John Diefenbaker


John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Though Kennedy was careful to avoid overt favouritism during the 1962 Canadian election campaign, he did allow his pollster, Lou Harris, to work clandestinely for the Liberals. Several times during the campaign, Diefenbaker stated that the Kennedy administration desired his defeat because he refused to "bow down to Washington". After Diefenbaker was returned with a minority, Washington continued to press for acceptance of nuclear arms, but Diefenbaker, faced with a split between Defence Minister Douglas Harkness and External Affairs Minister Howard Green on the question, continued to stall, hoping that time and events would invite consensus.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted in October 1962, Kennedy chose not to consult with Diefenbaker before making decisions on what actions to take. The US President sent former Ambassador Merchant to Ottawa to inform the Prime Minister as to the content of the speech that Kennedy was to make on television. Diefenbaker was upset at both the lack of consultation and the fact that he was given less than two hours advance word. He was angered again when the US government released a statement stating that it had Canada’s full support. In a statement to the Commons, Diefenbaker proposed sending representatives of neutral nations to Cuba to verify the American allegations, which Washington took to mean that he was questioning Kennedy’s word. When American forces went to a heightened alert, DEFCON 3, Diefenbaker was slow to order Canadian forces to match it. Harkness and the Chiefs of Staff had Canadian forces clandestinely go to that alert status anyway, and Diefenbaker eventually authorized it. The crisis ended without war, and polls found that Kennedy’s actions were widely supported by Canadians. Diefenbaker was severely criticized in the media.


On January 3, 1963, NATO Supreme Commander General Lauris Norstad visited Ottawa, in one of a series of visits to member nations prior to his retirement. At a news conference, Norstad stated that if Canada did not accept nuclear weapons, it would not be fulfilling its commitments to NATO. Newspapers across Canada criticized Diefenbaker, who was convinced the statement was part of a plot by Kennedy to bring down his government. Although the Liberals had been previously indecisive on the question of nuclear weapons, on January 12, Pearson made a speech stating that the government should live up to the commitments it had made.

With the Cabinet still divided between adherents of Green and Harkness, Diefenbaker made a speech in the Commons on January 25 that Fleming (by then Minister of Justice) termed "a model of obfuscation". Harkness was initially convinced that Diefenbaker was saying that he would support nuclear warheads in Canada. After talking to the press, he realized that his view of the speech was not universally shared, and he asked Diefenbaker for clarification. Diefenbaker, however, continued to try to avoid taking a firm position. On January 30, the US State Department issued a press release suggesting that Diefenbaker had made misstatements in his Commons speech. For the first time ever, Canada recalled its ambassador to Washington as a diplomatic protest. Though all parties condemned the State Department action, the three parties outside the government demanded that Diefenbaker take a stand on the nuclear weapon issue.

The bitter divisions within the Cabinet continued, with Diefenbaker deliberating whether to call an election on the issue of American interference in Canadian politics. At least six Cabinet ministers favoured Diefenbaker’s ouster. Finally, at a dramatic Cabinet meeting on Sunday, February 3, Harkness told Diefenbaker that the Prime Minister no longer had the confidence of the Canadian people, and resigned. Diefenbaker asked ministers supporting him to stand, and when only about half did, stated that he was going to see the Governor General to resign, and that Fleming would be the next Prime Minister. Green called his Cabinet colleagues a "nest of traitors", but eventually cooler heads prevailed, and the Prime Minister was urged to return and to fight the motion of non-confidence scheduled for the following day. Harkness, however, persisted in his resignation. Negotiations with the Social Credit Party, which had enough votes to save the government, failed, and the government fell, 142–111.

Two members of the government resigned the day after the government lost the vote. As the campaign opened, the Tories trailed in the polls by 15 points. To Pearson and his Liberals, the only question was how large a majority they would win. Peter Stursberg, who wrote two books about the Diefenbaker years, stated of that campaign:

For the old Diefenbaker was in full cry. All the agony of the disintegration of his government was gone, and he seemed to be a giant revived by his contact with the people. This was Diefenbaker’s finest election. He was virtually alone on the hustings. Even such loyalists as Gordon Churchill had to stick close to their own bailiwicks, where they were fighting for their political lives.

Though the White House maintained public neutrality, privately Kennedy made it clear he desired a Liberal victory. Kennedy lent Lou Harris, his pollster to work for the Liberals again. On election day, April 8, 1963, the Liberals claimed 129 seats to the Tories’ 95, five seats short of an absolute majority. Diefenbaker held to power for several days, until six Quebec Social Credit MPs signed a statement that Pearson should form the government. These votes would be enough to give Pearson support of a majority of the House of Commons, and Diefenbaker resigned. The six MPs repudiated the statement within days. Nonetheless, Pearson formed a government with the support of the NDP.