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National Post , Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The province with heart?

by David Orchard

BORDEN, Sask. - The year 2004 is rapidly drawing to a close and next year will be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the province of Saskatchewan. The provincial government has launched an advertising campaign urging us to "celebrate 100 years of heart." Residents are being encouraged to undertake, in their own way, commemorations of our provincial history.

As the fourth generation on our farm, the founding of which predates the province, we have restored the 1912 barn and, as a special centenary project, are rebuilding the original log cabin -- in which my father and his two sisters were born -- on its original site in our farmyard. One of those sisters, Helen Orchard, recently deceased, spearheaded the successful effort to save, restore and secure municipal heritage status for the nearby Halcyonia School house, the school attended by former prime minister John Diefenbaker in 1906, and all the children of the district from then until the late 1960s.

These are our family's efforts to celebrate and preserve our province's heritage.

But what exactly is the provincial government doing?

In 1967, the pioneer homestead of Mr. Diefenbaker's family was lifted by the provincial government from its original site not far from Halcyonia School in the Borden area and transported to Regina, the better, apparently, to ensure its preservation and accessibility to the public. It was lovingly restored with the advice of both Elmer and John Diefenbaker and furnished with items donated by the Diefenbakers and other pioneer families.

The Diefenbaker homestead is one of the few remaining examples of the simple dwellings that our forefathers and foremothers built and lived in during the early years of the last century. Mr. Diefenbaker himself emphasized that he did not want the building preserved as a monument to himself or his work, but rather as a memorial to all the homesteading pioneers of our province.

It is with particular anger that one learns that in fact the Diefenbaker prairie home is not being honoured, preserved or properly cared for. Closed to the public, emptied of most of its contents, it sits forlorn and abandoned-looking, less than a mile from the offices of those who are exhorting us to celebrate our past.

There is no money, we read, to even keep the building open, so it's boarded up. We are told that it may simply have to be dismantled or peddled off to an entrepreneur or to another institution to use as it sees fit.

John Diefenbaker was, and remains, Saskatchewan's only son to reach the prime minister's office. He occupied that high position for six years, winning the largest election victory in Canadian history, in 1958. He extended the vote to aboriginal people, played a vigorous role in the international fight against apartheid in South Africa, refused to send Canadian troops to Vietnam or support the U.S. invasion and blockade of Cuba. He moved the CCF's gift of medicare to the national stage. One of the most spellbinding orators of our history, he stood four-square for one Canada. His loyalty was to the prairie farmer and the immigrant, to our historical traditions and our monarch. He was elected MP 13 times in a row, 10 from the riding of Prince Albert. When he died in 1979 after all those years in public service, his estate consisted of little more than that of an average working person. "Honest John," they called him.

In most countries of the world the boyhood home of such a remarkable individual would be a national treasure. Our neighbours to the south would honour the home of a comparable leader in thought and deed.

We in "the province with heart," however, have no money to even maintain this historic little building and its contents. The amount required for its upkeep is minuscule. Has our provincial government descended so completely into mindless, bureaucratic penny-pinching that it no longer knows the value of history, of decency or respect for the giants upon whose shoulders we stand today?


David Orchard is the author of The Fight for Canada -- Four Centuries of Resistance to American Expansionism, and ran for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1998 and 2003. He farms at Borden, Sask.; Email: davidorchard@sasktel.com

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