Flashback Friday – John Diefenbaker
“John Diefenbaker was a flawed hero. The Chief was suspicious, arrogant – and a populist with a strong, inclusive sense of social justice.” – Former Prime Minister Joe Clark
I will admit that I have a soft spot for Mr. Diefenbaker, having attended a high school named after him growing up. But on his own, Diefenbaker is an interesting prime minister. He is the only Conservative to form a government during a time when Liberals were the clear governing party in Canada. He had the distinction (prior to Mulroney stealing it from him) of winning the largest majority in Canadian history and was a very effective party leader and prime minister. However, he went out on less than agreeable terms, both with the Canadian electorate and his own party. Dief the Chief, as he was often known, is an interesting character in Canadian history.
Diefenbaker lived most of his life in Saskatchewan, the province he truly loved. He graduated from University with a degree in law and began a successful career as a defence lawyer. He likely could have been set in that career, but he had been interested in politics from a young age and was determined to make that his career path. He stood for election more times than can be counted on one hand, and he lost nearly every single one of those elections. He ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 1925 and 1926 and lost. He ran for a seat in the provincial legislature in 1929 and 1938 and lost. He ran for mayor of Prince Albert in 1933 and lost. He did win the leadership of the Conservative party of Saskatchewan in 1936, but they won no seats in the election of 1938. Finally in 1940, he won his coveted seat in the House of Commons and set out to make a name for himself. Ironically, the losses did not stop there. He ran for the leadership of the party in 1942 and 1948 and you guessed it… he lost. But finally in 1956, he became PC leader and went on to become prime minister.
It was no secret that Diefenbaker was far more progressive than most of his conservative caucus mates. His vision of Canada was not one defined by just french and english Canadians, but one by which all citizens could be represented. After only one year as PC leader, an election was called and Diefenbaker set out to talk to the people. His campaign style was over the top and dramatic and for the most part people responded positively to it. He was an impressive orator, no doubt a result of his time spent as a lawyer. In 1957 Diefenbaker was cautiously handed a minority government. It appeared to be a trial run, as Canadians were intrigued but not yet certain they wanted him as their prime minister. In 1958, Diefenbaker called a snap election and steam rolled the opposition, winning a majority that will rest in the history books forever.
As prime minister, Diefenbaker has many legacies. Perhaps one of the most prominent is the Bill of Rights which he introduced in 1960. It is said that Diefenbaker crafted most of, if not the entire document by himself and never let any details go unnoticed. His reputation as progressive continued, as he appointed the first female cabinet minister and the first person of First Nations decent to the Senate. At home he dealt with issues for farmers, attempted to revive the maritimes and extended the right to vote to First Nations people.
He was not afraid to deal with foreign affairs, championing human rights around the globe. His relationship with world leaders was difficult at times. Diefenbaker was quite stubborn and it often showed. His relationship with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower got off to a rough start, but the two eventually found common interests. Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy was a different story. Kennedy bungled Diefenbaker’s name on many occasions, and Diefenbaker resented Kennedy’s remarks to parliament. Kennedy also did not like Diefenbaker, referring to him as a boring old man. This relationship partly led to Diefenbaker’s downfall as prime minister, as Kennedy pressed him over nuclear arms.
Diefenbaker had many struggles as leader. The country began to experience an economic downturn and the prosperity of the fifties soon disappeared. His government eventually ran a deficit. Diefenbaker was also criticized over the decision to cancel the Avro Arrow program. The Arrow was a new and technologically superior aircraft, which was seen as a necessary tool of the blossoming Cold War. Diefenbaker’s decision to cancel the program and disassemble all remaining Avro Arrows due to cost was seen as terribly irresponsible. Diefenbaker at times was also extremely indecisive and would almost disappear when a decision was to be made. A major example of this was the decision about whether or not to have nuclear weapons on Canadian soil. Diefenbaker also failed to support the United States during moments of international conflict, and was seen as very unreliable.
In the election of 1962, the PCs were reduced back down to a minority government. Diefenbaker was unable to retain the support he had seen in Quebec. In an effort to expand the definition of what a Canadian is, he had alienated Quebec, giving it hardly any concessions. The party was reprimanded for this by losing most of their Quebec seats. The economy did not help Diefenbaker’s case, as the loonie dipped below parity with the American dollar. Canadians still seemed to like Diefenbaker as a person, but his indecisiveness and sometimes crazy behaviour made them reconsider him as their leader. While campaigning, he returned to his over the top oratory, which did help the party, but not enough to return him to a full majority government.
Diefenbaker nevertheless moved forward with his minority government. However, there was disenchantment with him on the opposition benches and within his own party. The government was defeated in a non confidence vote in 1963, and the Liberals were subsequently elected with a minority government in the following election. Lester Pearson very effectively campaigned on the discontent with Diefenbaker that was present in the country. To his credit, Dief the Chief stubbornly held on to power after the election, but wisely resigned to allow the Liberals to form a government.
Since he was now leader of the opposition again, Diefenbaker did everything he could to stall the Liberal agenda, and for the most part he was very successful. He stayed on as PC leader, although many thought it was time for him to leave. In the election of 1965, Diefenbaker is credited with preventing the Liberal majority, which everyone expected. But by then, Dief had more critics than supporters within the party and the movement to oust him began.
Though he held on as long as he could, and put his name forward to remain PC leader, he was defeated by Robert Stanfield who took over as leader. Perhaps all his defeats in his previous political attempts had made Diefenbaker think he could always come back, but in this case it never happened. He remained in parliament, representing his Saskatchewan riding, and filling the House of Commons with his bellowing oratory until he died in 1979. His funeral was a grand event, just as he has wished it to be. He lay in state in the Hall of Honour in Parliament before being taken by train from Ottawa to Saskatchewan where he was buried, making stops along the way for people to pay their respects to him. Today he rests with his second wife Olive outside the Diefenbaker Centre on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan.
So now the task of determining Diefenbaker’s legacy is upon us. How should he be remembered? There is no question he is one of Canada’s most passionate and outspoken prime ministers, who had a strong vision for Canada which he attempted to move forward. He is largely remembered more for his missteps, than his successes though. Had he stepped aside quietly and admirably as leader after 1963, his reputation may be better. But he was unable to hide the hurt he felt after his party pushed him out. He was also a prime minister who seems to have had a higher perception of himself than the public did, and thus his image has suffered. Nevertheless, as the thousands of Canadians who lined the tracks as he made his final journey home will attest, the honour and respect accompany the position, regardless of who holds it.