Change was in the air for Canada when the 1957 election rolled around. For the previous 22 years, through five elections, Canada had been governed by the Liberal Party. From the time of William Lyon Mackenzie King, to Louis St. Laurent, the party had fundamentally altered Canada through those years.
All of that was about to change.
The Progressive Conservative Party had gone through several leaders but they found a steady one in George Drew, who had led the party since 1948. Unfortunately, he would soon fall into ill health and was forced to resign. The groundwork he laid though would benefit another man, who found himself leader of the party after 17 years of trying, John Diefenbaker.
One of the major factors in the 1957 election was a debate that occurred one year previous when the Progressive Conservatives were still led by George Drew.
By the mid-1950s, Ontario and Quebec had a growing need for natural gas from Alberta. To accommodate that, TransCanada Pipelines, an American company, was given the contract to build a gas pipeline from Alberta into the east. A route through Canada, rather than America was preferred, even though it was longer and more expensive.
When the issue came to Parliament, there was concern over American interests requiring loans from the Canadian government to deal with extra costs, and whether or not the pipeline would eventually fall under American control.
Diefenbaker stated that American big business would, quote:
Both the Progressive Conservatives and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation were against the pipeline and their plan was to delay its construction through a filibuster in Parliament. Approval on the project had to be obtained by June 6, 1956 in order for financing to go through by July 1. The Liberal government had promised construction would begin on that day. Knowing what the opposition parties were planning, the decision was made by the Liberals to force closure on the debate, forcing a final vote. With a majority government, the Liberals were able to pass the approval through Parliament.
Diefenbaker would state, quote:
“It’s a dreadful picture. It’s one that the government will hear about.”
He would add that the government had taken shortcuts through freedom and tried to make opposition members, quote:
“tenants at thew ill of the prime minister and those associated with him.”
The public was deeply divided on the issue. In a poll conducted in March 1956, 33 per cent wanted private Canadian investors in the company, and 21 per cent wanted it built, financed and administered by the government.
On the issue of closure, 36 per cent felt it was justified, 38 per cent felt it was not justified and 27 per cent had no opinion.
The day before the deadline, Rene Beaudoin, Speaker of the House, allowed opposition to debate the matter. He then stated debate would continue the following day, allowing opposition leaders to debate past the deadline. The next day, Beaudoin stated that he was mistaken and all events after 2:15 p.m. that day would be ignored. The opposition leaders erupted in anger stating the speaker was pressured to change his mind, with MPs running into the centre aisle and Major Coldwell, leader of the CCF, going up to the Speaker and shaking his fist. Liberal MP Lorne MacDougall would die of a heart attack while in the Centre Block that day, which was blamed on the stressful debate. Three other MPs were admitted to hospital.
The bill then went to the senate and was passed quickly and given Royal Assent on June 7.
As it turned out, the factories hired to build the pipe went on strike and the entire project was delayed one year. While the project was delayed, the impact of that closure in Parliament was immediate. The Progressive Conservatives used the debate as an example to show that the Liberal Party had become arrogant after so long in power.
There were other issues as well. Many saw St. Laurent as an old and tired leader with no successor, the Liberal Party had also seemed to run out of ideas and the economy was starting to trend down, something it had not done since the days of William Lyon Mackenzie King.
The campaigns between the two parties could not have been more different. St. Laurent, visibly tired from the previous nine years in power made few television appearances. When he did, he refused to wear makeup and he read from a script, looking down, rather than at a teleprompter. In contrast, the Conservatives were led by Diefenbaker, who gave fiery speeches and had great charisma on the campaign. He would attract huge crowds to his rallies and he became the first Canadian leader to make a strong impression on television.
Diefenbaker’s campaign team would be led by Allister Grosart and Dalton Camp, who were two of the best public relations experts in Canada. He also had the support of Ontario premier Leslie Frost, who was highly popular in his home province.
Diefenbaker opened his campaign on April 25, 1957 at Massey Hall in front of 2,600 people, nearly to capacity. The hall was nearly filled an hour before the meeting, and things would kick off with eight bagpipers, three drummers, an organist and a powerful singer.
When Diefenbaker took to the stage, he would say, quote:
“I do not think that the Canadian people are asking for political carpentry for vote purposes. They ask for leadership that will give them a lift in heart and is motivated by a desire to serve.”
Across the stage hung a banner that stated, quote:
“It is time for a Diefenbaker Government.”
Camp would say of the slogan, quote:
This was a deliberate move not to mention the party name. The party name had become synonymous with the Official Opposition so the party leaders wanted to focus instead on their dynamic new leader. Posters for the campaign featured Diefenbaker’s name in large letters, while the party name was in small print. The goal of the Conservative campaign was to attract the dissatisfied Liberal voters, undecided voters and new voters.
In his first campaign speech, Diefenbaker would state, quote:
“If we are dedicated to this, and to this we are, you, my fellow Canadians, will require all the wisdom, all the power that comes from those spiritual springs that make freedom possible, all the wisdom, all the faith and all the vision which the Conservative Party gave but yesterday under Macdonald.”
St. Laurent was confident in a Liberal victory, to the point where he did not fill 16 vacancies in the Senate, believing his party would soon be back in power. He would state, quote:
“I have no doubt about the election outcome.”
He would open his campaign on April 29, giving Diefenbaker several days of news coverage while St. Laurent was at home during Easter.
The Uncle Louis persona was beginning to show cracks as well. In Port Hope, Ontario, while making a speech, children were playing tag and not paying attention to his speech. He angrily told them that it was their loss if they did not pay attention, adding the country would be theirs far longer than it would be his.
St. Laurent also appeared to be absent-minded on the campaign trail, at one point shaking hands with reporters following him, believing they were local voters.
As the campaign went on, St. Laurent would abandon his speeches more and more and speak amiably with audiences. The speeches tended to be anecdotal with comments on newspapers articles and Canadian democracy.
Diefenbaker focused his speeches on nationalism, and put his passion for the country at the forefront.
On the campaign, Diefenbaker pledged to reduce taxes and he criticized the Liberals for not doing the same despite having a surplus. He also promised changes to agricultural policies, including cash advances on unsold wheat and a protectionist policy regarding foreign agricultural products. Diefenbaker also promised to expand the national health insurance program to cover mental health.
The Liberals appeared to mostly campaign on their previous record, which had worked in 1949 and 1953. They also highlighted Canada’s excellent record in foreign affairs. The 1950s is today considered to be Canada’s Diplomatic Golden Era and the poster boy was Nobel Prize winning Minister of External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson.
Liberal MP George Marler, in a radio address, would state quote:
“You will wonder as I do who in the Conservative Party would take the place of the Honourable Lester Pearson, whose knowledge and experience of world affairs has been put to such good use in recent years.”
The Progressive Conservatives in contrast criticized Pearson over his role in the Suez Crisis, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize, stating that Canada had let Britain down.
Diefenbaker also made the Pipeline Debate a major issue of the campaign, referring to it more often in the campaign than any other issue. At first the Liberals ignored this but Diefenbaker continued to press it and it gained resonance with voters, forcing the Liberals to devote more time to it, including St. Laurent making it a major part of his final English television address as prime minister.
Overall, Diefenbaker spent 39 days on the campaign trail, while St. Laurent spent 11 days less than that. While Diefenbaker made whistle-stop tours in small towns throughout the Canadian West, St. Laurent only visited large cities.
On June 6, the parties crossed paths in Woodstock, Ontario. While St. Laurent drew 200 earlier in the day, Diefenbaker drew a crowd of over 1,000 in the evening, even with arriving one hour late.
Television would be a major component of the election for the first time and CBC gave the four major parties free air time for political statements. Of all the leaders, Diefenbaker made the best impression and was the most open to whatever techniques would help him on the air, including wearing makeup.
In Diefenbaker’s final campaign speech in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, he concluded it by saying, quote:
“On Monday, I’ll be prime minister.”
He was right.
On the June 10, 1957 election, Diefenbaker surprised everyone by leading the Progressive Conservatives to an election win, gaining 61 seats to finish with 112. The Liberals suffered a terrible collapse, falling 64 seats to become the Official Opposition.
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation would win 25 seats, while the Social Credit Party picked up 19.
The Progressive Conservatives defeated the Liberals in every province except Newfoundland, Quebec and Saskatchewan. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservatives won 61 seats, while the Liberals took 21. In Quebec, the Liberals still dominated, picking up 62 seats, but the Conservatives did improve with nine seats. The Progressive Conservatives won every seat in Prince Edward Island and almost every seat in Nova Scotia. The CCF once again gained most of its support in Saskatchewan, while the Social Credit Party dominated in Alberta.
Diefenbaker returned home to Prince Albert the day after the election at the head of a two-mile long motorcade. There, he was met by 1,500 of people who were cheering him for his election win. He would say later that day, quote:
In the middle of saying that, Diefenbaker was reported to have taken 10 seconds to compose himself as tears welled in his eyes.
Later that night, for his first speech to a nationwide television audience, he arranged for his 84-year-old bedridden mother in Saskatoon to have a television in her room. He would say, quote:
“It will be a great night for her. I don’t want her to miss it.”
In his official statement on the election win, Diefenbaker would state, quote:
“It is interesting, and indeed it is true historically, that in times of great need this nation does turn to the Conservative Party. Conservatism has risen once again to the challenge. I shall keep the promises that I made. I shall maintain the principles of this party.”
While Diefenbaker may not have doubted that he would be prime minister, many around him were still surprised by the outcome. Camp would say, quote:
“None of us ever thought of the possibility of a minority government, a Diefenbaker minority government.”
There were a few odd occurrences in this election as well. In the St. Paul’s riding in Toronto, four Liberal workers were convicted of adding 500 names to the electoral register. MP James Rooney was not charged but the judge believed it could not have been done without his knowledge.
Other violations including possession of ballots, adding names to voting registers and opening of ballot boxes was found in 12 ridings and 12 people would be convicted in five of those ridings.
In the Yukon, the Yukon Territorial Court voided the election stating that enough ineligible people voted to impact the outcome. Erik Nielsen, brother to Leslie Nielsen, would win the redone election, beginning a long political career that would last 30 years.
When a poll was held to find out why people abandoned the Liberals, the results were five per cent because of the Suez crisis, 38 per cent because of the Pipeline Debate, 26 per cent because of inadequate increases in old age pensions and 30 per cent because it was felt Canada needed a change.
After the election loss, St. Laurent would resign as leader of the Liberal Party on Sept. 5 and be replaced by Lester B. Pearson.
Pearson would sum up the loss, stating quote:
“We were coming to the end of our career as a Liberal Party in power. We had been the government for over 20 years, people were tired of us, which was inevitable and natural. We were vulnerable to any pressure against us, we were more likely to be hurt by our own mistakes than if we had made them ten of 15 years earlier.”
Perhaps the best look at why the Liberals lost came down to Joan and David Watts, who were profiled as two young voters by Macleans. They would state, quote:
“We thought it was time for a change.”
Information from Dynasties and Interludes, Biographi, Wikipedia, Ottawa Citizen, The Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Macleans,