John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

In the 1976 New Year Honours, Diefenbaker was created a Companion of Honour, an accolade bestowed as the personal gift of the Sovereign. After a long illness, Olive Diefenbaker died on December 22, a loss which plunged Diefenbaker into despair.

Joe Clark succeeded Stanfield as party leader in 1976, but as Clark had supported the leadership review, Diefenbaker held a grudge against him. Diefenbaker had supported Claude Wagner for leader, but when Clark won, stated that Clark would make "a remarkable leader of this party". However, Diefenbaker repeatedly criticized his party leader, to such an extent that Stanfield publicly asked Diefenbaker "to stop sticking a knife into Mr. Clark"—a request Diefenbaker did not agree to. According to columnist Charles Lynch, Diefenbaker regarded Clark as an upstart and a pipsqueak.

In 1978, Diefenbaker announced that he would stand in one more election, and under the slogan "Diefenbaker—Now More Than Ever", weathered a campaign the following year during which he apparently suffered a mild stroke, although the media were told he was bedridden with influenza. In the May election Diefenbaker defeated NDP candidate Stan Hovdebo (who, after Diefenbaker’s death, would win the seat in a by-election) by 4,000 votes. Clark had defeated Trudeau, though only gaining a minority government, and Diefenbaker returned to Ottawa to witness the swearing-in, still unreconciled to his old opponents among Clark’s ministers. Two months later, Diefenbaker died in his study about a month before his 84th birthday.

Diefenbaker had extensively planned his funeral in consultation with government officials. He lay in state in the Hall of Honour in Parliament for two and a half days; 10,000 Canadians passed by his casket. The Maple Leaf Flag on the casket was partially obscured by the Red Ensign. After the service, his body was taken by train on a slow journey to its final destination, Saskatoon; along the route, many Canadians lined the tracks to watch the funeral train pass. In Winnipeg, an estimated 10,000 people waited at midnight in a one-kilometre line to file past the casket which made the trip draped in a Canadian flag and Diefenbaker’s beloved Red Ensign. In Prince Albert, thousands of those he had represented filled the square in front of the railroad station to salute the only man from Saskatchewan ever to become Prime Minister. His coffin was accompanied by that of his wife Olive, disinterred from temporary burial in Ottawa. Prime Minister Clark delivered the eulogy, paying tribute to "an indomitable man, born to a minority group, raised in a minority region, leader of a minority party, who went on to change the very nature of his country, and change it forever". John and Olive Diefenbaker rest outside the Diefenbaker Centre, built to house his papers, on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan.

Early life

Diefenbaker was born on September 18, 1895, in Neustadt, Ontario, to William Thomas Diefenbaker and the former Mary Florence Bannerman. His father was the son of German immigrants; Mary Diefenbaker was of Scottish descent. The family moved to several locations in Ontario in John’s early years. William Diefenbaker was a teacher, and had deep interests in history and politics, which he sought to inculcate in his students. He had remarkable success doing so; of the 28 students at his school near Toronto in 1903, four, including his son, John served as Conservative MPs in the 19th Canadian Parliament beginning in 1940.

The Diefenbaker family moved west in 1903, for William Diefenbaker to accept a position near Fort Carlton, then in the Northwest Territories (now in Saskatchewan). In 1906, William claimed a quarter-section, of undeveloped land near Borden, Saskatchewan. In February 1910, the Diefenbaker family moved to Saskatoon, the site of the University of Saskatchewan. William and Mary Diefenbaker felt that John and his brother Elmer would have greater educational opportunities in Saskatoon.