Bobby Kennedy’s Friend In Canada

The aging man sat rigid on an unmade bed. He still wore his light overcoat.  He gazed intently at the TV, eyes watering.  The Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker realized he’d been fast asleep while his friend Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated 1,820 miles away in Los Angeles.

It was June 5, 1968.  The former prime minister of Canada was conducting a lonely election campaign in his home riding of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  A decade earlier, he’d been elected Canada’s 13th prime minister with the largest majority in Canadian history.  Since then, much had befallen his political career: a lost election, a rebellion within his own party, and loss of his leadership.

That June morning, Diefenbaker had arrived at a motel room to meet two journalists.  He’d promised them an interview during his regular early morning walk.  It was a far cry from the hordes of reporters and photographers who’d followed him everywhere, jostling for his attention just a few  years earlier.

He stood alone at the motel room door, his trademark homburg hat clutched in his left hand, and learned that his friend Bobby had been shot to death a few hours earlier in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.

Diefenbaker’s fondness for Bobby Kennedy was as remarkable as it was ironic.  Bobby’s older brother John didn’t like Diefenbaker one bit.  It was mutual.  While president of the United States, JFK was quoted as saying he really hated only two people.  Diefenbaker was one.  The other was Fidel Castro.  Diefenbaker had enraged the US president by refusing to join the US embargo of Cuba, and again when he refused to allow US nuclear missiles being stationed on Canadian soil.

To Diefenbaker, the integrity of Canada’s sovereignty was more important to him than appeasing the charismatic and wildly popular US president.  The Canadian prime minister wasn’t fond of Kennedy either, nor of the strong-arm tactics that he’d tried to use on Canada.  When anyone brought up the subject of their animosity, Diefenbaker would remind them that Kennedy might be President of the United States but he was, after all, a descendent of bootleggers.

Bobby was another matter entirely.  Bobby’s active support for the civil rights movement in the US had made a deep impression on him.  Diefenbaker watched closely as events unfolded.  He saw Bobby as a kindred spirit although decades apart in age.   Prior to his success in politics, Diefenbaker had earned wide respect for championing civil rights in Canada.  He’d defended successfully many people wrongly accused of crimes but unable to afford defense lawyers.  As prime minister, he’d also promoted the rights of women and minorities, and won approval for The Canadian Bill of Rights, predecessor to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms later incorporated into Canada’s constitution.

On that June morning in 1968, during the walk and interview following the terrible news, Diefenbaker described his relationship with Bobby to the two journalists who accompanied him: James Osborne, then of The Canadian Press and Ed Ogle, then of Time magazine’s Canadian edition.  Years later the two journalists met again and laughed once again about experiencing a former prime minister perching on Jim’s unmade motel room bed watching TV on that tragic day.  John Diefenbaker died in 1979 at the age of 83, just two months after being re-elected to Parliament for the 12th time.

 Copyright 2012 By James Osborne  All Rights Reserved

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