Dief the Chief: October 1962 is Pierre Brault’s best work as a playwright. And that’s saying a lot, because Brault is a very fine playwright. He transports the audience into an exciting episode in Canadian history. Even though we know the result, we’re drawn into the story.
We find ourselves at the Diefenbunker on August 15, 1979, in the company of the (fictional) Major General Alphonse Tremblay, who has been summoned by the imperious 83-year old MP and former Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. The reason Diefenbaker wants a private visit to the Cold War bunker is eventually revealed, but in the meantime we’re taken on a superb trip through the events of October 1962, the month of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Dief the Chief… is Pierre Brault’s best work as a playwright. And that’s saying a lot, because Brault is a very fine playwright.
Brault plays Tremblay and several other characters with aplomb. Peter James Haworth does a credible job playing the famously irascible Diefenbaker, both as a frail old man, planning his own funeral, “because no one else would get it right,” and as the fiery principled “Chief” who was Canada’s 13th Prime Minister—the Chief whom history seems to have forgotten. He was, remember, the Prime Minister who was against the death penalty, who enfranchised Inuit and status aboriginals in federal elections, who appointed Canada’s first female cabinet minister and Canada’s first aboriginal senator, who was one of the first Commonwealth politicians to speak against South African apartheid, and who gave us the Canadian Bill of Rights (precursor to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). He was, as Brault says in his director’s notes, “A man who truly put the ‘Progressive’ in ‘Progressive Conservative.'” But it’s Diefenbaker’s anti-nuclear stance that takes centre stage in the play. He was justifiably terrified of a nuclear holocaust, and refused to allow American nuclear weapons installed on Canadian soil.
All of this came to a head in October 1962.
The Americans had credible photographic evidence that the USSR had installed numerous nuclear weapons in Cuba, well within striking distance of the US (and Canada). President John F. Kennedy rather peremptorily demanded that Canada voice its full support for his imposition of an American blockade of Cuba (Kennedy called it a “quarantine” because a blockade is an act of war). Dief refused; he suggested impartial inspectors be sent in. This infuriated Kennedy, who had previously formed a strong dislike of Dief and who was even meddling in Canadian federal politics by funding Pearson’s Liberals. The Cuban standoff rapidly escalated, with both the Americans and the Russians doing little to defuse the situation. Nuclear armageddon seemed imminent. Meanwhile, Dief faced a revolt by half of his Cabinet, led by his Minister of Defence who wanted to accept American nuclear warheads. Eventually, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with the Russians and then the Americans backing away from what Diefenbaker called “the abyss of destruction”. But the Crisis put an effective end to Diefenbaker role as Prime Minister—the Progressive Conservatives lost the April 1963 election to Lester Pearson’s Liberals.
Brault’s masterful script moves seamlessly between dry humour (Dief opines that “my doctors tell me I’m as sound as a dollar, but given the state of the dollar…”) and pathos (he mourns openly for his beloved wife Olive, who had died in 1976), and the sheer terror of nuclear annihilation. Terror is amplified by a judicious use of absurd “duck and cover” public service announcements for school children, and of vintage television footage. We really were, as Dief says at one point, “in the middle of a chess match with Death.”
John George Diefenbaker died on August 16, 1979.
Brault’s Dief the Chief: October 1962 is playing at The Gladstone Theatre until April 20. The performance starts at 7:30 pm and is 75 minutes long. Information and tickets are available online at and at The Gladstone’s box office.