John George Diefenbaker PC CH QC FRSC FRSA (18 September 1895 – 16 August 1979) was the thirteenth Prime Minister of Canada, serving from 21 June, 1957 to 22 April, 1963. A criminal defence lawyer by profession, he established the Canadian Bill of Rights, the Royal Commission on Health Services, the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act, played a large part in the cancellation of the Avro Arrow, the National Productivity Council (Economic Council of Canada), and extended the franchise to all Aboriginal peoples during his six years as Prime Minister. He led the Progressive Conservative Party for 11 years; five of those years were spent as Leader of the Official Opposition.
Diefenbaker was known by several nicknames during his career, notably "J.G.D." and "The Leader" (a moniker that continued to be applied to him even after his leaving the post of prime minister), but was known most affectionately as "Dief the Chief" or simply "the Chief."
The Diefenbaker family homesteaded in 1903 near Fort Carlton, then in the Northwest Territories but currently located in Saskatchewan. William Diefenbaker was a teacher, and John attended schools in several areas such as Hague and Borden before the family settled in Saskatoon as of 1910.
Diefenbaker received a BA in 1915, an MA in Political Science and Economics in 1916 and an LL.B in 1919 from the University of Saskatchewan. Diefenbaker married Edna Brower (1899-1951) in 1929. In 1953, after Edna's death, he married his second wife, Olive Palmer (1902-1976), who had a daughter from a previous marriage. Diefenbaker had no children of his own. Diefenbaker House in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan is open as a museum to the public in the summer season. It is a home where Diefenbaker lived for ten years with both Edna Brower and Olive Palmer. His birth home in Neustadt has been preserved as a historic site.
John George Diefenbaker served briefly in the First World War in the Canadian Expeditionary Force with the 105th Saskatoon Fusiliers from March 1916 to July 1917, reaching the rank of lieutenant in the 29th Light Horse. He was sent to England for pre-deployment training, but he was never deployed to France, having suffered an injury that had him coughing up blood. Invalided back to Canada, he was discharged there as Medically Unfit for Service owing to heart irregularities.
Diefenbaker's early political career was marked by a singular lack of achievement after his first political breakthrough; he ran unsuccessfully in five elections at the municipal, provincial and federal levels in Saskatchewan before finally getting elected again.
Diefenbaker served as the leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party from 1936 to 1938, having taken over the party after it was wiped out in the 1934 provincial election that brought down the Tory government of Premier James Thomas Milton Anderson.
John Diefenbaker served as Prime Minister from June 21, 1957, until April 22, 1963. A number of factors gravitated against the Liberal Party remaining in power, ranging from controversial decisions involving the Pipeline Debate, the "time for a change" antipathy of the public, matched with Diefenbaker's fiery oratory and his populist message. These propelled the Conservatives to a narrow victory in the 1957 election, with a minority government. Though the Liberals had a slight lead in the popular vote, Louis St. Laurent resigned rather than attempt to form a coalition with the other opposition parties to continue governing.
Soon afterwards, Lester Pearson took over the Liberal leadership, and in his first speech, he asked Diefenbaker to hand power back to the Liberals without an election because of the recent economic decline. In a scathing two-and-a-half-hour response, Diefenbaker revealed a formerly classified Liberal file that predicted the economic malaise. The "arrogant" label that had been on the Liberals in 1957 stayed.
Diefenbaker wanted a majority, so he called a snap election. During the 1958 campaign, he ran on a message of building a "Canada of the North," increasing subsidies and development in the northern parts of the country, and on increasing social programs, which resonated effectively in English Canada. The biggest surprise was in Quebec, where the Union Nationale political machine was put into use for the Tories, enabling them to win the majority of seats in that province for the first time since John A. Macdonald. In the end, Diefenbaker won the largest majority government in Canadian history. 1958 saw the appointment of the first Aboriginal person to the Senate, James Gladstone.
However, as Peter C. Newman has written: "[He] came to the toughest job in the country without having worked for anyone but himself, without ever having hired or fired anyone, and without ever having administered anything more complicated than a walk-up law office." His first Commonwealth leaders meeting went over well, until he made an offer to the United Kingdom to bring 15% of Canada's trade with the United States to the UK. Since the proposal violated many international agreements, the UK instead proposed a Free Trade Agreement. Diefenbaker's Cabinet strongly recommended against it, and the 15% figure never came up again. Relations considerably cooled between the UK and Canada.
Diefenbaker soon ran into economic problems. With a recession already looming by the time he came in, increased deficits hurt the economic picture more. Diefenbaker blamed the tight money policies of the Liberals. At the same time, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, James Coyne heavily criticized the government's financial record, saying that the country was relying too much on exports to the United States and that a "tightening" was needed. The Government rejected his advice and tried to get rid of Coyne for playing politics with his position. While the House of Commons passed a bill declaring his position vacant, the Liberal-controlled Canadian Senate rejected it. Nevertheless, Coyne resigned the next day. Having the Governor of the Bank of Canada criticizing the Government gave a feeling of chaos to international investors, which prompted many to withdraw capital from Canada. The ensuing crunch heavily limited economic growth.
Diefenbaker made what some believe to have been one of the most controversial policy decisions of the last century in Canada when his government cancelled the development and manufacture of the Avro CF-105 Arrow. The Arrow was a Mach 2 supersonic jet interceptor built by A.V. Roe Canada (Avro Canada), in Malton, Ontario to defend Canada in the event of a Soviet nuclear bomber attack from the north. During its production, the Canadian government purchased American-made Bomarc missiles as a means of bomber defence, leading to the cabinet decision to cancel the Avro Arrow and its Orenda Iroquois engine on 20 February 1959, forever known as "Black Friday" in Canadian industry. After cancelling the technologically advanced interceptor project, he obtained CF-101 Voodoo interceptors in 1961 from the United States.
Diefenbaker's hostility to the administration of U.S. President John F. Kennedy was pronounced. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, Diefenbaker was annoyed at Kennedy's failure to consult him ahead of time, which led the Prime Minister to be skeptical of the seriousness of the situation. This caused him to react slowly on an American request to put Canadian forces on Defcon 3 status. The Minister of National Defence, Douglas Harkness, defied Diefenbaker by putting the military on high alert two days before Cabinet's decision to authorize the move.
Diefenbaker was also instrumental in bringing in the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. This was the first attempt to articulate the basic rights of Canadian citizens in law. Because the Bill of Rights was an ordinary federal statute and not a part of the Canadian Constitution, it did not codify such rights in an enforceable way, since it could not be used by courts to nullify federal or provincial laws that contradicted it. An official commented: "It's great, unless you live in one of the provinces". Thus, its effect on the decisions of the courts, unlike the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would be created in 1982, was limited.
1961 saw the introduction of the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act, one of the many improved social programs to help Canadians. He also appointed Ellen Fairclough the first woman Federal Cabinet Minister.
Support for the Tories declined in Quebec. Though Diefenbaker selected Georges Vanier as the first francophone Governor General, he did not appoint any Quebeckers to important cabinet posts. The Tories also did not have any long-lasting political machinery there, and the Union Nationale had been swept from power in 1960. As a result of the declining economic situation, apathy in Quebec, and negative fallout from cancelling the Avro Arrow program, the Progressive Conservatives lost their majority in the 1962 election.
Immediately afterward, Diefenbaker's minority government began a program to reduce government spending, and raise tariffs and bank interest rates. He then reorganized his Cabinet, moving Finance Minister Donald Fleming into the Minister of Justice portfolio, replacing him with George C. Nowlan.
In September 1962, Diefenbaker attended the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London, where he attacked Britain's prospective entry into the European Economic Community, stating it would be at the expense of Canada's increased economic dependence on the United States. Also at that meeting, he criticized South Africa's policy of apartheid, and successfully opposed its readmission into the Commonwealth after it declared itself a republic.
Diefenbaker's final term of office saw the escalation of a nuclear arms question brought on by the imported Bomarc missiles and the Voodoo aircraft that had replaced the Avro Arrow. Diefenbaker rejected American nuclear warheads being put in missiles, warplanes and ground-based tactical rockets. He used Congressional testimony about the Bomarc missiles to accuse Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson of making Canada a target for a nuclear war, and accused American media outlets and the US government of interfering with the election.
While Diefenbaker and his allies opposed the nuclear warheads, many other Tories and the opposition parties supported them, saying that the Bomarc missiles would be useless without the warheads. The already strained relationship within the Conservative party deteriorated faster, and a Cabinet split further undermined the government. Minister of National Defence Douglas Harkness resigned from Cabinet on 4 February 1963 because of Diefenbaker's opposition to accepting the missiles. The next day, the government lost two non-confidence motions on the issue, as the Social Credit and the CCF withdrew their support of the government.
Diefenbaker lost the 1963 federal election to Lester Pearson and the Liberals. Nevertheless, he continued as PC Party leader, serving as Leader of the Opposition. In the 1964 Great Flag Debate, he led the opposition to the Maple Leaf flag (which he derided as the "Pearson Pennant"), arguing for the retention of the Canadian Red Ensign.
There were early calls for Diefenbaker's retirement, especially from the Bay Street wing of the party. At the February 1964 PC Convention, a secret ballot on his leadership was held. Diefenbaker held on by a very narrow margin. Diefenbaker was introduced to the convention by Joe Clark, president of the Student Federation, whose delegates were seen as the vote that tipped the balance. Clark described when he first saw Diefenbaker in High River, Alberta, and Diefenbaker's bravery at standing for the vote. Diefenbaker emotionally accepted the result, and said, "If there were no other rewards in public life than to have done what was stated by the brilliant Joe Clark, I would have been rewarded more than I could hope for."
To the surprise of many, he ran an aggressive, nationalistic campaign in the 1965 election, which Pearson had called in the expectation that the Liberals would win a majority. Growing dissatisfaction with his leadership, however, led to open dissension within the party, headed by Party president Dalton Camp. There was a fear within the party that even though ditching Diefenbaker would probably improve Eastern results, they might lose the Western seats Diefenbaker brought to the party.
Anti-Diefenbaker efforts by Camp and others resulted in a leadership review, a measure for which there was no provision in the party's constitution. The Progressive Conservatives called a leadership convention in 1967. Although Diefenbaker stood as a candidate for the leadership, against the proposed Deux Nations policy, he was defeated by Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield. His exit was considered the most emotional moment of the convention.
Diefenbaker retained his parliamentary seat for the next twelve years until his death, while also serving as the chancellor at the University of Saskatchewan beginning in 1969. The opening night of the 1976 Tory leadership convention in Ottawa was a tribute in his honour, and he made a passionate speech which met with sustained applause. He was a favourite of the Press Gallery, and frequently made snide remarks about other Conservatives. This reached a head in 1979, when he joked that Canada had celebrated the International Year of the Child by electing Joe Clark, who as a student had defended Diefenbaker.
Diefenbaker died on 16 August 1979 from heart failure in Ottawa, Ontario. In accordance with his funeral plans, his body was shipped from Ottawa to Saskatoon by train for burial. Thousands of Canadians lined the tracks and more watched on television to bid farewell to "Dief" before he was buried beside the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. In his will, he had a special ceremony in place, so that the Maple Leaf flag was draped on his casket first, and then the Red Ensign that he had defended so intensely in Parliament was laid over it. His state funeral was carried out as he had planned years earlier.
The funeral was presided over by the short-lived government of Prime Minister Joe Clark, a fellow Tory. During the burial services, Clark took part in eulogizing Diefenbaker, only days after Diefenbaker had delivered insults against Clark to the press. Years later, in a 4 February 2006 Globe and Mail newspaper article, as part of an ongoing series on Canadian prime ministers, Clark delivered a frank but heartfelt review of the Diefenbaker legacy, calling him a people's "advocate.
Diefenbaker's populism raised the popularity of the Progressive Conservatives in the Western provinces, and the West became a PC and Conservative mainstay for the next half-century.
His decision to oppose nuclear warheads on the Bomarc missiles was supported by a young journalist Pierre Trudeau. When Trudeau succeeded Lester B. Pearson as prime minister and Liberal leader in 1968, he announced that the missiles would be phased out by 1971.
Between 1993 and 2003, Diefenbaker was frequently touted as a "spiritual father" of the values espoused by the then-beleaguered PC Party and its membership. In his 2000 book, In Defence of Civility, Tory strategist and former PC leadership candidate, Senator Hugh Segal noted that Diefenbaker "defined Progressive Conservatism as the ultimate balance for free enterprise, profit-making and economic growth on the one hand, and social justice and respect for the interests of the common man on the other." Many Red Tory PCs, such as David Orchard and Heward Grafftey, who were not enamoured of the more recent PC Prime Ministerships of Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell, frequently referenced their own political traditions, values and stances to the Diefenbaker era. Ironically, in his memoirs, Diefenbaker stated that he preferred the name "Conservative" to "Progressive Conservative." Diefenbaker was also noted for his opposition to official bilingualism, which placed him at odds with the more progressive element of his party.
Ultimately, his legacy to many Canadians is as the man who killed the Avro Arrow. While Diefenbaker's long political career was filled with many difficult controversies, he kept a very high personal ethical standard, and was never implicated or involved in personal wrongdoing of any form.