After the stunning landslide for Diefenbaker in 1958, it had been a long four years for the prime minister. Over those years, he had seen his popularity drop over the issues of nuclear weapons in Canada and the Avro Arrow cancellation.
There were good moments for many during those years though. Diefenbaker gave the vote to Indigenous and Inuit voters, appointed the first Indigenous person to the Senate and he would appoint the first woman to a cabinet post as well. The Trans-Canada was finished, as was the St. Lawrence Seaway as well. Most importantly, he brought in the Canadian Bill of Rights.
Even with those good moments, it was going to be an uphill climb for Diefenbaker to replicate his immense success from 1958.
The economy was hurting and the Canadian dollar was declining. The Progressive Conservatives attempted to defend the declining dollar by pointing out there were benefits such as for the tourism industry, employment, manufacturing and farming, and exports, while denying that it impacted the cost of food and gasoline. In one speech in the Maritimes, Diefenbaker made it seem as if the devaluation of the dollar to 92.5 cents was planned, he would state, quote:
“My brother Elmer was in New York the day we did it. He was told three times what a marvelous thing this would be for the tourist trade.”
In response to the fall of the dollar, opponents of Diefenbaker began to hand out Diefendollars, which featured the image of Diefenbaker and others valued at 92.5 cents.
Diefenbaker had seen his personal popularity fall as well. Maclean’s would relate this in terms of his relationship with the press gallery, stating quote:
“The marked deterioration of the prime minister’s personal popularity with many reporters in the parliamentary press gallery is in sharp contrast to the 1957 and 1958 campaigns, when it seemed that most Ottawa correspondents regarded John Diefenbaker not so much as the Conservative candidate, but as their personal idol.”
When Parliament was dissolved on June 18, 1962, one reporter described the previous Parliamentary term as, quote:
“sometimes aimless, often ill-tempered and always potentially explosive.”
During the campaign, the Liberals campaigned on the slogan of Take A Stand For Tomorrow, while putting forth the image of Diefenbaker as the leader of a feeble government. Pearson campaigned on the pledge that he would cure the worst of the unemployment problem for Canadians.
Tom Kent, chief policy advisor for Pearson, would state, quote:
“What we’re trying to do is to create a sense of missed opportunities under the Tories. The point we’re trying to get across is that we’ll make things better. The Tories won’t. That is quite different from just saying, the Tories make things worse.”
Diefenbaker would fire back at the slogan, stating in a rally that it was like the line from Macbeth, stating quote:
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
It was also known that during this campaign, due to his dislike of Diefenbaker, President John F. Kennedy was helping Pearson with electoral agents in the election. He also invited Pearson to attend a White House dinner during the election campaign along with 49 other Nobel Prize winners.
The Conservative campaign was quite different from the one four years previous. The Globe and Mail would state, quote:
The campaign attempted to focus on some of the achievements of the previous term, but those often fell on deaf ears. Diefenbaker’s main message was that he was already prime minister and he kept most of the promises he had made from the previous election. Unlike the previous elections, his campaign was low key, with no large promises. He would attack Pearson heavily in the election, as well as the American press, the Liberal Party backrooms, Communists and Bay Street bankers.
Diefenbaker attempted to appeal to new immigrants by stating he had fought against the Soviets in the United Nations. In Montreal, he would state, quote:
“I told Mr. Khrushchev, give the Ukrainians the vote, then he got mad and that’s where he took off his shoe. You remember.”
It did not take reporters long to point out that the shoe pounding incident at the United Nations came 16 days after Diefenbaker made a speech there and Khrushchev was not even in the hall when Diefenbaker made his speech. Diefenbaker then stated he never made the claim, and called the Toronto Star, who reported on the discrepancy, outrageous fabrication.
Many in the country were finding themselves disenchanted with federal politics. One political insider in Ottawa would state, quote:
“There’s so much disenchantment with federal politics in Canada these days that anybody who could put together the anti-Diefenbaker, anti-Pearson and anti-Douglas votes could sweep the country.”
The number of undecided voters was also on the rise, reaching 33 per cent, a rise of 10 per cent over the course of just one year.
The election was notable for several reasons. One was the aforementioned Indigenous and Inuit who could now vote. There was also the creation of a new party, the New Democratic Party, led by former premier of Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas.
Another interesting fact of this election was that the entire landmass of Canada was covered by federal electoral districts, something that had never happened in the history of Canada to that point.
Pearson found himself much more popular this time around. At one rally in Winnipeg, the crowd cheered him at least once a minute, and it was at that rally that he thought may just win the election.
Diefenbaker still packed in supporters though, including at a huge rally in Vancouver, but then other rallies were not as successful. One in Edmonton was poorly attended with a small crowd. One reporter would say that the Diefenbubble had burst in Edmonton, which apparently infuriated the prime minister.
One Conservative supporter in Carleton, Ontario would state, quote:
“I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve voted Conservative all my life but I just couldn’t do it this time.”
On May 30, 1962, Conservative supporters and unemployed demonstrators began to clash and Diefenbaker supporters attempted to take banners away from the demonstrators, who numbered about 200. Scattered fights began to break out and one man had to be treated at the first aid centre. The commissionaire was knocked down when demonstrators burst in through a fire escape and was sent home for medical treatment. Demonstrators changed “Down with John” and “We want jobs” and lobbied boos and insults at Diefenbaker. From the beginning, it was impossible to hear the speech of Diefenbaker over the loudspeakers and the crowd of 9,000 were more interested in the fighting going on than in listening. Diefenbaker would continue to talk for 70 minutes nonetheless, even as he dealt with chants and boos. At the end of his speech, he would say, quote:
“Now we begin to see what would happen if the leaders of these people were in power. They would throttle, they would deny, they would refuse each and every one of us the right to speech.”
Bill Galt of the Vancouver Sun would write, quote:
All party leaders condemned the demonstrators.
At another rally by Diefenbaker in Trail, BC, five women who disrobed while the Prime Minister was talking, although momentarily caught off guard, he recovered quickly as the women were escorted out.
Near Sudbury in June, another rally would descend into a small riot for Diefenbaker. The local Progressive Conservative candidate, Donald Gillis, would blame the Liberals, stating quote:
“We were warned several days ago that the Liberals had held a meeting to plan this disruption.”
In a poll done five days before the election, it was found the Liberals were ahead at 38 per cent, while the Conservatives were at 36 per cent.
In the June 18, 1962 election, the Progressive Conservatives would lose 89 seats, falling to 116 and still ruling but only as a minority government. Pearson and the Liberals gained 49 seats, rising to 99, while the NDP gained 10 seats to finish with 19. The collapse of the Conservatives was the worst since the 1935 collapse of the RB Bennett government. Diefenbaker also lost an astounding 17 per cent of the popular vote. The election saw 1,918 candidates looking to win a seat in the House of Commons, which was the largest number ever in Canadian history to that point.
The Social Credit Party would rebounded heavily, winning 30 seats after winning none in 1958. The surprise was that few of these seats came in Alberta, but instead came in Quebec. There were several reasons for this. One was that Diefenbaker had a poor grasp of French, which hurt the party’s ability to communication to Francophone voters. Many Quebec voters had not returned to the Liberals either, leaving the Social Credit as their new party.
Douglas had been a very popular premier in Saskatchewan so many were surprised when the NDP was shut out of the province completely. It is likely this happened because of the introduction of Medicare into the province that caused some chaos and a doctor’s strike. Douglas lost his election bid, but he would win in a by-election. While the Medicare scheme had some problems initially in his province, it would eventually become a part of the fabric of Canada as universal health care.
The Progressive Conservatives would win every seat in Prince Edward Island and Alberta, while taking the majority of seats in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. The Liberals surprised many by winning 43 seats in Ontario, compared to the 35 won by the Progressive Conservatives. Quebec was split heavily, with 26 seats going to the Social Credit Party, 35 going to the Liberals and 14 going to the Progressive Conservatives.
Diefenbaker would say cite the minority governments of 1921 and 1926 for the Liberals, in which William Lyon Mackenzie King was still able to bring in legislation and added, quote:
“I simply mention these things by way of interesting analogies. On the basis of the national returns I simply say this, we are still the Government of Canada…My friends, I want to tell you how deeply grateful to each and every one of you for the wonderful support you gave me in the constituency of Prince Albert.”
The Conservatives may have won the election but it was a devastating win for them. Along with losing their support in Atlantic Canada, rural Quebec and urban Ontario, as well as British Columbia, the party also lost five ministers.
Following the election, Diefenbaker spent several weeks in seclusion before bringing back Parliament in the autumn.
Despite the election loss, many saw the Liberals as winning as they would not have to form a minority government and deal with the economic issues of the country. As it turned out, losing would end up in winning only a short time later for the party.
A man named John Turner would win in this election, beginning a decades long career in Parliament that would see him not only serve as Justice Minister in the 1970s, but also briefly as Prime Minister in 1984.
One man who did have a good night was Leonard Red Kelly, a 34-year-old man who was elected for the first time. Kelly may have been a politician in the House of Commons now, but that wouldn’t stop him from his day job, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. While his Parliamentary career would only last a few years, Kelly would find himself in the Hockey Hall of Fame with eight Stanley Cup wins to his name.
Information from Maclean’s, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Biographi, National Post, Ottawa Journal and Vancouver Sun,