The Toronto Star

November 10, 1996

The Chief is back!

Actor, teacher Terry Slater likes nothing better than `being' John Diefenbaker

By Arthur Milnes
Special to The Star

If someone looks like John Diefenbaker, sounds like John Diefenbaker, walks like John Diefenbaker, glares like John Diefenbaker and thinks like John Diefenbaker, are they in fact John Diefenbaker?

This is the question one has to ask after spending an evening in conversation with Toronto actor and teacher Terry Slater. In the 1980s, Slater travelled the back roads of Prairie Saskatchewan and other parts of Western Canada as the star of the play Diefenbaker.

To prepare for the role of Canada's legendary prime minister, he spent hours studying videotapes of the Prairie firebrand in various archives, read every biography he could and took time to interview former cabinet colleagues and personal friends of the Chief. Then, Slater mounted the stage - his jowls shaking and eyes defiantly glaring at his hero's long-dead critics - and became Diefenbaker, night after night.

Since then, a sort of metamorphosis has occurred. You might say Slater has been captured by his role. While the real John Diefenbaker might have died in 1979, in Slater, his spirit definitely lives on here in Toronto.

The resemblance is striking. Slater's eyes pierce you like the Chief's. His shoulders hunch and he uses his hands in conversation like any veteran of political stump speaking. When asked to demonstrate his role, Slater leaves his couch and struts across his living room and launches into a Diefenbaker speech. In a moment, it's the 1960s again and you're sitting with the Chief.

``One thing I do when I'm Dief is I'll milk the moment,'' he says. ``You have to remember that he was very much the actor. And to me, I was the prime minister.''

Many people agree the 47-year-old is a walking, talking incarnation of the Chief. Since he starred in the play, Slater has been asked to perform the role on numerous occasions.

Maude Barlow and the Council of Canadians had him making anti-free trade speeches as Diefenbaker during the 1988 election; he's spoken about the Chief to history classes at the school where he teaches; he's made sure that John Diefenbaker has ``appeared'' personally to congratulate retiring history teachers, and, he was a guest of Brian Mulroney's Conservatives when the then government unveiled a statue to the real Diefenbaker on Parliament Hill.

Last January, he and ``Diefenbaker'' were the special mystery guests at the annual North Toronto celebration of Sir John A. Macdonald's birthday hosted by businessman Bruce Alexander and his wife Andrea. But, Slater says the most moving time he's ever played the Chief occurred when officials from a Scarborough school asked him to be part of graduation ceremonies. The school? John G. Diefenbaker Senior Public School, of course.

``Diefenbaker would have loved that moment - seeing those kids from countries all over the world, graduating from his school,'' Slater says, recalling the former prime minister's crusade to remove South Africa from the Commonwealth because of apartheid, his granting the right to vote to Canada's aboriginal people in 1960 and the Chief's lifelong battles on behalf of the repressed and downtrodden.

And, Slater says he feels he passed the biggest test the night an old Saskatchewan farmer approached after he'd done his act.

``He came up to me and said, `I thought his eyes were blue.' '' Slater recalls. ``Then he said, `Do you know what POOL stands for Mr. Diefenbaker?' I said, `Of course,' and he grinned. `It stands for Piss On Otto Lang, Mr. Diefenbaker.' ''

Ironically, Slater wasn't even in Canada during Diefenbaker's term as prime minister from 1957 to 1963. When Slater was a child, his late father took a job in Puerto Rico and the Slater family thus missed the turbulent Diefenbaker years. Upon returning to Canada, Slater completed a BA at York University in 1971, followed it up with an MA in drama from the University of Toronto and three years of study in London, England, at the Drama Centre.

In 1983, the artistic director of Saskatoon's 25th Street Theatre, Gordon McCaul, who was casting for playwright Thelma Oliver's Diefenbaker, heard about an actor in Toronto who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Chief. Slater got the part and the play ran in 1983 and 1984.

Eventually, Slater got sick of waiting tables and living the Bohemian life of an actor. Seven years ago he took up teaching and is a drama and English as a second language teacher at Mississauga's T. L. Kennedy Secondary School.

In this position, Slater has been able to witness the changes going on in Canadian society. Listening to today's children has made him conclude that Canada needs a Diefenbaker more than ever. Not surprisingly, Slater believes the type of Conservatism spouted by Ontario Premier Mike Harris and the Jean Charests and Brian Mulroneys who have led the Tory party in recent years, is an insult to his hero's memory.

``His idea of the Conservative party was that it should be there for everyone, not just the rich,'' Slater says. ``His image of the party was like a tree. It has strong roots and its shadow protects everyone, not just one group or class of people.

``I think he'd be horrified at what has happened to his party . . . He would never have brought in policies which would have hurt the most vulnerable people in society. If you create an environment of lack of trust - like Harris has - where people are suspicious of each other, society is in trouble. That's not the kind of community and country John Diefenbaker stood for.''

At the end of an evening of conversation, Slater is asked to recall his favorite Diefenbaker quote of all. In a second, he's on his feet and all of a sudden you feel like you're standing in John Diefenbaker's One Canada again. You're being asked, like the voters of 1957 and 1958, to ``Follow John.''

``We thought of the veteran, the older people, the sick, and the crippled,'' Diefenbaker-Slater thunders across the living room. ``I was criticized for being too much concerned with the average Canadians. I can't help that; I'm one of them.

``So to each of you I say I believe in Canada - a Canada undivided. A Canadian I was born, a Canadian I will die.''

You say good night and drive home. While too young to have ever met the prime minister your father and grandparents still talk about, Terry Slater has provided the next best thing. Thanks to him, John Diefenbaker and a chapter of Canadian history has come alive.

Arthur Milnes hosted a birthday party to mark John Diefenbaker's 100th birthday on Sept. 18, 1995.

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