John Diefenbaker

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John Diefenbaker : biography

September 18, 1895 – August 16, 1979

In 1934, when the Crown prosecutor for Prince Albert resigned to become the Conservative Party’s legislative candidate, Diefenbaker took his place as prosecutor. Diefenbaker did not stand in the 1934 provincial election, in which the governing Conservatives lost every seat. Six days after the election, Diefenbaker resigned as Crown prosecutor. The federal government of Bennett was defeated the following year and Mackenzie King returned as Prime Minister. Judging his prospects hopeless, Diefenbaker had declined a nomination to stand again against Mackenzie King in Prince Albert. In the waning days of the Bennett government, the Saskatchewan Conservative Party President was appointed a judge, leaving Diefenbaker, who had been elected the party’s vice president, as acting president of the provincial party.

Saskatchewan Conservatives eventually arranged a leadership convention for October 28, 1936. Eleven people were nominated, including Diefenbaker. The other ten candidates all deemed the provincial party in such hopeless shape that they withdrew, and Diefenbaker won the position by default. Diefenbaker asked the federal party for $10,000 in financial support, but the funds were refused, and the Conservatives were shut out of the legislature in the 1938 provincial elections for the second consecutive time. Diefenbaker himself was defeated in the Arm River riding by 190 votes. With the province-wide Conservative vote having fallen to 12%, Diefenbaker offered his resignation to a post-election party meeting in Moose Jaw, but it was refused. Diefenbaker continued to run the provincial party out of his law office, and paid the party’s debts from his own pocket.

Diefenbaker quietly sought the Conservative nomination for the federal riding of Lake Centre, but was unwilling to risk a divisive intra-party squabble. In what Diefenbaker biographer Smith states "appears to have been an elaborate and prearranged charade", Diefenbaker attended the nominating convention as keynote speaker, but withdrew when his name was proposed, stating a local man should be selected. The winner among the six remaining candidates, riding president W.B. Kelly, declined the nomination, urging the delegates to select Diefenbaker, which they promptly did. Mackenzie King called a general election for March 25, 1940. The incumbent in Lake Centre was the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Liberal John Frederick Johnston. Diefenbaker campaigned aggressively in Lake Centre, holding 63 rallies and seeking to appeal to members of all parties. On election day, he defeated Johnston by 280 votes on what was otherwise a disastrous day for the Conservatives, who won only 39 seats out of the 245 in the House of Commons—their lowest total since Confederation.

Prime Minister (1957–1963)

Domestic events and policies

Minority government

When John Diefenbaker took office as Prime Minister of Canada on June 21, 1957, only one Progressive Conservative MP, Earl Rowe, had served in federal governmental office, for a brief period under Bennett in 1935. Rowe was no friend of Diefenbaker, and was given no place in his government. Diefenbaker appointed Ellen Fairclough as Secretary of State for Canada, the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet post, and Michael Starr as Minister of Labour, the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to serve in Cabinet.

As the Parliament buildings had been lent to the Universal Postal Union for its 14th congress, Diefenbaker was forced to wait until the fall to convene Parliament. However, the Cabinet approved measures that summer, including increased price supports for butter and turkeys, and raises for federal employees. Once the 23rd Canadian Parliament was opened on October 14 by Queen Elizabeth II — the first to be opened by any Canadian monarch — the government rapidly passed legislation, including tax cuts and increases in old age pensions. The Liberals were ineffective in opposition, with the party in the midst of a leadership race after St. Laurent’s resignation as party leader.