannermans from Kildonan. Please call 01431 821327 or email and follow us on Facebook.

Frivolous fact: Diefenbaker had a half wolf-dog named after him in the TV series Due South

Diefenbaker Quotes

“As far as the Arctic is concerned, how many of you here knew the pioneers in Western Canada. I saw the early days here. Here in Winnipeg in 1909, when the vast movement was taking place into the Western plains, they had imagination.”

“My mother’s forbears came from the Highlands where they had resided for generations in the Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland. The Bannermans were pretty well wiped out at the battle of Culloden”.






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2 Responses to Kildonan’s Kennedy?

  1. norris spence says:

    Caroline MacLeod sent me this article which I found very interesting. In Canada he is more thought of as being German as his paternal grandparents were German immigrants
    However one can say he came from two good stocks. He was a good prime minister and Canada is none the worse because of him. He was known as “honest John” despite being a politician through and through and a lawyer to boot

    • heather says:

      Thank you for getting in touch – good to hear he was known as honest John. Timespan will be focusing on the Dief until mid-May – you can keep up with events at
      Is the Caroline MacLeod who forwarded it my lovely sister-in-law?
      Best wishes,

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