John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

John Diefenbaker had been interested in politics from an early age, and told his mother at the age of eight or nine that he would some day be Prime Minister. She told him that it was an impossible ambition, especially for a boy living on the prairies. She would live to be proved wrong. John’s first contact with politics came in 1910, when he sold a newspaper to Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in Saskatoon to lay the cornerstone for the University’s first building. The present and future Prime Ministers conversed, and when giving his speech that afternoon, Sir Wilfrid commented on the newsboy who had ended their conversation by saying, "I can’t waste any more time on you, Prime Minister. I must get about my work."

After graduating from high school in Saskatoon, in 1912, Diefenbaker entered the University of Saskatchewan. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1915, and his Master of Arts the following year.

Diefenbaker was commissioned a lieutenant into the 196th (Western Universities) Battalion, CEF in May 1916. In September, Diefenbaker was part of a contingent of 300 junior officers sent to Britain for pre-deployment training. Diefenbaker related in his memoirs that he was hit by a shovel, and the injury eventually resulted in his being invalided home. Diefenbaker’s recollections do not correspond with his army medical records, which show no contemporary account of such an injury, and his biographer, Denis Smith, speculates that any injury was psychosomatic.

After leaving the military in 1917, Diefenbaker returned to Saskatchewan where he resumed his work as an articling student in law. He received his law degree in 1919, the first student to secure three degrees from the University of Saskatchewan. On June 30, 1919, he was called to the bar, and the following day, opened a small practice in the village of Wakaw, Saskatchewan.

Parliamentary rise (1940–1957)

Mackenzie King years (1940–1948)

Diefenbaker joined a shrunken and demoralized Conservative caucus in the House of Commons. The Conservative leader, Robert Manion, failed to win a place in the Commons in the election, which saw the Liberals take 181 seats. The Tories sought to be included in a wartime coalition government, but Mackenzie King refused. The House of Commons had only a slight role in the war effort; under the state of emergency, most business was accomplished through the Cabinet issuing Orders in Council.

Diefenbaker was appointed to the House Committee on the Defence of Canada Regulations, an all-party committee which examined the wartime rules which allowed arrest and detention without trial. On June 13, 1940, Diefenbaker made his maiden speech as an MP, supporting the regulations, and emphatically stating that most Canadians of German descent were loyal. When the Mackenzie King government sought to force Canadians of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast, Diefenbaker fought against the government’s actions. However, his efforts were unsuccessful, and the forced relocation and internment of many Japanese-Canadians proceeded.

According to Diefenbaker biographer Smith, the Conservative MP quietly admired Mackenzie King for his political skills. However, Diefenbaker proved a gadfly and an annoyance to Mackenzie King. Angered by the words of Diefenbaker and fellow Conservative MP Howard Green in seeking to censure the government, the Prime Minister referred to Conservative MPs as "a mob". When Diefenbaker accompanied two other Conservative leaders to a briefing by Mackenzie King on the war, the Prime Minister exploded at Diefenbaker (a constituent of his), "What business do you have to be here? You strike me to the heart every time you speak."

The Conservatives elected a floor leader, and in 1941 approached former Prime Minister Meighen, who had been appointed as a senator by Bennett, about becoming party leader again. Meighen agreed, and resigned his Senate seat, but lost a by-election for an Ontario seat in the House of Commons. He remained as leader for several months, although he could not enter the chamber of the House of Commons. Meighen sought to move the Tories to the left, in order to undercut the Liberals and to take support away from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the predecessor of the New Democratic Party (NDP)). To that end, he sought to draft the Liberal-Progressive premier of Manitoba, John Bracken, to lead the Conservatives. Diefenbaker objected to what he saw as an attempt to rig the party’s choice of new leader and stood for the leadership himself. Bracken was elected on the second ballot; Diefenbaker finished a distant third in both polls. At Bracken’s request, the convention changed the party’s name to "Progressive Conservative Party of Canada". Bracken chose not to seek entry to the House through a by-election, and when the Conservatives elected a new floor leader, Diefenbaker was defeated by one vote.