John Diefenbaker


John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

Diefenbaker ran on a platform which concentrated on changes in domestic policies. He pledged to work with the provinces to reform the Senate. He proposed a vigorous new agricultural policy, seeking to stabilize income for farmers. He sought to reduce dependence on trade with the United States, and to seek closer ties with the United Kingdom. St. Laurent called the Tory platform "a mere cream-puff of a thing—with more air than substance". Diefenbaker and the PC party used television adroitly, whereas St. Laurent stated that he was more interested in seeing people than in talking to cameras. Though the Liberals outspent the Progressive Conservatives three to one, according to Newman, their campaign had little imagination, and was based on telling voters that their only real option was to re-elect St. Laurent.

Diefenbaker characterized the Tory program in a nationwide telecast on April 30:

It is a program … for a united Canada, for one Canada, for Canada first, in every aspect of our political and public life, for the welfare of the average man and woman. That is my approach to public affairs and has been throughout my life … A Canada, united from Coast to Coast, wherein there will be freedom for the individual, freedom of enterprise and where there will be a Government which, in all its actions, will remain the servant and not the master of the people.

The final Gallup poll before the election showed the Liberals ahead, 48% to 34%. Just before the election, Maclean’s magazine printed its regular weekly issue, to go on sale the morning after the vote, editorializing that democracy in Canada was still strong despite a sixth consecutive Liberal victory. On election night, the Progressive Conservative advance started early, with the gain of two seats in reliably Liberal Newfoundland. The party picked up nine seats in Nova Scotia, five in Quebec, 28 in Ontario, and at least one seat in every other province. The Progressive Conservatives took 112 seats to the Liberals’ 105: a plurality, but not a majority. While the Liberals finished some 200,000 votes ahead of the Tories nationally, that margin was mostly wasted in overwhelming victories in safe Quebec seats. St. Laurent could have legally stayed in office until Diefenbaker could defeat him on the floor of the Commons. However, with the minor parties pledging to cooperate with a Tory government, St. Laurent chose not to do so, making Diefenbaker Prime Minister-designate of Canada.


Although Wakaw had a population of only 400, it sat at the heart of a densely populated area of rural townships and had its own district court. It was also easily accessible to Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Humboldt, places where the Court of King’s Bench sat. The local people were mostly immigrants, and Diefenbaker’s research found them to be particularly litigious. There was already one barrister in town, and the residents were loyal to him, initially refusing to rent office space to Diefenbaker. The new lawyer was forced to rent a vacant lot and erect a two-room wooden shack.

Diefenbaker won the local people over through his success; in his first year in practice, he tried 62 jury trials, winning approximately half of his cases. He rarely called defence witnesses, thereby avoiding the possibility of rebuttal witnesses for the Crown, and securing the last word for himself. In late 1920, he was elected to the village council to serve a three-year term.

Diefenbaker would often spend weekends with his parents in Saskatoon. While there, he began to woo Olive Freeman, daughter of the Baptist minister, but in 1921, she moved with her family to Brandon, Manitoba, and the two lost touch for more than 20 years. He then courted Beth Newell, a cashier in Saskatoon, and by 1922, the two were engaged. However, in 1923, Newell was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Diefenbaker broke off contact with her. She died the following year. Diefenbaker was himself subject to internal bleeding, and may have feared that the disease would be transmitted to him. In late 1923, he had an operation at the Mayo Clinic for a gastric ulcer, but his health remained uncertain for several more years.