John Diefenbaker (1895-1979), 13th prime minister of Canada (1957-1963). Diefenbaker was the first Conservative prime minister in 22 years. He became interested in politics in early life, but for 15 years he was beaten at the polls every time he tried to win a local or national office. However, Diefenbaker developed into a forceful speaker, and when he was finally elected to the House of Commons, he became nationally known as a defender of individual and minority rights. Although his strong stand on these issues offended orthodox Conservatives, in the 1958 election his vigorous campaigning brought the party the largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history.
As prime minister, Diefenbaker was surprisingly indecisive, unable to provide the firm leadership to the nation that his election campaigns had demanded. In his narrow anti-Americanism and in his uncertain handling of the question of nuclear arms for Canada, he misinterpreted the wishes of a majority of Canadians. His government fell in 1963, the first time since 1926 that a Canadian prime minister received a vote of no confidence from Parliament.
John George Diefenbaker was born in Grey County, Ontario, in 1895, but in 1903 his family moved to Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan. In 1906 the family moved to a homestead near Borden, and in 1910, they settled in Saskatoon to give him and his younger brother a better education. Diefenbaker was enrolled in Saskatoon Collegiate Institute. In 1912 he entered the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where he gained a reputation as a debater. He enrolled in the Canadian Officers Training Corps shortly after World War I (1914-1918) began, and was made a lieutenant in the Saskatoon Fusiliers in 1916. He went overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but he was injured and he returned to Canada in 1917.
Diefenbaker received his law degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1919. For a time he practiced in the small Saskatchewan farming village of Wakaw, which had only 400 inhabitants. He did not confine his practice to Wakaw but soon gained a reputation throughout the province. In 1923 he moved to the larger town of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, and there he set up a new law practice together with two partners.
|III||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
About this time, Diefenbaker became interested in politics. At first he was a Liberal, as his father had been, and he was nominated as a Liberal candidate in the provincial elections. However, when he became serious about a political career, he turned to the Conservative Party. He ran for Parliament as a Conservative in 1925, but because Prince Albert was a Liberal stronghold, he lost. In 1926 Diefenbaker was again the Conservative candidate. He campaigned on the grounds that corruption was rampant in the administration of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and lost decisively.
Diefenbaker then confined himself to his law practice and to provincial politics. In law he was successful, but his political failures continued. In 1929 he was a Conservative candidate for the provincial parliament and lost by a narrow margin. The Conservative Party in Saskatchewan at that time was led by James T. M. Anderson and was aggressively right-wing. Although Diefenbaker's views were different from Anderson's and although he was defeated in the election and did not join Anderson's government, his association with Anderson harmed his subsequent political career.
Diefenbaker's fourth failure to win public office came in 1933, when he ran for mayor of Prince Albert. However, he maintained an interest in politics, even after the Conservative Party was overwhelmed at the polls in 1935 because of their failure to help ease the effects of the Great Depression, the hard times of the 1930s. In 1935 he was chosen president of the Saskatchewan Conservative Association, and in the next year he was made leader of the provincial party. This was partly by default, because the other candidates who were nominated refused to run. Although the Conservative cause seemed hopeless, Diefenbaker ran in the 1938 provincial election as a candidate from Arm River and was defeated.
|B||Member of Parliament|
The turning point in Diefenbaker's career came in 1940, when he was chosen to run in Lake Centre, Saskatchewan, as the Conservative candidate for the federal Parliament. This time, Diefenbaker won, and his victory was surprising because his opponent, J. Fred Johnston, had gained a substantial margin five years before. All over Canada, Conservatives went down to defeat, but by hard work and ideas that appealed to people of different views, Diefenbaker emerged victorious.
In the new Parliament there were only 39 Conservatives, and Diefenbaker soon made his mark among them. He went along with the policy of his Conservative colleagues in refusing to join King's government, but, in general, he backed King's policies. However, when he did attack the government, he did so severely, using extreme language that angered but sometimes earned the respect of his opponents. His main concern during his first years in Parliament was with individuals and minority groups who had suffered injustice. Diefenbaker was genuinely concerned with the causes he took up. Many of the causes he supported were unpopular, such as his protest against the hardships inflicted on Japanese Canadians, who were forced to relocate away from the Pacific coast during World War II (1939-1945).
|C||Rise in the Conservative Party|
Diefenbaker was far more progressive than most Conservatives, and he resolved to try to modernize the party, later known as the Progressive Conservative Party. His first attempts in 1942 and 1943 were premature and unsuccessful, for he was already disliked by the party's old guard.
The Conservatives as a whole opposed the Family Allowances Act of 1944, which gave a small monthly sum to all families with children, to help cover the costs of child-rearing, but Diefenbaker was for the allowances and persuaded his colleagues that it would be politically disastrous to vote against the act. As a result, the Conservatives voted with the government and by 1945 denied that they had ever been against family allowances. However, their stand did them little good, and John Bracken, the Conservative leader, was defeated in that year's election. However, Diefenbaker was returned to Parliament with an increased majority.
Bracken's resignation as party leader in 1948 gave Diefenbaker another chance to win the post. His only opponent, George Drew, was the candidate of the old guard, who represented financial interests that gave funds to the Progressive Conservative Party. One of their objections to Diefenbaker was that he had blocked a Conservative attempt to campaign for the suppression of the Communist Party. Drew gained a marked advantage by some preliminary maneuvering at the convention and won convincingly. Diefenbaker was hard hit by the defeat and for some time was estranged from Drew.
In the 1949 election, Diefenbaker faced a new threat. The year before, the Liberals had redrawn the boundaries of the district he represented so that it included more Liberal voters. However, many Liberals voted for Diefenbaker, and he won by a majority three times as large as he had received in 1945. Diefenbaker was again the only Conservative elected from Saskatchewan, which had gone solidly to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a coalition party dedicated to social and welfare reforms.
In 1952 the Liberals in Saskatchewan abolished Diefenbaker's Lake Centre seat altogether by merging it with the neighboring legislative district of Moose Jaw, where the CCF had a vast majority. In 1953 Diefenbaker decided to run for election in Prince Albert. Again he was the only Conservative returned to Parliament from Saskatchewan.
In 1953 Diefenbaker was passed over in favor of a right-wing Conservative for the post of deputy party leader in the House of Commons. However, his chance came in 1956, when George Drew resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. Although many party members did not want Diefenbaker as leader, they could not agree on any other candidate. Potential challengers, seeing that Diefenbaker could not be beaten, started to support him. He was even supported by the Conservative old guard. In December 1956 Diefenbaker won the party leadership.
That year the fortunes of the Progressive Conservative Party took a turn for the better. The Liberals lost support when they used closure, a process that suspends all debate on a measure in Parliament and requires an immediate vote, to force through a bill to lend $80 million to an American-owned pipeline company. A bitter fight ensued in Parliament. The Conservatives claimed the Liberals had made a mockery of parliamentary democracy. Public opinion polls suggested that many Canadians agreed.
The Liberals had been in power for more than 20 years. The government seemed to have no new ideas. The Progressive Conservative Party's difficulties were also great, but they were offset by the country's desire for change, which gave Diefenbaker his main chance in the 1957 general election.
Since Diefenbaker could not win the election with only Conservative support, he had to gain uncommitted votes. He could not do so by advocating traditional Conservative policies. Therefore he adopted most of the Liberal positions and added them to a vision of further Canadian national development. At first the Liberals were confident of victory, and, although they spent a lot of money on the campaign, they made comparatively few speeches. Diefenbaker spent 39 days campaigning and made more than 100 speeches. He gained new support in Ontario and also in British Columbia and the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.
In the election of June 10, 1957, the Progressive Conservative Party received only 39 percent of the popular vote but won more seats in Parliament than any other party. The Liberal government resigned a week later, and on June 21, Diefenbaker became prime minister.
His first duty was to attend a conference of Commonwealth prime ministers in London, where he made a good impression. At home, Parliament was not scheduled to meet until autumn, but his cabinet ministers were active. Diefenbaker continued his campaign in a series of appearances throughout the country. His was a minority government, and a new election could not be long delayed.
Diefenbaker's cabinet included people with many points of view. He made Donald Fleming, his chief rival for party leadership, minister of finance. Fleming was a right-wing Conservative and was against deficit spending, the process of borrowing money for federal programs instead of raising taxes, as well as many other measures that his cabinet colleagues supported. Diefenbaker's other rival, Edmund Davie Fulton, was made minister of justice. The most colorful member of the Cabinet was Francis Alvin G. Hamilton, an ex-farmhand from Saskatchewan, who was made the minister of northern affairs and national resources.
The 23rd session of Parliament was opened on October 14, 1957, by Queen Elizabeth II of England. It was the first time a reigning monarch had opened the Canadian Parliament. The Liberals had promised to help pass the main ideas of the Conservatives, and many bills were introduced. Parliament undertook to increase old-age pensions, to extend unemployment benefits, to cut taxes, to reduce unemployment by establishing new federal work projects, and to support more agricultural products. Despite growing unemployment the Conservatives kept their promises.
When the next parliamentary session began in January 1958, the Liberals had a new leader, Lester Bowles Pearson. He suggested that, since the Conservatives were introducing liberal legislation, it might be better for Liberals to administer it. With CCF support, Pearson could have forced dissolution of Parliament through a no-confidence vote, but he was not eager for an early election. However, Diefenbaker knew that it would be wise to take advantage of his popularity to call an early election. In February he surprised his own party by flying to Québec and persuading the governor-general, Vincent Massey, to dissolve Parliament.
The 1958 election was an overwhelming personal victory for Diefenbaker. He campaigned on the grounds that only he could put into effect his new vision for Canada, although he remained vague about defining the new vision and how it was to be carried out.
The results on March 1, 1958, surprised even optimistic Conservatives. Diefenbaker received 62 percent of Québec's popular vote. The Conservatives won the greatest majority in Canadian history, 208 seats out of 265. They defeated the CCF in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The Liberals had only 48 members in Parliament.
One of the main aspects of Diefenbaker's vision of a new Canada was development of the north. In 1958 a road- and rail-building program was begun to allow products of the north to be brought to market. However, when Diefenbaker left office, the future of the project was still uncertain. Diefenbaker also increased federal aid to universities. The move was attacked as invading the field of provincial jurisdiction by Premier Maurice Duplessis of Québec, who refused the aid, ending the brief Conservative revival in Québec.
Diefenbaker was most proud of his Bill of Rights, introduced to Parliament in 1958 and passed into law in 1960. The law barred discrimination on the grounds of race or creed and was meant to affect all federal legislation. However, since most aspects of civil liberties were the responsibility of the provinces, the Bill of Rights was effectively only a guideline.
The main event of 1959 was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, connecting the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and the Atlantic Ocean. Although the Diefenbaker government introduced little legislation, the Conservatives continued to gain in provincial elections. There were changes in the cabinet. When external affairs minister Sidney Smith died, Diefenbaker replaced him with Howard Green, who feared U.S. domination of Canada.
In 1960 Diefenbaker's popularity began to decline, partly because of an economic recession. In the provincial elections the Conservatives lost many of their gains. However, Diefenbaker himself gained worldwide attention that year by attacking the colonialism of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in eastern Europe. In 1960 there were more changes in Diefenbaker's cabinet. The new minister of trade and commerce was George Hees, who, after Diefenbaker, became the most powerful man in the party.
In 1961 Diefenbaker again was active on the international scene. In a meeting of the Commonwealth prime ministers he was instrumental in supporting the motion against apartheid, the policy of racial segregation in South Africa, that resulted in that country leaving the Commonwealth.
Diefenbaker's future at the polls was affected in 1961 by his struggle with James E. Coyne, the governor of the Bank of Canada. Coyne had been making speeches advocating isolationist financial measures that were opposed to the expansionist ideas of foreign investment of the government. When asked to resign, Coyne refused. Although Coyne's tenure was almost over, the government introduced a bill to dismiss him. The bill stirred up an intense debate, and, although it was passed by the House of Commons, the usually docile but mainly Liberal Senate opposed it. Coyne won a moral victory, and the government's reputation was shaken.
The extent of the Conservatives' decline was seen in the spring election of 1962, which Diefenbaker campaigned on the misdeeds of the Liberals instead of on his own record. Diefenbaker's main positive claim in his campaign was that he was a greater enemy of Communism than was Lester Pearson, the Liberal leader. Diefenbaker was still in power after the election but with a minority government. Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan had remained loyal to Diefenbaker, but many of Canada's cities had voted for the Liberals.
After the election, Diefenbaker introduced an austerity program to protect the Canadian dollar. In September he attended the Commonwealth conference of prime ministers, attacking Britain's proposal to enter the European Common Market.
|V||END OF GOVERNMENT|
In accordance with agreements made in 1958 and 1959, Canada had bought U.S. weapons that would be useless unless they were armed with nuclear warheads. However, Diefenbaker announced that he did not want nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. In January 1963, Douglas Harkness, the minister of defense, resigned because he thought Canada had a moral commitment to share in the nuclear defense of North America. Other Cabinet ministers resigned, and there was an unsuccessful attempt to force Diefenbaker to step down as prime minister. In February 1963 Diefenbaker's government received a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the delay in settling the nuclear arms controversy with the United States. Diefenbaker called a general election for April. He campaigned against a background of upheaval in Québec and hostility to his government's financial policies, and he concentrated on arousing anti-American sentiment. The Conservatives were defeated decisively. The Liberals won 129 seats in Parliament to 95 for the Conservatives, who lost almost all of Québec. Diefenbaker resigned from office.
Diefenbaker remained leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. After surviving an attempt to oust him in 1965, he was finally removed as party leader in 1967. But he continued to be a member of the House of Commons until his death in 1979.