John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Pierre Sévigny, who would be elected an MP in 1958, recalled the gathering, "When he had finished that speech, as he was walking to the door, I saw people kneel and kiss his coat. Not one, but many. People were in tears. People were delirious. And this happened many a time after." When Sévigny introduced Diefenbaker to a Montreal rally with the words "Levez-vous, levez-vous, saluez votre chef!" (Rise, rise, salute your chief!) according to Postmaster General William Hamilton "thousands and thousands of people, jammed into that auditorium, just tore the roof off in a frenzy". Michael Starr remembered, "That was the most fantastic election … I went into little places. Smoky Lake, Alberta, where nobody ever saw a minister. Canora, Saskatchewan. Every meeting was jammed … The halls would be filled with people and sitting there in the front would be the first Ukrainian immigrants with shawls and hands gnarled from work … I would switch to Ukrainian and the tears would start to run down their faces … I don’t care who says what won the election; it was the emotional aspect that really caught on."

Pearson and his Liberals faltered badly in the campaign. The Liberal Party leader tried to make an issue of the fact that Diefenbaker had called a winter election, generally disfavoured in Canada due to travel difficulties. Pearson’s objection cut little ice with voters, and served only to remind the electorate that the Liberals, at their convention, had called for an election. Pearson mocked Diefenbaker’s northern plans as "igloo-to-igloo" communications, and was assailed by the Prime Minister for being condescending. The Liberal leader spoke to small, quiet crowds, which quickly left the halls when he was done. By election day, Pearson had no illusions that he might win the election, and hoped only to salvage 100 seats. The Liberals would be limited to less than half of that.

On March 31, 1958, the Tories won what is still the largest majority (in terms of percentage of seats) in Canadian federal political history, winning 208 seats to the Liberals’ 48, with the CCF winning 8 and Social Credit wiped out. The Progressive Conservatives won a majority of the votes and of the seats in every province except British Columbia (49.8%) and Newfoundland. Quebec’s Union Nationale political machine had given the PC party little support, but with Quebec voters minded to support Diefenbaker, Union Nationale boss Maurice Duplessis threw the machinery of his party behind the Tories.

Mandate (1958–1962)

An economic downturn was beginning in Canada by 1958. Because of tax cuts instituted the previous year, the budget presented by the government predicted a small deficit for 1957–58, and a large one, $648 million, for the following year. Minister of Finance Fleming and Bank of Canada Governor James Coyne proposed that the wartime Victory Bond issue, which constituted two-thirds of the national debt and which was due to be redeemed by 1967, be refinanced to a longer term. After considerable indecision on Diefenbaker’s part, a nationwide campaign took place, and 90% of the bonds were converted. However, this transaction led to an increase in the money supply, which in future years would hamper the government’s efforts to respond to unemployment.

As a trial lawyer, and in opposition, Diefenbaker had long been concerned with civil liberties. On July 1, 1960, Dominion Day, he introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights in Parliament, and the bill rapidly passed and was proclaimed on August 10, fulfilling a lifetime goal of Diefenbaker’s. The document purported to guarantee fundamental freedoms, with special attention to the rights of the accused. However, as a mere piece of federal legislation, it could be amended by any other law, and the question of civil liberties was to a large extent a provincial matter, outside of federal jurisdiction. One lawyer remarked that the document provided rights for all Canadians, "so long as they don’t live in any of the provinces". Diefenbaker had appointed the first First Nations member of the Senate, James Gladstone in January 1958, and in 1960, his government extended voting rights to all native people.