John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

There were calls for Diefenbaker’s retirement, especially from the Bay Street wing of the party as early as 1964. Diefenbaker initially beat back attempts to remove him without trouble. When Pearson called an election in 1965 in the expectation of receiving a majority, Diefenbaker ran an aggressive campaign. The Liberals fell two seats short of a majority, and the Tories improved their position slightly at the expense of the smaller parties. After the election, some Tories, led by party president Dalton Camp, began a quiet campaign to oust Diefenbaker.

Camp was able to force a leadership review, which was held at the Tories’ 1966 convention amidst allegations of vote rigging, violence, and seating arrangements designed to ensure that when Diefenbaker addressed the delegates, television viewers would see unmoved delegates in the first ten rows. Other Camp supporters tried to shout Diefenbaker down. Camp was successful in forcing a leadership convention for 1967. Diefenbaker initially made no announcement as to whether he would stand, but angered by a resolution at the party’s policy conference which spoke of "deux nations" or "two founding peoples" (as opposed to Diefenbaker’s "One Canada"), decided to seek to retain his leadership. Although Diefenbaker entered at the last minute to stand as a candidate for the leadership, he finished fifth on each of the first three ballots, and withdrew from the contest, which was won by Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield.

Diefenbaker addressed the delegates before Stanfield spoke,

My course has come to an end. I have fought your battles, and you have given me that loyalty that led us to victory more often than the party has ever had since the days of Sir John A. Macdonald. In my retiring, I have nothing to withdraw in my desire to see Canada, my country and your country, one nation.

Final years and death

Diefenbaker was embittered by his loss of the party leadership. Pearson announced his retirement in December 1967, and Diefenbaker forged a wary relationship of mutual respect with Pearson’s successor, Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau called a general election for June 1968; Stanfield asked Diefenbaker to join him at a rally in Saskatoon, which Diefenbaker refused, although the two appeared at hastily arranged photo opportunities. Trudeau obtained the majority against Stanfield that Pearson had never been able to obtain against Diefenbaker, as the PC party lost 25 seats, 20 of them in the West. The former Prime Minister, though stating, "The Conservative Party has suffered a calamitous disaster" in a CBC interview, could not conceal his delight at Stanfield’s humiliation, and especially gloated at the defeat of Camp, who made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Commons. Diefenbaker was easily returned for Prince Albert.

Although Stanfield worked to try to unify the party, Diefenbaker and his loyalists proved difficult to reconcile. The division in the party broke out in well-publicised dissensions, as when Diefenbaker called on Progressive Conservative MPs to break with Stanfield’s position on a bilingualism bill, and nearly half the caucus voted against their leader or abstained. In addition to his parliamentary activities, Diefenbaker travelled extensively and began work on his memoirs, which were published in three volumes between 1975 and 1977. Pearson died of cancer in 1972, and Diefenbaker was asked if he had kind words for his old rival. Diefenbaker shook his head and said only, "He shouldn’t have won the Nobel Prize."

By 1972, Diefenbaker had grown disillusioned with Trudeau, and campaigned wholeheartedly for the Tories in that year’s election. Diefenbaker was reelected comfortably in his home riding, and the Progressive Conservatives came within two seats of matching the Liberal total. Diefenbaker was relieved both that Trudeau had been humbled and that Stanfield had been denied power. Trudeau regained his majority two years later in an election that saw Diefenbaker, by then the only living former Prime Minister, have his personal majority grow to 11,000 votes.