John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker bigraphy, stories - 13th Prime Minister of Canada (1957–1963)

John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

John George Diefenbaker, PC, CH, QC (September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979) was the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, serving from June 21, 1957, to April 22, 1963. He was the only Progressive Conservative (PC or Tory) party leader between 1930 and 1979 to lead the party to an election victory, doing so three times, although only once with a majority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons.

Diefenbaker was born in southwestern Ontario in 1895. In 1903, his family migrated west to the portion of the Northwest Territories which would shortly thereafter become the province of Saskatchewan. He grew up in the province, and was interested in politics from a young age. After brief service in World War I, Diefenbaker became a lawyer. He contested elections through the 1920s and 1930s with little success until he was finally elected to the House of Commons in 1940.

In the House of Commons, Diefenbaker was repeatedly a candidate for the PC leadership. He attained leadership of the party in 1956, leading it for eleven years. In 1957, he led the party to its first electoral victory in 27 years; a year later he called a snap election and spearheaded the Tories to one of their greatest triumphs. Diefenbaker appointed the first female minister in Canadian history to his Cabinet, as well as the first aboriginal member of the Senate. During his six years as Prime Minister, his government obtained passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights and granted the vote to the First Nations and Inuit peoples. In foreign policy, his stance against apartheid helped secure the departure of South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations, but his indecision on whether to accept Bomarc nuclear missiles from the United States led to his government’s downfall. Diefenbaker is also remembered for his role in the 1959 cancellation of the Avro Arrow project.

Even though factionalism within the party was muted by Diefenbaker’s electoral success, it surged again as the Progressive Conservatives lost support, falling from office in 1963, and his opponents were able to force a leadership convention in 1967. Diefenbaker stood for re-election as party leader at the last moment, but only attracted minimal support and withdrew. He remained an MP until his death in 1979, two months after Joe Clark became the first Tory Prime Minister since Diefenbaker.

Later years (1963–1979)

Return to opposition

Diefenbaker continued to lead the Progressive Conservatives, again as Leader of the Opposition. In November 1963, upon hearing of Kennedy’s assassination, the Tory leader addressed the Commons, stating, "A beacon of freedom has gone. Whatever the disagreement, to me he stood as the embodiment of freedom, not only in his own country, but throughout the world." In the 1964 Great Canadian Flag Debate, Diefenbaker led the unsuccessful opposition to the Maple Leaf flag, which the Liberals pushed for after the rejection of Pearson’s preferred design showing three maple leaves. Diefenbaker preferred the existing Canadian Red Ensign or another design showing symbols of the nation’s heritage. He dismissed the adopted design, with a single red maple leaf and two red bars, as "a flag that Peruvians might salute". At the request of Quebec Tory Léon Balcer, who feared devastating PC losses in the province at the next election, Pearson imposed closure, and the bill passed with the majority singing "O Canada" as Diefenbaker led the dissenters in "God Save the Queen".

In 1966, the Liberals began to make an issue of the Munsinger affair—two officials of the Diefenbaker government had slept with a woman suspected of being a Soviet spy. In what Diefenbaker saw as a partisan attack, Pearson established a one-man Royal Commission, which, according to Diefenbaker biographer Smith, indulged in "three months of reckless political inquisition". By the time the commission issued its report, Diefenbaker and other former ministers had long since withdrawn their counsel from the proceedings. The report faulted Diefenbaker for not dismissing the ministers in question, but found no actual security breach.