Diefenbaker, John (Canada)

Reference work entry


John George Diefenbaker was the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister of Canada 1957–63. A social and economic reformer, he was a strong advocate of greater racial harmony within Canada and sought to reduce Canada’s reliance on the United States. He was elected for a record 13 parliamentary terms, his last term starting just 3 months before his death.

Early Life

Diefenbaker was born in Neustadt, Ontario on 18 Sept. 1895. He was educated by his father and graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 1916 with a degree in Political Science and Economics. He then served with the 105th Saskatoon Fusiliers in World War I, achieving the rank of lieutenant before being invalided home. In 1919 he qualified from the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in Law and was called to the Bar in that same year. He had a successful law practice and in 1930 he was created a King’s Counsel.

In 1925 and 1926 Diefenbaker was unsuccessful in attempts to enter the House of Commons, and he also failed at the provincial elections of 1929, the mayoral elections for his adopted home of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in 1933 and again at the provincial elections of 1938. Having become head of the Saskatchewan branch of the Conservatives in 1936, his party failed to gain any seats at the 1938 elections. However, in 1940 he was voted into the House of Commons as the member for Lake Centre, Saskatchewan. This would remain his constituency until 1953 when he became the member for Prince Albert, the area he would serve until his death.

Two years later he stood for the party leadership but was defeated. After the Conservatives changed their name to the Progressive Conservatives (PC) Diefenbaker again made an unsuccessful bid for the leadership. In 1956, at the third attempt, he won the battle to head his party, replacing George Drew.

Career Peak

In 1957 he led the Conservatives to election victory, ending 22 years of Liberal rule and replacing Louis St Laurent as Prime Minister on 11 June. The following year, PC made further election gains, claiming 208 out of 256 available seats, the Conservatives’ largest ever majority.

As Canada’s leader, Diefenbaker sought to improve ethnic relations within the country. ‘In my party,’ he said ‘we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin–and they are all Canadians’. In 1958 he issued a Canadian Bill of Rights and made James Gladstone Canada’s first aboriginal senator. In 1960 he extended the vote to all aboriginal groups. Diefenbaker supported the independence movements sweeping through many Commonwealth countries and he protested against South Africa’s entry into the Commonwealth in 1961 on the grounds of its apartheid regime.

To reduce Canada’s dependence on the United States he sought closer ties abroad, notably with Britain, though it was not a policy that was wholly successful. He introduced numerous social and economic reforms, including the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act, which rejuvenated the industry and prompted vigorous trade with the Far East. He initiated schemes to boost the economy of Canada’s northern area and to improve health and welfare.

In the debit side there was rising unemployment. The party also suffered when it cancelled the landmark Avro Arrow aircraft in 1959. Relations with America were variable as when Diefenbaker refused to support US intervention in Cuba in 1961. At the elections of 1962, the Conservatives were returned with a reduced majority, claiming only 116 seats. The following year saw a crisis over the proposed manufacture of nuclear weapons. On 5 Feb. 1963 Diefenbaker’s government succumbed to two no-confidence motions. In the subsequent elections the Liberals won 129 seats against 95 for the PC.

Later Life

Diefenbaker retained the party leadership until 1967 when he was succeeded by Robert Stanfield. In 1969 he became Chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, his alma mater. He died at his home in Ottawa on 16 Aug. 1979.

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