John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

After four years in Wakaw, Diefenbaker so dominated the local legal practice that his competitor left town. On May 1, 1924, Diefenbaker moved to Prince Albert, leaving a law partner in charge of the Wakaw office.

Aspiring politician (1924–1929)

Since 1905, when Saskatchewan entered Confederation, the province had been dominated by the Liberal Party, which practised highly effective machine politics. Diefenbaker was fond of stating, in his later years, that the only protection a Conservative had in the province was that afforded by the game laws.

Diefenbaker’s father, William, was a Liberal; however, John Diefenbaker found himself attracted to the Conservative Party. Free trade was widely popular throughout Western Canada, but Diefenbaker was convinced by the Conservative position that free trade would make Canada an economic dependent of the United States. However, he did not speak publicly of his politics. Diefenbaker recalled in his memoirs that, in 1921, he had been elected as secretary of the Wakaw Liberal Association while absent in Saskatoon, and had returned to find the association’s records in his office. He promptly returned them to the association president. Diefenbaker also stated that he had been told that if he became a Liberal candidate, "there was no position in the province which would not be open to him."

It was not until 1925 that Diefenbaker publicly came forward as a Conservative, a year in which both federal and Saskatchewan provincial elections were held. Journalist and historian Peter C. Newman, in his best-selling account of the Diefenbaker years, suggested that this choice was made for practical, rather than political reasons, as Diefenbaker had little chance of defeating established politicians and securing the Liberal nomination for either the House of Commons or the Legislative Assembly. The provincial election took place in early June; Liberals would later claim that Diefenbaker had campaigned for their party in the election. On June 19, however, Diefenbaker addressed a Conservative organizing committee, and on August 6, was nominated as the party’s candidate for the federal riding of Prince Albert, a district in which the party’s last candidate had lost his election deposit. A nasty campaign ensued, in which Diefenbaker was called a "Hun" because of his German-derived surname. The 1925 federal election was held on October 29; he finished third behind the Liberal and Progressive Party candidates, losing his deposit.

The winning candidate, Charles McDonald, did not hold the seat long, resigning it to open a place for the Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who had been defeated in his Ontario riding. The Tories ran no candidate against Mackenzie King in the by-election on February 15, 1926, and he won easily. Although in the 1925 federal election, the Conservatives had won the greatest number of seats, Mackenzie King continued as Prime Minister with the tacit support of the Progressives. Mackenzie King held office for several months until he finally resigned when the Governor General, Lord Byng, refused a dissolution. Conservative Party leader Arthur Meighen became Prime Minister, but was quickly defeated in the House of Commons, and Byng finally granted a dissolution of Parliament. Diefenbaker, who had been confirmed as Conservative candidate, stood against Mackenzie King in the 1926 election, a rare direct electoral contest between two Canadian Prime Ministers. Mackenzie King triumphed easily, and regained his position as Prime Minister.

Perennial candidate (1929–1940)

Diefenbaker stood for the Legislative Assembly in the 1929 provincial election. He was defeated, but Saskatchewan Conservatives formed their first government, with help from smaller parties. As the defeated Conservative candidate for Prince Albert City, he was given charge of political patronage there, and was created a King’s Counsel. Three weeks after his electoral defeat, he married Saskatoon teacher Edna Brower.

Diefenbaker chose not to stand for the House of Commons in the 1930 federal election, citing health reasons. The Conservatives gained a majority in the election, and party leader R.B. Bennett became Prime Minister. Diefenbaker continued a high-profile legal practice, and in 1933, ran for mayor of Prince Albert. He was defeated by 48 votes in an election in which over 2,000 ballots were cast.