John Diefenbaker

53

John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Bracken was elected to the Commons in the 1945 general election, and for the first time in five years the Tories had their party leader in the House of Commons. The Progressive Conservatives won 67 seats to the Liberals’ 125, with smaller parties and independents winning 52 seats. Diefenbaker increased his majority to over 1,000 votes, and had the satisfaction of seeing Mackenzie King defeated in Prince Albert—but by a CCF candidate. The Prime Minister was returned in an Ontario by-election within months.

Diefenbaker staked out a position on the populist left of the PC party. Though most Canadians were content to look to Parliament for protection of civil liberties, Diefenbaker called for a Bill of Rights, calling it "the only way to stop the march on the part of the government towards arbitrary power". He objected to the great powers used by the Mackenzie King government to attempt to root out Soviet spies after the war, such as imprisonment without trial, and complained about the government’s proclivity for letting its wartime powers become permanent.

Leadership contender (1948–1956)

In early 1948, Mackenzie King, by now aged 73, announced his retirement; later that year Louis St. Laurent succeeded him. Although Bracken had nearly doubled the Tory representation in the House, prominent Tories were increasingly unhappy with his leadership, and pressured him to stand down. These party bosses believed that Ontario Premier George A. Drew, who had won three successive provincial elections and had even made inroads in francophone ridings, was the man to lead the Progressive Conservatives to victory. When Bracken resigned on July 17, 1948, Diefenbaker announced his candidacy. The party’s backers, principally financiers headquartered on Toronto’s Bay Street, preferred Drew’s conservative political stances to Diefenbaker’s Western populism. Tory leaders packed the leadership convention in Ottawa in favour of Drew, appointing more than 300 delegates at-large. One cynical party member commented, "Ghost delegates with ghost ballots, marked by the ghostly hidden hand of Bay Street, are going to pick George Drew, and he’ll deliver a ghost-written speech that’ll cheer us all up, as we march briskly into a political graveyard." Drew easily defeated Diefenbaker on the first ballot. St. Laurent called an election for June 1949, and the Tories were decimated, falling to 41 seats, only two more than the party’s 1940 nadir. Despite intense efforts to make the Progressive Conservatives appeal to Quebecers, the party won only two seats in the province.

Newman argued that but for Diefenbaker’s many defeats, he would never have become Prime Minister:

If, as a neophyte lawyer, he had succeeded in winning the Prince Albert seat in the federal elections of 1925 or 1926, … Diefenbaker would probably have been remembered only as an obscure minister in Bennett’s Depression cabinet … If he had carried his home-town mayoralty in 1933, … he’d probably not be remembered at all … If he had succeeded in his bid for the national leadership in 1942, he might have taken the place of John Bracken on his six-year march to oblivion as leader of a party that had not changed itself enough to follow a Prairie radical … [If he had defeated Drew in 1948, he] would have been free to flounder before the political strength of Louis St. Laurent in the 1949 and 1953 campaigns.

The governing Liberals repeatedly attempted to deprive Diefenbaker of his parliamentary seat. In 1948, Lake Centre was redistricted to remove areas which strongly supported Diefenbaker. In spite of that, he was returned in the 1949 election, the only PC member from Saskatchewan. In 1952, a redistricting committee dominated by Liberals abolished Lake Centre entirely, dividing its voters among three other ridings. Diefenbaker stated in his memoirs that he had considered retiring from the House; with Drew only a year older than he was, the Westerner saw little prospect of advancement, and had received tempting offers from Ontario law firms. However, the gerrymandering so angered him that he decided to fight for a seat. Diefenbaker’s party had taken Prince Albert only once, in 1911, but he decided to stand in that riding for the 1953 election, and was successful. He would hold that seat for the rest of his life. Even though Diefenbaker campaigned nationally for party candidates, the Progressive Conservatives gained little, rising to 51 seats as St. Laurent led the Liberals to a fifth successive majority. In addition to trying to secure his departure from Parliament, the government opened a home for unwed Indian mothers next door to Diefenbaker’s home in Prince Albert.