John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

With the Conservatives leading in the polls, Diefenbaker wanted a new election, hopeful that his party would gain a majority of seats. It was then Canadian constitutional practice that the Governor General could refuse a dissolution early in a parliament’s term, unless the government had been defeated in the House, or was winning divisions by only a handful of votes. Diefenbaker sought a pretext for a new election.

Such an excuse presented itself when former Minister of External Affairs Lester Pearson attended his first parliamentary session as Leader of the Opposition on January 20, 1958, four days after becoming the Liberal leader. In his first speech as leader, Pearson (recently returned from Oslo where he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), moved an amendment to supply (a technical device whereby oppositions attempt to secure the government’s resignation), and called, not for an election, but for the Progressive Conservatives to resign, allowing the Liberals to form a government. Pearson stated that the condition of the economy required "a Government pledged to implement Liberal policies". Government MPs laughed at Pearson, as did members of the press who were present. Pearson later recorded in his memoirs that he knew that his "first attack on the government had been a failure, indeed a fiasco". Diefenbaker spoke for two hours and three minutes, and devastated his Liberal opposition. He mocked Pearson, contrasting the party leader’s address at the Liberal leadership convention with his speech to the House:

On Thursday there was shrieking defiance, on the following Monday there is shrinking indecision … The only reason that this motion is worded as it is is that my honourable friends opposite quake when they think of what will happen if an election comes … It is the resignation from responsibility of a great party.

Diefenbaker read from an internal report provided to the St. Laurent government in early 1957, warning that a recession was coming, and stated:

Across the way, Mr. Speaker, sit the purveyors of gloom who would endeavour for political purposes, to panic the Canadian people … They had a warning … Did they tell us that? No. Mr. Speaker, why did they not reveal this? Why did they not act when the House was sitting in January, February, March, and April? They had the information … You concealed the facts, that is what you did.

According to the Minister of Finance, Donald Fleming, "Pearson looked at first merry, then serious, then uncomfortable, then disturbed, and finally sick." Pearson recorded in his memoirs that the Prime Minister "tore me to shreds". Liberal frontbencher Paul Martin (whose son Paul Martin, Jr. would later become Prime Minister), called Diefenbaker’s response "one of the greatest devastating speeches" and "Diefenbaker’s great hour". On February 1, Diefenbaker asked the Governor General, Vincent Massey, to dissolve Parliament, alleging that though St. Laurent had promised cooperation, Pearson had made it clear he would not follow his predecessor’s lead. Massey agreed to the dissolution, and Diefenbaker set an election date of March 31, 1958.

1958 election

The 1958 election campaign saw a huge outpouring of public support for the Progressive Conservatives. At the opening campaign rally in Winnipeg on February 12 voters filled the hall until the doors had to be closed for safety reasons. They were promptly broken down by the crowd outside. At the rally, Diefenbaker called for "[a] new vision. A new hope. A new soul for Canada." He pledged to open the Canadian North, to seek out its resources and make it a place for settlements. The conclusion to his speech expounded on what became known as "The Vision",

This is the vision: One Canada. One Canada, where Canadians will have preserved to them the control of their own economic and political destiny. Sir John A. Macdonald saw a Canada from east to west: he opened the west. I see a new Canada—a Canada of the North. This is the vision!