John Diefenbaker

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John George Diefenbaker
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Order: 13th
Term of Office: 19571963
Predecessor: Louis St. Laurent
Successor: Lester B. Pearson
Date of Birth: September 18, 1895
Place of Birth: Neustadt, Ontario
Spouses: Edna Brower, Olive Palmer
Profession: lawyer
Political Party: Progressive Conservative

John George Diefenbaker, PC (September 18, 1895August 16, 1979) was the thirteenth Prime Minister of Canada (19571963). Born in Neustadt, Ontario, Canada, he received a B.A. in 1915, an M.A. in Political Science and Economics in 1916, and an LL.B. in 1919 from the University of Saskatchewan. Diefenbaker married Edna Brower (1901-1951) in 1929. In 1953, he married his second wife, Olive Palmer (1902-1976), who had a daughter from a previous marriage.


Early career

Sir John George Diefenbaker served briefly in World War One in the Canadian Army from 1916 to 1918, acquiring the rank of Lieutenant in the 105th Saskatoon Fusiliers. He saw some action in the trenches of France in 1916. However, after a few weeks in the trenches, it was discovered that his left leg had suffered a bad infection and he was invalided to England where he spent the remainder of the war in recuperation. He was called to the Saskatchewan Bar in 1919, and became a criminal lawyer. He was appointed King's Counsel in 1929. He served as the leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party from 1936-1938. Diefenbaker's early political career was marked by a singular achievement — he ran unsuccessfully in over a dozen elections at the municipal, provincial and federal levels in Alberta and Saskatchewan before finally getting elected.

Diefenbaker was first elected to Parliament in the 1940 federal election. He served as Canada's delegate to the United Nations in 1952.

Diefenbaker was a contestant in four Progressive Conservative leadership conventions. In 1943, Diefenbaker lost to Manitoba Premier John Bracken. In 1948 Diefenbaker also lost to Ontario Premier George Drew, before winning in 1956. He also lost an attempt to retain the leadership at the 1967 leadership convention and was defeated by Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield.

Prime Minister of Canada

He led the national Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1956-1967, and was Prime Minister of Canada from June 21, 1957 to April 22, 1963. He became Prime Minister as a result of an upset victory in the 1957 election, after which, he was able to form a minority government. Diefenbaker returned to the polls in the 1958 election to win the largest majority government in Canadian history.

Diefenbaker made what some believe to have been one of the most controversial policy decisions of the last century in Canada on February 20, 1959 when his government cancelled the development and manufacture of the Avro Arrow. The Arrow was a Mach 2 supersonic jet fighter built by A.V. Roe Canada (Avro), in Malton, Ontario, just west of Toronto. After cancelling the technologically advanced interceptor project, the Canadian government purchased American-made Bomarc missiles and CF-101 Voodoo interceptors to defend Canada in the event of a Soviet nuclear bomber attack from the north. However, while his government initially approved the Bomarc and Voodoo, it balked when it realised that both would be equipped with nuclear warheads. Diefenbaker's refusal to allow nuclear weapons into Canada led to several resignations from his Cabinet and the collapse of his government in 1963.

His hostility to the United States administration and annoyance at the failure of President John F. Kennedy to consult with him on the matter ahead of time also led Diefenbaker to be skeptical of the seriousness of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It also caused him to fail to act quickly on an American request to put Canadian forces on Defcon 3 status. The Minister of National Defence, Douglas Harkness, defied Diefenbaker by putting the military on high alert two days prior to Cabinet's decision to authorize the move.

Diefenbaker was also instrumental in bringing in the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960. This was the first attempt to codify the basic rights of Canadian citizens in law. Because the Bill of Rights was a federal statute and not a part of the Canadian Constitution, it could not be used by courts to nullify provincial laws that contradicted it and thus had a limited impact on the decisions of the court, unlike the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.

The Progressive Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament in the 1962 election. Immediately afterward, Diefenbaker's minority government began a program to reduce government spending, and raise tariffs and bank interest rates. He then reorganized his Cabinet, moving Donald Fleming into the Minister of Justice/Solicitor General position, replacing him with George C. Nowlan.

In September 1962, Diefenbaker attended the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London, where he attacked Britain's prospective entry into the European Economic Community, stating it would be at the expense of Canada's increased economic dependence on the United States. He also criticized South Africa's policy of apartheid, and successfully opposed its readmission into the Commonwealth after it declared itself a republic.

Party leader and Member of Parliament

Diefenbaker lost the 1963 federal election to Lester Pearson and the Liberals.

Diefenbaker continued as PC party leader after the 1963 election. In the 1964 Great Flag Debate, Diefenbaker led the opposition to the Maple Leaf flag arguing for the retention of the Canadian Red Ensign. To the surprise of many, he ran an aggressive campaign in the 1965 election, and held Pearson's Liberals to a minority government. Pearson had called the election expecting to win a majority. His most passionate intervention as Leader of the Opposition was his opposition to the proposed maple leaf flag which he castigated as the "Pearson Pennant".

Growing dissatisfaction with his leadership, however, led to open dissension within the party. Party president Dalton Camp called for a leadership review, a measure for which there was no provision in the party's constitution. Camp's efforts resulted in the Progressive Conservative Party calling a leadership convention in 1967. Although Diefenbaker stood as a candidate for the leadership, he was defeated by Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield. Diefenbaker retained his parliamentary seat for the next twelve years until his death. In 1969, he was also named chancellor at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Diefenbaker died on August 16, 1979 in Ottawa, Ontario, and is buried beside the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. He had a special ceremony in place, so that the Maple Leaf flag was draped on his casket first, and then the Red Ensign that he defended so intensely in parliament was laid over it. His state funeral was carried out as he had planned years earlier.


In 1967, the boyhood home of Diefenbaker was moved from Borden, Saskatchewan to Wascana Park in Regina, Saskatchewan. In 2001, the Wascana Centre Authority shut the site to visitors, and in 2004 it was moved to the Sukanen Ship and Pioneer Village Museum, 13 km south of Moose Jaw.

Lake Diefenbaker is named for the late prime minister. It is a reservoir on the South Saskatchewan River created following the construction of the Gardiner Dam. The television show Due South had a wolf character who was named "Diefenbaker," also after the Canadian Prime Minister. Saskatoon's airport is named John G. Diefenbaker International Airport in his honour.

Between 1993 and 2003 Diefenbaker was frequently touted as a "spiritual father" or symbol of Red Tory values or Progressive Conservatism espoused by the beleaguered PC Party and its membership. In his 2000 book In Defence of Civility, Tory strategist and leadership candidate Hugh Segal notes that Diefenbaker "defined Progressive Conservatism as the ultimate balance for free enterprise, profit-making and economic growth on the one hand, and social justice and respect for the interests of the common man on the other." Many Red Tory PCs, such as David Orchard and Heward Grafftey, who were embarrassed or not enamored with the more recent PC prime ministership of Brian Mulroney, frequently referenced their own political traditions, values and stances to the Diefenbaker era.

Ironically, in his memoirs, Diefenbaker stated that he never really liked the Progressive Conservative name adopted by the party in 1943. In Volume One: The Crusading Years of his autobiography One Canada Diefenbaker states "From its inception as Canada's first national political party in 1854, the Party has been called Conservative. The name was changed under Dr. Robert Manion. In the 1940 election, Conservative was nowhere mentioned. The party became the National Government Party. Perhaps more important was John Bracken's demand in 1943 that the Party change its name to Progressive Conservative. The sense of these moves escape me. I have always preferred the name Conservative."

External links

Preceded by:
Louis St. Laurent
Prime Minister of Canada
Succeeded by:
Lester B. Pearson
Preceded by:
George Drew
Progressive Conservative Leaders
Succeeded by:
Robert Stanfield
Preceded by:
Francis Helme, Liberal
Member of Parliament for Prince Albert
Succeeded by:
Stan Hovdebo, NDP
Preceded by:
John Frederick Johnson, Liberal
Member of Parliament for Lake Centre
Succeeded by:
federal riding abolished in 1952

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