John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Diefenbaker continued practising law. In 1951, he gained national attention by accepting the Atherton case, in which a young telegraph operator had been accused of negligently causing a train crash by omitting crucial information from a message. Twenty-one people were killed, mostly Canadian troops bound for Korea. Diefenbaker paid $1,500 and sat a token bar examination to join the Law Society of British Columbia to take the case, and gained an acquittal, prejudicing the jury against the Crown prosecutor and pointing out a previous case in which interference had caused information to be lost in transmission.

Although Edna Diefenbaker had been devoted to advancing her husband’s career, in the mid-1940s she began to suffer mental illness, and was placed in a private mental hospital for a time. She later fell ill from leukemia, and died in 1951. In 1953, Diefenbaker married Olive Palmer (formerly Olive Freeman), whom he had courted while living in Wakaw. Olive Diefenbaker became a great source of strength to her husband. There were no children born of either marriage.

With the Tories’ second consecutive disastrous defeat under Drew in 1953, speculation arose in the press that the leader might be pressured to step aside. Drew was determined to remain, however, and Diefenbaker was careful to avoid any action that might be seen as disloyal. However, Diefenbaker was never a member of the "Five O’clock Club" of Drew intimates who met the leader in his office for a drink and gossip each day. By 1955, there was a widespread feeling among Tories that Drew was not capable of leading the party to a victory. At the same time, the Liberals were in flux as the aging St. Laurent tired of politics. Drew was able to damage the government in a weeks-long battle over the Trans-Canada Pipeline in 1956—the so-called Pipeline Debate—in which the government, in a hurry to obtain financing for the pipeline, imposed closure before the debate even began. The Tories and the CCF combined to obstruct business in the House for weeks before the Liberals were finally able to pass the measure. Diefenbaker played a relatively minor role in the Pipeline Debate, speaking only once.

Leader of the Opposition; 1957 election

By 1956, the Social Credit Party was becoming a potential rival to the Tories as Canada’s main right-wing party. Canadian journalist and author Bruce Hutchison discussed the state of the Tories in 1956:

When a party calling itself Conservative can think of nothing better than to outbid the Government’s election promises; when it demands economy in one breath and increased spending in the next; when it proposes an immediate tax cut regardless of inflationary results … when in short, the Conservative party no longer gives us a conservative alternative after twenty-one years … then our political system desperately requires an opposition prepared to stand for something more than the improbable chance of quick victory.

In August 1956, Drew fell ill and many within the party urged him to step aside, feeling that the Progressive Conservatives needed vigorous leadership with an election likely within a year. He resigned in late September, and Diefenbaker immediately announced his candidacy for the leadership. A number of Progressive Conservative leaders, principally from the Ontario wing of the party, started a "Stop Diefenbaker" movement, and wooed University of Toronto president Sidney Smith as a possible candidate. When Smith declined, they could find no one of comparable stature to stand against Diefenbaker. At the convention in Ottawa in December, Diefenbaker won on the first ballot, and the dissidents reconciled themselves to his victory. After all, they reasoned, Diefenbaker was now 61 and unlikely to lead the party for more than one general election, an election they believed would be won by the Liberals regardless of who led the Tories.

In January 1957, Diefenbaker took his place as Leader of the Official Opposition. In February, St. Laurent informed him that Parliament would be dissolved in April for an election on June 10. The Liberals submitted a budget in March; Diefenbaker attacked it for overly high taxes, failure to assist pensioners, and a lack of aid for the poorer provinces. Parliament was dissolved on April 12. St. Laurent was so confident of victory that he did not even bother to make recommendations to the Governor General to fill the 16 vacancies in the Senate.