From 1935 to 1957, Canada was under a Liberal government, the longest stretch for a major political party in Canadian history. That streak came to an end thanks to a man they called Dief the Chief, but who history knows better as John Diefenbaker.
In writing his memoirs, Diefenbaker would say of his ancestors that they were, quote:
“dispossessed Scottish Highlanders and discontented Palatine Germans.”
His father’s family had come to Canada in the 1850s from Germany and their name was Diefenbacker, rather than the current Diefenbaker. His mother’s family had been in the country since Lord Selkirk set up the Red River settlement in what would one day be Manitoba, in 1814.
Born on Sept. 18, 1895 in Neustadt, Ontario to William and Mary Diefenbaker, Diefenbaker’s childhood was focused mostly on education with his father teaching and spreading an interest in history and politics to his son. One interesting fact about his father is that in 1903, he taught his son and 27 other students at his school near Toronto. Of those 28 students, four, including Diefenbaker, went on to serve as MPs in the House of Commons in 1940. Typically, the family would follow William as he went from one low-paying teaching job to another, and often money was tight. According to Diefenbaker, he told his mother when he was eight that he would be prime minister one day. His father was heavily interested in politics and was a supporter of the Liberal Party, ironic considering the path that his son would take. As a young man, Diefenbaker especially looked up to Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Liberal prime minister.
Later in 1903, Diefenbaker moved with his family to Fort Carlton in what would be Saskatchewan to work at the Tiefengrund Public School District. His father would claim a patch of land at the same time in the area and the family spent three cold winters on the land. In 1910, it was decided that John needed to have better access to schools and the family moved to Saskatoon. It was also in Saskatoon that William found steady employment, working as a clerk for the provincial public service, and then as an inspector in the customs office in 1911, where he would remain until he retired in 1937. While in Saskatoon, Diefenbaker is rumored to have had an interaction with Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Wilfrid was in Saskatoon and Diefenbaker would apparently sell him a newspaper, speaking with him for half an hour. Diefenbaker then ended the conversation saying, quote:
“I can’t waste any more time on you Prime Minister, I must get back to work.”
The spot where this interaction may have happened is now called Diefenbaker Corner, and a statue has also been erected depicting the meeting. There is some speculation about whether this meeting happened. In 1963, during the election campaign, Diefenbaker told the story for the first time while speaking in Quebec, where Laurier remained immensely popular four decades after his death. The interaction was also described in a book called Laurier: The First Canadian, published in 1965. In the footnotes, the interaction source information comes from Diefenbaker himself, within nothing to back it up beyond that. The main issue with the story is that from 1910 to 1963, Diefenbaker never related the story in any election campaign, which seems unlikely.
After high school, Diefenbaker would attend the University of Saskatchewan, earning a Bachelor of Arts in 1915 and a Master of Arts in 1916.
Soon after receiving his Master of Arts degree, Diefenbaker was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in May of 1916. In September, he was sent to England with 300 junior officers for training. According to Diefenbaker, he was hit with a shovel, although sometimes its claimed to be a pickaxe and sent home. No medical records back up this story and it is believed that any injury he received was psychosomatic. He was discharged but the official records suggest it was because he was judged medically unfit for, quote: “general weakness.”
Upon his return, he was denied a pension that he sought on grounds of disability.
Returning to Canada, Diefenbaker articled in law and received his law degree in 1919, making himself the first person to earn three degrees from the University of Saskatchewan. On June 30, 1919, he was called to the bar and the next day, opened his law practice in Wakaw, Saskatchewan, located 90 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.
He would write later, quote:
“I received my call to the Bar of Saskatchewan in June of that year and was looking around for a location in which to practice. After considering three different towns, I decided on Wakaw, as I felt it was a town with a future. I was attracted by the fact that Wakaw Lake was well established as a resort for a large number of Saskatoon people.”
The town already had a lawyer, and the residents were loyal to him, which made it hard for Diefenbaker to find office space to rent. He was finally able to rent an empty lot and put up a wooden shack. In town, he was known as a tall, thin young man with deep blue eyes and wavy black hair, who dressed in a three-piece suit, making himself instantly recognizable.
He would write, quote:
The first court case for Diefenbaker in his career would be a case involving the careless wounding with a rifle of another man. Diefenbaker was able to successfully argue the case, stating the shooting was not an error on the part of the shooter, but because of fading evening light. In his first year, he tried 62 jury trials, winning nearly half of his cases, and winning the approval of residents.
It was also in Wakaw he first took his turn at trying to politics, running for the village council of Wakaw in 1920, winning and serving a three-year term.
He would write of that election quote:
“I decided to make my first bid for public office and was a candidate against Alex Andrew, who was one of the city councilors. The election prophets predicted that I would be defeated. A major part of my platform was that Wakaw ought to have a decent respectable cemetery in place of the then, unkempt and disgraceful one.”
Through his work as a lawyer, Diefenbaker began to develop a reputation as a criminal defense lawyer. In the courtrooms, he would hone his deep and powerful voice that would become a hallmark during his time in the House of Commons. At the same time, he began to identify with the dispossessed and the poor, and those who lacked confidence in the government, which was Liberal at the time.
While visiting his parents on weekends, Diefenbaker would meet Olive Freeman, and quickly fell in love. Sadly, she moved with her parents to Manitoba but that would not be the last time the couple would cross paths. With Freeman gone, he would end up meeting Beth Newell, a cashier in Saskatoon and in 1922, they would become engaged. One year after the couple became engaged, Newell would get tuberculosis and Diefenbaker broke off contact out of fear of getting the disease. She would die the following year.
On May 1, 1924, he moved into the larger northern community of Prince Albert. It was there, that he would make his second attempt to run for politics. He kept his Wakaw law practice running, with his law partner running the business. That Wakaw law office would continue running until 1929. It was also around this time that he came out as a Conservative. It is believed that Diefenbaker may have chosen the Conservative Party because there was little chance of securing the Liberal nomination from an established politician in the riding. Records do show that his name was put forward as a Liberal, but it was rejected for nomination in that year’s election. He would instead shift to the Conservatives. In 1969, he would say about that choice, quote:
“I haven’t spent a lifetime with this party. I chose it because of certain basic principles and those were the empire relationship at the time, the monarchy and the preservation of an independent Canada.”
While he aligned himself with the Conservative Party, he would disagree publicly in Prince Albert with the leader Arthur Meighen.
On June 19, 1925, Diefenbaker addressed a Conservative organization committee and on Aug. 6, was the party’s candidate for Prince Albert. The campaign was especially heated, with Diefenbaker often being called a “Hun” due to his German surname. On Oct. 29, 1925, the federal election was held with Diefenbaker finishing third with less than half of the votes of the winning Liberal. Soon after Charles McDonald, the Liberal candidate, resigned and gave his seat to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who lost his own riding in Ontario.
In 1926, Diefenbaker would make his first political journey out of Saskatchewan, traveling to the Conservative convention in British Columbia. There, a journalist named William Bruce Hutchison would describe him as quote:
“tall, lean, almost skeletal, his bodily motions jerky and spasmodic, his face pinched and white, his pallor emphasized by metallic black curls and sunken, hypnotic eyes.”
Hutchison would go on to say, quote:
“yet from this frail, wraithlike person, a voice of vehement power and rude health blared like a trombone.”
In the 1926 election, in which Diefenbaker ran again for the House of Commons is actually a unique event in Canadian history. As his opponent was William Lyon Mackenzie King, it marks the only time that two future prime ministers have run directly against each other in the same riding. Not surprisingly, Diefenbaker lost to King, with 35.1 per cent of the vote.
In 1927, Diefenbaker went to Calgary for the federal leadership convention where future prime minister R.B. Bennett was chosen as leader. Diefenbaker would quickly become an admirer of Bennett and his efforts to rebuild the Conservative Party.
Despite these two failures, Diefenbaker was firm in his belief that he should be in politics. While he had little success in federal politics at the time, Diefenbaker would run for the Saskatchewan Legislature in 1929 and 1938, losing both times. He also tried to get into municipal politics, running for mayor of Prince Albert in 1933, but lost that time as well. In the Prince Albert mayoral election, he would lose by only 48 votes.
Through all of this, he was growing his reputation as a lawyer and was appointed to the King’s Counsel in 1929. He would also marry Saskatoon teacher Edna Brower that same year. She would help Diefenbaker connect with future voters with her warmth and spontaneity, but according to some sources, Diefenbaker’s mother disliked her as she felt she should be the top woman in her son’s life.
Beginning in 1927 and continuing until 1929, Diefenbaker would raise his profile in the province and nationwide by defending four men on charges of murder in four different cases. In The King v. Bourdon, his defendant was found not guilty. In The King v Olson, his client was convicted of murder, but Diefenbaker was able to prevent the death penalty and instead have it commuted to life in prison. In The King v Paswesty, he also kept his client from being put to death. In The King v. Wyoscham, he defended his client stating that the murder was done by the victim’s husband. Unfortunately, in this case Diefenbaker was unsuccessful and Alex Wyoscham was hanged in the Prince Albert jail in June of 1930. In his 20 years practicing law, he would keep 18 men from being put to death.
In 1933, Diefenbaker was elected as the vice-president of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party, beginning a smooth rise to the top office in the land a quarter-century later.
The first steps towards getting to being elected to a higher politician station, successfully that is, came in 1936 when Diefenbaker was elected as the leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party. In the leadership convention, held on Oct. 28, 1936, 11 people were nominated for leader including Diefenbaker. Of those, 10 deemed the party to be in hopeless shape and withdrew, letting Diefenbaker win by default. He would preside over the party in the 1938 election, when they won no seats, picking up only 12 per cent of the vote. Diefenbaker attempted to resign as leader, but this was refused, so he ran the provincial party out of his law office, paying party debts with his own money.
Despite the political setbacks, Diefenbaker continued in his efforts to get elected, visiting many Saskatchewan communities with his wife Edna, and building up the organization of the party in the province. To those who doubted its chances of success, he told them to keep the faith.
Around 1939, Diefenbaker would seek the Conservative nomination for the Lake Centre riding. At the nominating convention, he spoke as a keynote speaker, and then withdrew his name when it was proposed for nomination stating that someone local should be selected. W.B. Kelly was then chosen as a winner among five other candidates, but he refused and told the delegates to select Diefenbaker. As a result, Diefenbaker was selected for the riding.
In March of 1940, he finally achieved his political dream when he was elected to the House of Commons. In that election, he defeated the Liberal incumbent by only 1.9 per cent of the vote, and just under 300 votes. In that election, the Conservatives suffered their worst defeat in history to that point, with only 39 seats out of 245 in the House of Commons. After five tries, Diefenbaker was finally going to the House of Commons and he would never lose another election for the rest of his life.
On June 13, 1940, Diefenbaker made his first speech in the House of Commons, supporting wartime regulations, but also stated that German Canadians were loyal to the country. In his memoirs, Diefenbaker would state that he led an unsuccessful fight against the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians, but this has been disputed in official records.
While King was on the other side of the aisle from Diefenbaker, Diefenbaker admired King for his political skills. On the other side, King find Diefenbaker to be an annoyance, and was angered when Diefenbaker sought to censure the government. On one occasion, Diefenbaker went to a briefing on the war with two other Conservatives and King screamed at Diefenbaker, who was technically a constituent of his riding, stating quote:
“What business do you have here? You strike me to the heart every time you speak.”
From those early years, he would begin to use his legal skills to his advantage in the backbench of the Opposition. He began to gain a reputation for his astute questioning of government actions, and his profile was growing. He established himself as one of the best critics of the government in the Opposition, calling for conscription overseas.
In 1942, Diefenbaker ran for leader of the Conservative Party, finishing third with 13.8 per cent of the vote on the first ballot and 9.1 per cent on the second ballot. While he did not win the leadership race, his speech that emphasized the need to preserve Canada in the British Empire, and ensure the security of the common man, enhanced his reputation in the party.
In January of 1944, the King government introduced legislation for a family allowance plan. Diefenbaker would persuade the Conservatives, who were reluctant to support it, to support it and he would lead the party in the debate on the bill, which was passed unanimously in the house.
Diefenbaker would be re-elected in 1945, picking up a larger share of the ridings vote, showing his growing popularity and prominence in politics. The Conservatives also gained more seats, finishing with 67 to the Liberals 125.
While Bracken was quickly losing support in the Conservative Party, Diefenbaker would attack the government for keeping wartime regulations in place and ignoring the rights of individuals. He would also propose a bill of rights in 1946, stating his goal was an unhyphenated nation where citizens of many origins and religions were treated equally. He would also block his own party’s campaign to outlaw the Community Party.
By 1948, Mackenzie King was retiring, Louis St. Laurent was coming in as the new prime minister and John Bracken, despite success as the leader of the Conservatives, was unpopular in the party and he would step down on July 17, 1948. Diefenbaker quickly announced his candidacy for leader. This time, he was up against George Drew, the popular Ontario premier who had won three provincial elections to that point. The Conservative Party members were also heavily in favour of Drew over Diefenbaker and Diefenbaker would lose on the first ballot, with only 25 per cent of the vote, almost 50 per cent less than Drew. Whatever the Conservatives hoped for, the Conservatives collapsed in the 1949 election, with only 41 seats, while the Liberals gained the largest majority in Canadian history to that point. While Diefenbaker had raised his reputation within the Conservative Party, many saw him as aloof, a showman and temperamental.
For Diefenbaker, in 1949 he had his best election to date when he had almost half the votes in the riding, and nearly 20 per cent more than the next challenger.
Diefenbaker would see his profile raised in Canada when he defended the father of Jack Atherton, who was accused of causing a train crash at Canoe River, BC in 1950. In the incident, two trains collided, killing four crew members and 17 soldiers on their way to Korea. His wife would urge him to take on the case, as the defendant had grown up in his riding. Diefenbaker was able to successfully defend Atherton in what was known as the Canoe River case, who was found not guilty. Many consider this as a case that helped make the political career of Diefenbaker.
The Liberals saw Diefenbaker as a rising star within the House of Commons and would begin to reorganize ridings, eventually removing the Lake Centre riding of Diefenbaker entirely and dividing its voters among three other ridings. For Diefenbaker, it was a difficult time for him, and he would see a terrible loss around the same time when his wife Edna was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Edna had always supported her husband’s political career, but in the 1940s she began to suffer from mental illness and was placed in a private mental hospital for a brief time. She had fallen into a deep depression in 1945 and 1946 but improved in 1947. Unfortunately, her health would decline, and she passed away in February of 1951.
With her death, Diefenbaker was overwhelmed with the loss, and several MPs, including Liberals, would publicly express eulogies for her in an unprecedented move in the House of Commons.
He thought about retiring, and Drew was only one year older than him so Diefenbaker did not think he would ever reach the leader level in the party. The only thing that kept him in politics at the time were the attempts by the Liberals to influence his loss in the next election and Diefenbaker decided to fight for a seat. He would choose to stand in the riding of Prince Albert. The last time a Conservative MP was elected there was in 1911.
In 1953, under the campaign slogan of “Not a partisan cry but a national need”, Diefenbaker dominated voting in the riding in the election, winning by over 3,000 votes. He was the only Conservative MP elected in Saskatchewan in that election. That success came with an extra bit of happiness as Diefenbaker married Olive Palmer, the woman he had courted back in Wakaw, who would become a strong supporter of Diefenbaker’s career for the rest of her life. Neither marriage produced any children.
Diefenbaker was unable to crack into the leadership circle of Drew, but he remained loyal despite never being invited into the Five O’clock Club, the group of Conservatives MP who met in Drews office to talk and drink at the end of each day.
Things began to change in 1955 with the belief among those in the Conservative Party that Drew would never lead the party to victory over the Liberals. In August of 1956, Drew grew sick and party members urged him to step aside as the party needed a new leader for the election that would soon be coming. He agreed and resigned in September. Diefenbaker immediately put his name in for leadership. There continued to be opposition towards Diefenbaker in his own party and a “Stop Diefenbaker” movement began in the Ontario wing of the party. Despite that opposition, the provincial parties in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba all supported him. Unfortunately for his detractors, but fortunately for Diefenbaker, no candidate with his 16 years of experience came forward. Only Donald Fleming brought any sort of competition for Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker was elected as leader on the first ballot with 60.3 per cent of the vote. The critics of Diefenbaker in the party thought that since he was 61, he would not lead the party beyond one election and that it would be won by the Liberals anyways.
As it turned out, they would be very wrong.
On June 10, 1957, the federal election was scheduled, and Parliament was dissolved on April 12. Diefenbaker immediately went on the attack, especially over high taxes, failures to assist pensioners and lack of aid for poor provinces. Diefenbaker would run on a platform of changes to domestic policies, a new agricultural policy, and to reduce dependency on the United States for trade. In talking about the Conservative platform on April 30, 1957, he would state, quote:
In speaking with voters, Diefenbaker looked back to the days of Sir John A. Macdonald to win voters, stating quote:
“We intend to launch a National Policy of development in the Northern areas, which may be called the New Fronter Policy. Macdonald was concerned with the opening of the West; we are concerned with the developments in the provinces and in our Northern Frontier in particular. The North, with all its vast resources and hidden wealth, the wonder and the challenge of the North must become our national consciousness.”
Just before the election, a poll was held that showed the Liberals at 48 per cent to 34 per cent. By the end of election night, after early gains by the Liberals, the Conservatives were victorious. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives took 112 seats, an increase of 61 seats from the previous election. The Liberals fell by 64 seat. For the first time since 1935, Canada would have a Conservative Prime Minister.
Due to the 22 years between 1935 and 1957, Diefenbaker only had one MP, Earl Rowe, who had served in federal government office, when he took office as prime minister on June 21, 1957. Rowe was not a fan of Diefenbaker and was not given a post in the government. Diefenbaker would state that he had to make a cabinet composed of his enemies. In the government, Diefenbaker would make history by appointing Ellen Fairclough as Secretary of State for Canada, making her the first woman appointed to a cabinet post. He also appointed Michael Starr as the Minister of Labour, making him the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to serve in cabinet.
On Oct. 14, Queen Elizabeth II opened Parliament, the first time a Canadian monarch had done so, and Diefenbaker’s Conservatives got to work bringing in tax cuts and increasing age old pensions. Despite not having a majority, Diefenbaker and the minor parties worked together, and the Liberals were dealing with the retirement of Louis St. Laurent, which limited their abilities to oppose the government at the time.
Diefenbaker wanted another election on the hope he could gain a majority, but it was unlikely that the Governor General would agree to this, as had happened 30 years previous in with Arthur Meighen and King. Lester B. Pearson had been appointed as the Liberal Leader and he called for the Progressive Conservatives to resign to allow the Liberals to form a government. In response, Diefenbaker spoke for two hours straight, causing Pearson to write in his memoirs that his first attack on the government was not only a failure, but a fiasco. He would say that Diefenbaker, quote:
“Tore me to shreds.”
Paul Martin Sr., a prominent Liberal, would call it one of the greatest devastating speeches in House of Commons history.
An election was called for March 31, 1958 soon after. At the time, the Conservatives were enjoying a huge amount of public support. On Feb. 12, at the opening campaign rally in Winnipeg, the doors of the hall had to be closed because it was filled. Those doors were broken down by the crowd outside soon after. In this election, Diefenbaker pledged to focus on his concept of his vision, again focusing on the North. He would state quote:
“This is the vision. One Canada. One Canada, where Canadians will have preserved to them the control of their own economic and political destiny. Sir John A. Macdonald saw a Canada from east to west. He opened the west. I see a new Canada. A Canada of the North. This is the vision.”
He would go on to say at another rally, quote:
“Everywhere I go, I see the uplift in people’s eyes that comes from raising their sights to see the Vision of Canada in days ahead.”
The Conservatives picked up an astounding 97 seats, finishing with 208, while the Liberals had 48. With that election, Diefenbaker’s government won the largest majority in Canadian history and the second largest percentage of the popular vote with 53.67 per cent. The Conservatives won the majority of seats and votes in every province except British Columbia and Newfoundland.
In his victory speech, Diefenbaker would say, quote:
“The Conservative Party has become a truly national party composed of all the people of Canada of all races united in the concept of one Canada.”
As Prime Minister, Diefenbaker would bring in several huge changes to Canada. One of the most significant was the sale of wheat to China and new agricultural reforms that revitalized the agricultural industry of Western Canada.
In 1958, he nominated James Gladstone, the first Indigenous member of the Canadian Senate.
Also that year, Diefenbaker took a tour of the British Commonwealth, which solidified his belief in supporting the non-White Commonwealth members. At first, Diefenbaker had a policy of not criticizing the South African government. In 1960, though, South Africa applied to remain in the Commonwealth regardless of whether or not it became a republic in a public referendum. Diefenbaker would privately state he had a great dislike for apartheid and after South Africa became a republic on Oct. 5, Diefenbaker proposed that South Africa could be in the Commonwealth if it condemned apartheid. Instead, South Africa withdrew its application and left the Commonwealth.
Diefenbaker would have a generally good relationship with the Americans as well. Dwight Eisenhower made an effort to have good relations with Diefenbaker, and the two soon found that they had a love of fishing and both had western farming backgrounds. Diefenbaker would later write, quote:
“I might add that President Eisenhower and I were from our first meeting on an Ike-John basis and that we were as close as the nearest telephone.”
Thanks to this good relationship, Diefenbaker would approve plans to join the United States in what would become known as NORAD, despite Liberal misgivings that it was committing Canada to a system without consultation. The relationship between Eisenhower and Diefenbaker was not the same as he would have with JFK. More on that later.
On July 1, 1960, Diefenbaker would introduce the Canadian Bill of Rights into Parliament, which was quickly passed and proclaimed on Aug. 10. As a trial lawyer, Diefenbaker had always been concerned with civil liberties and this bill was a lifetime goal.
He would say, quote:
“I know something of what it has meant in the past for some to regard those with names of other than British or French origin as not being that kind of Canadian that those of British and French origin claim to be.”
That same year, Diefenbaker extended voting rights to all Indigenous people in Canada. This was part of his goal of One Canada, a policy that sought equality for all Canadians. For this reason, he would not make special concessions for Quebec francophones, which would lead to the erosion of support for the party in the province. While Diefenbaker did not appoint any Quebecers to senior positions in cabinet, he did recommend Georges Vanier for Governor General, the first French-Canadian to hold the post.
Diefenbaker’s government operated under the concept of creating an umbrella of social justice. With this system, Diefenbaker’s government would restructure programs to help those in need, while also creating the National Productivity Council, which became the Economic Council of Canada. He also pushed for increased public awareness of the Canadian North, leading to greater economic development in the region. His government would also set a date to begin federal support of provincial hospital insurance, rather than waiting for provinces to join the plan. This would continue Canada’s move towards creating universal health care in the 1960s.
With such a huge majority, Diefenbaker would see a great amount of criticism levied his way for a variety of decisions. Many accused him of running a one-man government, and the cabinet ministers he appointed were not brilliant in their job, and his long cabinet meetings rarely came to a consensus. While Diefenbaker would bring in many changes, he was noted for not being skilled in compromise, and he preferred debate in the House of Commons to the long-term promotion of his ideas. As the attacks against him began to grow, his lawyer background caused him to focus more on the dramatic and suspicions than on calm judgement and a united political team.
In 1959, his government would controversially cancel the Avro Arrow program, which remains one of the most controversial decisions of his entire time as prime minister. The jet was a supersonic jet designed to defend Canada in the event of a Soviet attack. The program soon began to develop cost overruns and the RCAF would state it only needed nine squadrons of the plane, not 20. The Americans were also unwilling to commit to a purchase of the aircraft from Canada despite successful test flights. In September of 1958, Diefenbaker stated that the program would be under review in six months. Eventually, on Feb. 20, 1959, the Cabinet voted to cancel the program. This resulted in the immediate firing of 14,000 employees, and Diefenbaker was blamed for the firings.
The biggest issue for Diefenbaker though, was the debate of allowing nuclear weapons on Canadian soil, called the Bormac Missile Crisis. John F. Kennedy had requested that nuclear weapons be stationed on Canadian soil as part of NORAD. Diefenbaker was initially in favour of this, but on Aug. 3, 1961, a letter from Kennedy was leaked to the media and Diefenbaker withdrew his support. Around this same time, a huge demonstration against nuclear weapons was held on Parliament Hill, and a petition of 142,000 names was created. In 1962, the Americans were concerned about the lack of commitment from Canada to have nuclear weapons on its soil. Canadian and American officials began to work together to quietly launch a campaign to advocate for a Canadian agreement to acquire warheads. Kennedy was typically quite cool with Diefenbaker and even invited Pearson to the White House as a Nobel Prize winner, and met with him privately for 40 minutes. This greatly angered Diefenbaker who saw it as a slight. After his first meeting with Diefenbaker, Kennedy would say to his brother Robert, quote:
“I don’t want to see that boring son of a bitch again.”
Kennedy would even allow his pollster, Lou Harris, to work for the Liberals without it being known widely. Kennedy would visit Ottawa but spent most of his time talking to Pearson at a formal dinner. Both Kennedy and his wife Jackie stated they were bored by Diefenbaker’s anecdotes during a lunch and Jackie would describe the lunch as “painful”.
Diefenbaker often compared himself to his rival Lester B. Pearson, who he often showed open resentment towards. While Pearson had made an impact on the international scene, Diefenbaker would do the same. He would have both the British prime minister and President Eisenhower invited to Ottawa, and he would tour Europe and the Asian Commonwealth. He would meet with heads of state, including French president Charles de Gaulle. He would tour through Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. On Sept. 26, 1960, he gave a speech in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations, denouncing the Soviet Union.
By this point, the press gallery was openly disillusioned towards the government and its prime minister. Many felt Diefenbaker was disorganized and becoming increasingly indecisive. James Stewart, of the Montreal Star, would say on June 18, 1962 that Parliament was, quote:
“sometimes aimless, often ill-tempered and always potentially explosive.”
In the fall of 1962, Diefenbaker’s government would be re-elected but lost 89 seats, falling to 116, while the Liberals picked up 49 seats to finish with 99. What had been the largest majority in Canadian history was now reduced to a minority government. While the Bormac Missile Crisis and the cancellation of the Avro Arrow program contributed heavily to this, other issues such as the loss of support in Quebec and the devaluing of the Canadian dollar also had a hand in the loss of seats.
While Diefenbaker had lost, he had led a vigorous campaign. The Globe and Mail would state, quote:
“The Conservative campaign has been essentially a one-man show with Mr. Diefenbaker the man. If they fail to win, he must take the blame, if they do win, he can claim the victory. No matter how many seats they lose, for his own.”
During the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy appealed for allied solidarity, but Diefenbaker responded hesitantly, which angered many of his cabinet ministers.
The issue over nuclear weapons in Canada was not going away either. NATO Supreme Commander, on a visit to Canada on Jan. 3, 1963, he stated that if Canada did not accept nuclear weapons, it was not doing its part in NATO. Diefenbaker saw this as a plot to bring down his government, initiated by Kennedy, and the press began to blame Diefenbaker over the issue of nuclear weapons. Diefenbaker would not take a firm stance of yes or no on nuclear weapons but in a speech on Jan. 25, many saw it as supporting nuclear warheads in Canada, but some saw it as against nuclear weapons. On Jan. 30, the US State Department sent out a press release stating that Diefenbaker made misstatements in his speech, and for the first time in history, Canada recalled its ambassador from Washington in protest. The issue not only divided many in Canada, but it divided the cabinet of Diefenbaker as well.
With that collapse, Diefenbaker was dealing with an internal revolt within the party, and members of his cabinet attempted to have him removed from leadership and as prime minister. Six of his cabinet ministers were in favour of removing him as leader. At a cabinet meeting, Diefenbaker asked that the ministers who supported him to stand, and only half did.
The government would soon fall in a motion of non-confidence. The campaign would open with the Liberals up 15 points, and many felt the Liberals would gain a majority. Diefenbaker, was not prepared to let that happen and he would put everything he could into winning the election. Diefenbaker travelled the entire country, nearly all by train, and was almost alone on the campaign trail. Many described him as the old Diefenbaker in fully cry and revived by the contact with the people of the country.
On April 8, 1963, the Liberals picked up 129 seats to the Conservatives 95, not enough for an absolute majority and Diefenbaker would hold onto power for several days until six Quebec Social Credit MPs signed a statement stating that Pearson should form a government. Diefenbaker would soon resign, ending his time as prime minister.
Many felt that the election was the finest moment of the political career of Diefenbaker, who carried the party himself to limit the victory of the Liberals.
Diefenbaker would find his new role as the Leader of the Opposition especially enjoyable as he was able to question the Liberal government to such an extent that it began to slow down government considerably. This was seen in his intense opposition during the Canadian Flag Debate, which finally ended when his own party members invoked closure rather than continue on the debate. I covered this last month in my episode on The Great Canadian Flag Debate, so check it out.
In 1966, the Munsinger Affair erupted when two officials of the Diefenbaker government had slept with a woman suspected of being a Soviet spy. A royal commission was held and while it found no security breach, it faulted Diefenbaker for not dismissing the ministers in question.
The Liberals would win the 1965 election, with a minority government again, and the beginning of the end was coming for Diefenbaker as leader of the Conservatives. Behind the scenes, work was beginning to remove Diefenbaker from his leadership role. Throughout the 1960s, there was growing resentment over Diefenbaker within the party. Despite this, and with the party split over his leadership, Diefenbaker refused to resign. Dalton Camp would even propose a change to the party constitution requiring an automatic vote on whether to hold a leadership convention in the face of a loss of a general election. Diefenbaker met this with accusations of back stabling and it failed to be approved, but a leadership convention was agreed upon for 1967.
During the leadership convention, this revolt was seen in literally how everything was put together. There were allegations of vote rigging and even violence, and seats were arranged so that when Diefenbaker addressed delegates, viewers on television would see unmoved delegates in the first 10 rows. While giving his speech, Diefenbaker was also shouted down by his critics.
Diefenbaker put up a strong defense but in the end Robert Stanfield was chosen as the new leader of the party. In that leadership vote, Diefenbaker, the man who had led the party to its greatest triumph and had served as its head for the past decade, would not make it past the third ballot. In the first ballot, he had 12.1 per cent of the vote, then 7.8 per cent of the vote in the second ballot, and finally, only 5.2 per cent of the vote on the third ballot.
Diefenbaker would speak to delegates following his loss, stating quote:
Diefenbaker would not leave politics though, and continued to serve in the House of Commons. Despite being a former prime minister, he was still regulated to the back bench, a highly unusual move for a party.
After the retirement of Pearson, Diefenbaker would develop a relationship of mutual respect with Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The Conservatives would suffer a loss of 25 seats in the 1968 election, giving Trudeau a majority. For Diefenbaker, he did an interview with CBC after the election, barely able to hide his delight in the humiliation of Robert Stanfield.
In 1972, when Pearson died of cancer, Diefenbaker was asked if he had any kind words for Pearson. Diefenbaker would only say, quote:
“He shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize.”
In the 1972 election, Diefenbaker was the only living prime minister and he would take his riding by 11,000 votes, continuing his domination in Prince Albert.
In 1976, Diefenbaker was created a Companion of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II, bestowed as a personal gift. Sadly, on Dec. 22 of that year, his wife Olive died and Diefenbaker was plunged into a deep depression.
In the 1979 federal election, he won a seat for the 13th time, and saw the Conservatives return to power under the leadership of Joe Clark. Diefenbaker was not a fan of Clark, who he called a pipsqueak and an upstart. During the election campaign, Diefenbaker had also suffered a mild stroke, but stated to the media he only had the flu.
Sadly, Diefenbaker would only live a few more months. He would die of a heart attack on Aug. 16, 1979 in Ottawa.
An elaborate funeral, the most elaborate in Canadian history, and planned by Diefenbaker, was held. He would lay in state in the Hall of Honour in Parliament for over two days as 10,000 Canadians passed his casket. On his casket, he had the Canadian flag obscured by the Red Ensign as a last act of defiance from his opposition during the flag debate. His body was taken across Canada by train to be buried in Saskatoon behind the John Diefenbaker Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. To date, he is the only prime minister to be buried in western Canada.
Many locations, especially in Saskatchewan, have been named for Diefenbaker. Lake Diefenbaker, the largest lake in southern Saskatchewan was named for him, as is the Diefenbaker Bridge in Prince Albert and the Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport. His home in Prince Albert, where he lived from 1947 to 1975, is now a museum and a National Historic Site. Diefenbaker would inspire Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, and under the leadership of Stephen Harper, a new federal building, a human rights award and an ice breaking vessel would be named for Diefenbaker.
Maclean’s magazine would rank Diefenbaker 13th among the first 20 prime ministers to Jean Chretien, but his rating would improve to 10th in the publication by 2011. .
Information comes from The Star Phoenix, Canadian Encylopedia, HistoryMuseum.ca, Wikipedia, Biographi, Collections Canada, the Canada Guide, Archives of Canada, 80 Years In Wakaw 1898-1978, Prince Albert The First Century,
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