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National Post, Monday, November 29, 2004

Diefenbaker's homestead gets new home: A replica of the late prime minister's first home gets a new life at a Saskatchewan pioneer village

by Nicholas Kohler

The boyhood home of a Canadian prime minister whose life straddled the hardships of a farming youth in the Canadian Prairies and the intrigues of the Cold War travelled east from Regina, Sask., yesterday.

A replica of the clapboard home John Diefenbaker helped build as an 11-year-old in Borden, Sask., travelled the 65 kilometres from Regina's Wascana Centre, where it had been kept since 1967, to the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village and Museum just south of Moose Jaw.

Mr. Diefenbaker -- known for his bad French and to-the-point diminutive (Dief) -- was prime minister of Canada for six years and in 1958 won the largest election victory in the country's history. He died in 1979.

Regina residents gathered by the roadside to watch Dief's home, pried off its cement foundation in Regina by jackhammers, head east for Moose Jaw. Since 2002, when the Wascana Centre closed the homestead to the public, the structure has been mired in controversy.

"They didn't want to look after it anymore, so they put in up for somebody else to take it and look after it," said Dick Meacher, director of Sukanen.

Bought for a loonie by the pioneer village, which also features a farm and a hand-made Finnish ship, the homestead will soon be re-opened to the public.

"Why? Because it's a piece of history," said Mr. Meacher, a 77-year-old former maintenance man who's been with the pioneer village since 1969. "It was John Diefenbaker's home when he was a boy."

He added of the man: "The significance was that he's the only prime minister that was ever born in Saskatchewan and elected from Saskatchewan -- that's the big significance. Right at the present time, why, he's probably getting a lot more recognition than he's had for years."

The homestead will occupy a plot of land in the pioneer village next to a garden amid the level-but-lilting setting of rural Saskatchewan.

The original, 35-foot-long, 12-foot-high L-shaped structure was built in 1906, when Mr. Diefenbaker was 11. It was destroyed in the early 1960s because of rot. Mr. Diefenbaker lived in the homestead for about four years.

The visitors and students who come to Sukanen's 40 acres arrive to a view of a traditional Main Street, featuring turn-of-the-century staples such as the church, store, school, and barber and print shops of yesteryear. It draws some 1,000 visitors each year.

It's that history, rather than Mr. Diefenbaker's legacy as prime minister, that Sukanen wants to capture with the acquisition of the old homestead.

"I think he done some good things for the country but I don't say that I was ever particularly a strong fan of his," said Mr. Meacher. "I'm not that strong a fan of most politicians. Most of them do something for the country -- good, bad or indifferent."

The homestead is the second historical landmark devoted to Mr. Diefenbaker -- the second representing his role as a Cold Warrior during the early 1960s. The Diefenbunker, located 35 kilometres from Ottawa and known officially as Canada's Cold War Museum, opened in 1961 as the federal government's bomb shelter and the Central Emergency Government Headquarters for Canada. It was still open as late as 1994, when federal government budget cuts led to its closure.

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