Since 1957, the Progressive Conservatives had been in power in Canada with the fiery John Diefenbaker serving as the prime minister of Canada. After winning the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958, Diefenbaker saw his majority become a minority in 1962.
Soon, he would once again be up against the wall, with another election as the Liberals were ready to begin another dynasty.
The 1963 election came after the cabinet of Diefenbaker attempted to remove him as leader of the party and from the post of prime minister. The party was heavily split by 1963 over the issue of American nuclear missiles on Canadian soil. Diefenbaker opposed the scenario, while other Conservatives supported it, as did the Liberals. The issue would lead to Douglas Harkness, the Minister of National Defence, resigning on Feb. 4, 1963, only two months before the election. Parliament had reconvened in late January, and with the resignation of Harkness, it would not last long.
The entire Bormac Missile issue was becoming something that could not be ignored. The Americans felt that Canada had already agreed to have nuclear weapons on its soil through its NORAD obligations.
Soon after Harkness resigned, so too did the Associate Minister of Defence, Pierre Sevigny and the Minister of Trade and Commerce, George Hees.
With half of Diefenbaker’s cabinet ready to resign, he stated that he would resign and appoint Minister of Justice Donald Fleming as acting prime minister pending a new leadership convention. In the end, Diefenbaker’s allies convinced him to stay on, but the day after he decided to remain as leader, his government fell in a non-confidence vote. Canada was heading for its fourth election in only seven years, only eight months after the previous election.
The Liberals, coming off a high of bringing down the government and with momentum on their side, used the slogan 60 Days of Decision. Unlike the previous election, the party made several large promises including creating a public pension plan, reforming health care in Canada and creating a new Canadian flag.
For most observers, it was clear that the Liberals were going to win as the Conservatives collapsed. For Diefenbaker, he fell into the role that he preferred, the underdog and he went into the election with new vigor. He ran a whistle-stop tour through small town Ontario, where he criticized the Liberals for changing their stance on the missiles and suddenly supporting them, the Americans interfering in Canadian affairs, and the minor parties in Parliament who were obstructing progress. Diefenbaker also played the nationalism angle much more this election. Pearson would comment to his wife on election night regarding people voting for Diefenbaker even though there was selling of their wheat to China. Pearson would say, quote:
While campaigning was the strength of Diefenbaker, it was a weakness of Pearson and not something he enjoyed but as the campaign went on, Pearson would begin to fall into the role and did well at it. The Globe and Mail would state, quote:
“Mr. Pearson is not a good speaker. His words from election podiums may not inspire Canadians but his actions in world crises have inspired the world.”
In Quebec, the Liberals attacked the Social Credit Party, and newspapers throughout the country endorsed the Liberals.
The Conservatives would make several promises, including raising the pay of the civil service and the members of the Armed Forces. Pearson responded that not raising the pay until after the election was rubbish. He would state, quote:
“The prime minister had from June until the end of January to do this if he wanted to. This is just another electoral excuse for not taking action.”
Only days before the election, Diefenbaker would attend a rally at Queen’s University where he stated that the policy of Pearson would make Canada a decoy for Soviet missiles. He added, quote:
“It would mean the wiping out of North Bay and a section of Northern Quebec.”
While there were 12 amplifiers for his voice, the crowd of 6,000 could not hear him over the yells of 500 Queen’s University students. Associates with Diefenbaker would state that it was the hardest night of his long years of campaigning. While the students yelled, Diefenbaker responded by calling them savages, juveniles and bummers. Then, after 70 minutes of talking, he stated, quote:
“It is 10 o’clock and time for the juveniles to be in bed.”
He then left the hall to cheers from the students. Three days later, an apology from the principal of Queen’s University was issued.
On election night, Pierre Burton would spend the evening with Pearson and his wife. Upon his arrival, Pearson had just got off the phone with a stranger, who had made a $10 bet on the outcome of the American League baseball pennant. At the time, anyone could call Pearson, and his phone was ringing every 15 minutes in the weekend leading up to the election.
In the April 8, 1963 election, the Liberals increased their seat count by 29, rising to 128 and earning a minority government. As for Diefenbaker, only seven years after he had come to power as prime minister, he now found himself in the Official Opposition. In all, the Progressive Conservatives lost 21 seats to fall to 95. The Social Credit Party lost six seats to finish with 24, and the New Democratic Party lost two seats, finishing with 17.
The Liberal Party would take the majority of seats in Ontario with 51 seats to the Progressive Conservatives 27, and 47 in Quebec, while the Conservatives only had eight. The Social Credit Party continued to be a force in that province, winning 20 seats. The Progressive Conservatives were able to take ever seat in Saskatchewan, and the majority of seats in Alberta and Manitoba.
With a minority government, everyone waited to see what Diefenbaker would do as sitting PM. Pearson would say, quote:
“It is for Mr. Diefenbaker to decide what his responsibility is. I know what mine is.”
By April 13, Diefenbaker made the decision to resign, while six Social Credit MPs pledged support for the Liberals, giving the party a working majority. Diefenbaker would send a telegram to Pearson, stating quote:
In one Quebec riding, a man would be elected for the first time. His name was Jean Chretien and he would remain in Parliament for the next 41 years. For 10 of those years, he served as the prime minister of Canada.
This brings us to the 1965 election. Over the previous two years, Lester B. Pearson had governed Canada and followed through on several promises that his party had made including implementing Canada Student Loans, higher wages, lowering income taxes and reversing the unemployment trend.
The Liberals had support in the House of Commons so they did not need to call an election but the economic climate had improved and it gave the Liberals confidence that they could win another election. There were issues with this choice though, as Pearson was known to be weak campaigner and Diefenbaker, even with his shaky ground in his own party, was one of, if not the best, campaigner Canada has ever seen.
With the new election, the Liberals campaigned on promising a national Medicare program by 1967 and the Canada Pension Plan. The Party would campaign under the slogan of Good Things Happen When A Government Cares About People. The Liberals promised to put $40 million into a university scholarship program and $500 million for medical and dental research over 15 years. They would also put $100 million into building roads in northern Canada and $25 million to support the coal industry in Nova Scotia.
Pearson for the most part stayed in Ottawa for the campaign, as the party opted for a low-key prime ministerial strategy.
John Diefenbaker was still the leader of the Progressive Conservatives but his party was deeply divided and many wanted Diefenbaker out as leader. Diefenbaker and his party would campaign on the slogan of Policies for People, Policies for Progress. The Conservatives would offer grants to universities, farmers and to medical and dental research. They would also create a national water conservation program and develop hydro-electric potential at several important rivers in Canada. As with previous elections, Diefenbaker played to his strengths and conducted a whistle stop tour of small towns in Canada, where he attacked the Liberals continuously on every front, labeling them as a corrupt and arrogant party. He would state, quote:
“We shall get to the bottom of this and assure Canadians that the cobwebs of the Mafia, the wrongdoings of the narcotics peddlers and the corruption of public officials does not make a way of life.”
When allegations of bribe offers to six Social Credit MPs in the 1963 election came forward, Diefenbaker would attack the Liberals heavily over it. He would state, quote:
“Vote Liberal on Nov. 8 and you declare an open season for organized crime.”
Pearson would keep his silence over the issue, only stating that there had been no offer of a bribe to any MP or to anyone else. The Liberals would call the entire matter scandalmongering.
The major issue of the campaign was old age pensions, with the Liberal Party promising to increase pension to $75 per month for anyone over the age of 70, and reducing the eligibility age to 65 within five years. There would also be the promise to add a Canada Assistance Program for seniors with low incomes. The Progressive Conservatives offered to increase the pension to $100 per month for everyone over the age of 70.
Pearson would state, quote:
“We have made it $75 and we will make it $100, or, if necessary, more than $100 in co-operation with the provinces.”
The New Democratic Party was still led by Tommy Douglas who campaigned on the slogan of Fed Up, Speak Up Vote for the New Democrats! They would campaign on the issue of Medicare, eliminating tuition fees, increased funding for technical training and increasing the minimum price for wheat.
Early in the campaign, the Liberals were riding high and many projected a sweeping win for the party, including all 21 Montreal area ridings. The West would continue to be a problem for the party. One farmer wife outside Saskatoon would say, quote:
“Maybe the Liberals will win again but the farmers have to have something here. That’s why we vote Conservative. We don’t care who wins.”
One new party to appear in this election was the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, led by a black rhinoceros named Cornelius The First. A resident of the Granby zoo, he could not seek election as he was a zoo animal.
While Pearson was popular, his weakness on the campaign trail began to hurt him, as Diefenbaker once again played to his strength. As the election got closer, what seemed like it was going to be a Liberal majority was soon turning into another Liberal minority.
On Oct. 28, Pearson was speaking in Toronto when his public address system failed and the crowd of 10,000 people could not hear him. To deal with the issue, Pearson went into the crowd to mingle. Before long, the crowd was crowding around Pearson who was jammed in by well-wishers. The five-man bodyguard group of the prime minister had to push their way through the crowd to get to Pearson to take him out a side door and into the basement. Pearson’s wife was none too pleased, calling it too dangerous to attempt again for the prime minister and that it had scared her to death. Pearson would say later, quote:
“I was scared, badly scared that somebody was going to get hurt, somebody small, some woman or a child, crushed or perhaps trampled.”
It wasn’t all well wishers for Pearson though. In British Columbia, the prime minister spoke to a crowd of 4,000 at the University of British Columbia. While speaking, someone yelled, “what’s new pussycat?” as the crowd erupted in laughter. Unfazed, Pearson continued to speak for the next 35 minutes even as others yelled “Go back to the US Mike!”, “Canada for Canadians!” and “People are dying in Vietnam”.
In Montreal, it was a more dangerous situation for Pearson. After the prime minister had finished speaking, a Molotov cocktail connected to a firing mechanism was discovered in the hall. It was found by employees of the building after the rally had finished.
In Peterborough, extra precautions had to be taken to protect Pearson when a call came in to a television station that stated, quote:
In the days before the election, the party leaders would make a push for final votes. Polls were finding that Diefenbaker was losing support in his own area of Saskatchewan. One housewife in Saskatoon was quoted as saying, quote:
“If Diefenbaker would stop all this attacking everybody and just say what his program is, what he will do, I might still vote for him.”
Another man, a 1963 Liberal supporter who worked as a salesman said that he couldn’t vote for the Liberals because he saw them as being politically corrupt. Asked if he would vote Conservative, he stated, quote:
“No, I wouldn’t vote Conservative. I can’t support Diefenbaker.”
Pearson and the Liberals would once again win the Nov. 8, 1965 election, increasing their seat total to three, which was just short of a majority. The Progressive Conservatives picked up four extra seats to finish with 97, while the New Democratic Party earned four extra seats to finish with 21.
The Liberals would do poorly in the Canadian Prairies but would take 51 seats in Ontario to the 25 won by the Progressive Conservatives, and 56 seats in Quebec, where the Conservatives only had eight. The Progressive Conservatives took every seat in Saskatchewan and 15 of 17 in Alberta. They would also take 10 of 14 seats in Manitoba, 10 of 12 in Nova Scotia and every seat in Prince Edward Island.
In Algoma East, the home riding of Pearson, one man would have an issue with the ballot that listed Pearson as prime minister. He would state, quote:
“I am appalled by the use of the title on the ballot. Mr. Pearson’s occupation is not prime minister. Mr. Pearson is not running in this riding as a prime minister. He is only running as a candidate for election in Algoma East.”
Diefenbaker was elated over the election result that denied his opponent a majority. He would state, quote:
“The prime minister called this election because he said he couldn’t carry on without an absolute majority. The prime minister has had his answer. There is a second party, a party of 101 or 102 seats, which believes that it can form an administration and a strong administration and carry on the government of this country without having hanging over it at all times the danger of another election.”
Pearson would state, quote:
“I am still prime minister and still head of the government, and all of us are concerned now with carrying on in the best interests of the country.”
Upon their re-election, the Liberals obtained the support of the New Democratic Party, helping them to remain in power.
This election is notable because it was the first time a man named Pierre Elliott Trudeau would be elected to Parliament. Three short years later, he would be prime minister, serving from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984.
As for Diefenbaker, he would refuse to resign until finally, a campaign was launched by his former campaign manager, Dalton Camp, which forced the 1967 leadership convention. Diefenbaker would run to continue on as leader but he would lose to Robert Stanfield. It wouldn’t be the end of Diefenbaker. He would remain in the House of Commons until his death 12 years later in 1979.
Information from Macleans, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Ottawa Journal, The Vancouver Sun, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Edmonton Journal,