If the 1957 election was the arrival of Diefenbaker, then the 1958 election would be his greatest triumph. In fact, for the Progressive Conservative Party, it would be a success they scarcely could have believed.
Due to the Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives winning a minority government in 1957, it was less than a year later that Canada was once again going to the polls.
The Liberals were now led by a new man, but one whom had a lot of name recognition thanks to his Nobel Peace Prize, Lester B. Pearson. Louis St. Laurent had resigned as leader and now the hopes of the party to return to glory fell on Pearson.
As I had talked about in my episode about Lester B. Pearson, when he first became leader he recommended that the Governor General allow the Liberals to form a government without an election due to the economic downturn.
Pearson said in that speech, quote:
“I would be prepared, if called upon, to form a government of ending the Tory pause and getting this country back on the Liberal highway of progress from which we have temporarily diverted.”
What followed was a two-hour speech from Diefenbaker that completely obliterated Pearson in Parliament. Pearson would say later that Diefenbaker tore him to shreds and he knew that it was a mistake as soon as he started speaking.
He would add, quote:
The incident also gave Diefenbaker the opportunity to call a snap election, in the hopes of winning a majority. On Feb. 1, 1958, the Governor General accepted Diefenbaker’s request to dissolve Parliament.
During the campaign trail, a Gallup poll found that 50 per cent of Canadians felt that Diefenbaker was the best man for prime minister, while 27 per cent said the same of Pearson. Diefenbaker also had a high approval rating. In September of 1957, he sat at 52 per cent, with less than five per cent saying they disapproved of him.
Upon the election call, Diefenbaker once again displayed brilliance on the campaign trail. The Progressive Conservatives gave their vision of a One Canada, while also promising to develop the north with roads to resources.
In speaking of his One Canada vision, Diefenbaker 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. Canadians, realize your opportunities. This is the message I give you, my fellow Canadians. Not one of defeatism. Jobs! Jobs for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. A new Vision. A new Hope. A new Soul for Canada!”
Diefenbaker was incredibly popular across Canada and his speeches were often interrupted with cheers as thousands went to his rallies. On stops along the way, many Canadians would simply try to reach out to touch Diefenbaker.
In his opening campaign speech on Feb. 12, 1958, Diefenbaker would say, quote:
“Pearson said only a couple weeks ago that an election is at hand. They ask now why there was an election…We called the election because it was called for, called for, by the need for a stable government to face the larger problems now facing Canada on a long-term basis. Called for, because the people of Canada as a whole realize that the possibility of a strong and effective government cannot be achieved without there being a majority.”
The Conservatives started to put a large amount of money into their campaign, $2.5 million, double what they had in 1957 and that allowed for every candidate across the country to have $6,000 for their campaign, which would equal $56,000 today.
The Liberals ran a campaign that was disorganized, promising increases to old social policies, and promising things such as health insurance. Pearson also took a more team approach to campaigning and did not make any grand leadership statements as Diefenbaker did.
Since 1957, the number of eligible voters had increased by 700,000 as well as high immigration into Canada.
Two things would happen in this election that would influence the result heavily. The first was that support in Quebec for the Conservative Party rose for the first time since the Conscription Crisis of 1917. Premier Maurice Duplessis would align with the Progressive Conservatives, giving Diefenbaker a huge boost.
The other thing that influenced the election was the collapse of the Social Credit Party, which had existed for years and been a major force in Alberta. This election though, the party would see its support begin to fall in popularity as its supporters aligned themselves with the Progressive Conservatives.
As with the 1957 election, this election would be played out on television. With parties beginning to realize the importance of television, with that came complaints. On March 21, the CBC reported there were a number of complaints from candidates about the election coverage, mostly coming from the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals. At the time, the CBC had not defined its formula for election coverage, and editors did not measure the time giving to Diefenbaker or Pearson in terms of minutes, only that a fair apportionment of coverage be given.
A few days before the election, Pearson travelled into the United States briefly, which many people believed was the first time a potential prime minister had gone to America during a campaign. In fact, Sir Robert Borden had done the same in the 1908 election when speaking at the Haskell Library in Stanstead, Quebec. At the time, the north part of the library was in Canada, and the south part was in America.
Two days before the election, Diefenbaker was back in Ottawa where he leveled an attack on Pearson, stating quote:
Pearson, no slouch himself, would fire back at his own campaign event that day, stating quote:
“Let’s not have the country strangled by a single set of vocal chords. Don’t be dazzled, bewildered or beguiled by adjectival exuberance.”
The March 31, 1958 election would see Prime Minister John Diefenbaker turn his minority government into the largest majority government in Canadian history. The Progressive Conservatives would win 78.5 per cent of the votes, a record that remains unmatched, and Diefenbaker’s government would have an astounding 151-seat majority. Voter turnout was also a record that still stands to this day with 79.4 per cent.
The Progressive Conservatives picked up 97 seats to win 208, the first time a party had won more than 200, while the Liberals collapsed for the second election in a row, losing 56 seats to finish with 48. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation would lose 17 seats to finish with eight, while the Social Credit Party lost ever single seat they had, falling 19 seats. With zero seats elected, the party would soon fade from Canadian politics.
In every province across Canada, the Conservatives dominated. Only the Northwest Territories and Newfoundland gave the Liberals a majority. The Progressive Conservatives won every single seat in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. In Ontario, they won 67 seats, while the Liberals picked up 14. The most surprising was Quebec, which had abandoned the Conservatives decades ago. With St. Laurent gone, the province turned to Diefenbaker, giving him 50 seats to the 25 won by the Liberals.
Pearson would concede defeat and state, quote:
“It is clear now that the country has given the majority to Mr. Diefenbaker and his supporters which they requested. It is naturally disappointing that we were not successful but it well that one party now has the power, as well as the responsibility, in the House of Commons.”
Diefenbaker was naturally jubilant in his win. He would state, quote:
“We will keep your faith and carry out our pledges and give good government…Each to his action station, each to his sense of responsibility. At such a time as this, it is difficult to say more than our heartfelt thanks for this expression of the confidence and trust of the people of Canada.”
As with many elections, there are always odd occurrences. One such incident happened on Feb. 28 when the Liberal Party headquarters in Carleton were broken into and several desks and filing cabinets were ransacked. Several personal and private campaign correspondences were stolen. In Quebec, the RCMP would investigate irregularities in the voting list for Quebec South. Frank Power, the Liberal candidate in that riding, sent a telegram to the RCMP that stated, quote:
There were three known investigations by the RCMP into voting irregularities across Canada in the election.
In Fort Coulonge, Quebec, tempers flared between Liberal and Progressive Conservative supporters. The provincial police sent five cars out to deal with the violence that broke out at two rallies where 1,400 supporters of each parties took to the streets. This was significant since the population of the community was only 1,600. During the pre-election violence that broke out between the rival party supporters, a police officer was shoved, a Montreal Citizen photographer was threatened, a man had stone thrown at him by a rival party’s supporters, and a police cruiser was rocked up and down.
In Vancouver, Social Credit candidate Bill Rose lost the election and then to add insult to injury, a young man threw a rock through the windshield of his car while he was talking with colleagues.
This would also be the last election for MJ Coldwell, who had served as the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation since 1942. He would lose the seat he had held in Rosetown-Biggar since 1935 amid the Conservative sweep. He would resign as leader in 1960, but continued to work with the party when it became the New Democratic Party in 1961.
Information from Dynasties and Interludes, Canadian Encyclopedia, Diefenbaker Canada Centre, Wikipedia, Macleans, the Ottawa Citizen, CBC