John Diefenbaker


John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Diefenbaker pursued a "One Canada" policy, seeking equality of all Canadians. As part of that philosophy, he was unwilling to make special concessions to Quebec’s francophones. Thomas Van Dusen, who served as Diefenbaker’s executive assistant and wrote a book about him, characterized the leader’s views on this issue:

There must be no compromise with Canada’s existence as a nation. Opting out, two flags, two pension plans, associated states, Two Nations and all the other baggage of political dualism was ushering Quebec out of Confederation on the instalment plan. He could not accept any theory of two nations, however worded, because it would make of those neither French nor English second-class citizens.

Diefenbaker’s disinclination to make concessions to Quebec, along with the disintegration of the Union Nationale, the failure of the Tories to build an effective structure in Quebec, and Diefenbaker not appointing many Quebecers to his Cabinet, all led to an erosion of Progressive Conservative support in Quebec. Diefenbaker did recommend the appointment of the first French-Canadian governor general, Georges Vanier.

By mid-1961, differences in monetary policy led to open conflict with Bank of Canada Governor Coyne, who adhered to a tight money policy. Appointed by St. Laurent to a term expiring in December 1961, Coyne could only be dismissed before then by the passing of an Act of Parliament. Coyne defended his position by giving public speeches, to the dismay of the government. The Cabinet was also angered when it learned that Coyne and his board had passed amendments to the bank’s pension scheme which greatly increased Coyne’s pension, without publishing the amendments in the Canada Gazette as required by law. Negotiations between Minister of Finance Fleming and Coyne for the latter’s resignation broke down, with the governor making the dispute public, and Diefenbaker sought to dismiss Coyne by legislation. Diefenbaker was able to get legislation to dismiss Coyne through the House, but the Liberal-controlled Senate invited Coyne to testify before one of its committees. After giving the governor a platform against the government, the committee then chose to take no further action, adding its view that Coyne had done nothing wrong. Once he had the opportunity to testify (denied him in the Commons), Coyne resigned, keeping his increased pension, and the government was extensively criticized in the press.

By the time Diefenbaker called an election for June 18, 1962, the party had been damaged by loss of support in Quebec and in urban areas as voters grew disillusioned with Diefenbaker and the Tories. The PC campaign was hurt when the Bank of Canada was forced to devalue the Canadian dollar to 92½ US cents; it had previously hovered in the range from 95 cents to par with the United States dollar. Privately printed satirical "Diefenbucks" swept the country. On election day, the Progressive Conservatives lost 92 seats, but were still able to form a minority government. The New Democratic Party (the successor to the CCF) and Social Credit held the balance of power in the new Parliament.

Foreign policy

Britain and the Commonwealth

Diefenbaker attended a meeting of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London shortly after taking office in 1957. He generated headlines by proposing that 15% of Canadian spending on US imports instead be spent on imports from the United Kingdom. Britain responded with an offer of a free trade agreement, which was rejected by the Canadians. As the Harold Macmillan government in the UK sought to enter the Common Market, Diefenbaker feared that Canadian exports to the UK would be threatened. He also believed that the mother country should place the Commonwealth first, and sought to discourage Britain’s entry. The British were annoyed at Canadian interference. Britain’s initial attempt to enter the Common Market was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle.

Through 1959, the Diefenbaker government had a policy of not criticizing South Africa and its apartheid government. In this stance, Diefenbaker had the support of the Liberals but not that of CCF leader Hazen Argue. In 1960, however, the South Africans sought to maintain membership in the Commonwealth even if South African white voters chose to make the country a republic in a referendum scheduled for later that year. South Africa asked the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference to allow it to remain in the Commonwealth regardless of the result of the referendum. Diefenbaker privately expressed his distaste for apartheid to South African External Affairs Minister Eric Louw and urged him to give the black and coloured people of South Africa at least the minimal representation they had originally had. Louw, attending the conference as Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd recovered from an assassination attempt, refused. The conference resolved that an advance decision would be interfering in South Africa’s internal affairs.