John George Diefenbaker, lawyer, politician, prime minister (b at Neustadt, Ont 18 Sept 1895; d at Ottawa 16 Aug 1979).
John George Diefenbaker, lawyer, politician, prime minister (b at Neustadt, Ont 18 Sept 1895; d at Ottawa 16 Aug 1979). Well known as a defence lawyer before his election to Parliament, Canada's 13th prime minister was an eloquent spokesman for "nonestablishment" Canada both as a lawyer and as a politician. He developed a distinctive speaking style that allowed him to talk directly to his audience; his speeches were both inspiring and popular.
He moved to the Fort Carlton region of the North-West Territories with his family in 1903 and attended schools in several prairie communities before moving to Saskatoon in 1910. He saw and was profoundly influenced by the transition of Saskatchewan from a frontier to a modern society. He attended University of Saskatchewan and, after serving in the army in WWI, completed his law degree and articles and was called to the Saskatchewan Bar in 1919. His first law office was in Wakaw, Saskatchewan, but the larger northern centre of Prince Albert attracted him and he moved there in 1924.
A Growing Reputation
Diefenbaker's path to the prime minister's office was long. He ran federally for Prince Albert in 1925 and 1926; provincially in 1929 and 1938; and for mayor of Prince Albert in 1933. He lost each time. Despite a growing reputation as an able defence lawyer (named King's Counsel, 1929), he held firmly to the belief that his future lay in politics. He was given some encouragement when he became leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party in 1936, only to preside over the party's defeat in the 1938 election when they won no seats. He continued to preach his own brand of Conservative politics, visiting many Saskatchewan communities with his wife, Edna Mae Brower, building party organization and exhorting his colleagues to "keep the faith."
In June 1939 Diefenbaker was nominated for the federal riding of Lake Centre and in March 1940 he was elected an MP. The skills he had refined during his legal career served him well on the Opposition back benches. He gained a reputation as an astute questioner of government actions, a reputation that went far beyond the boundaries of his constituency. He was re-elected for Lake Centre in 1945 and 1949 but, when redistribution radically altered his constituency, he almost quit politics.
His legal career was flourishing, and R v Atherton, known as the Canoe River case, was one of his more famous trials during this period. He successfully defended Jack Atherton, a railway telegrapher, accused of causing a crash at Canoe River, BC. Two trains had collided head on, killing a number of soldiers en route to Korea.
He had not yet recovered from the death of his wife in February 1951, but Diefenbaker's friends in Prince Albert persuaded him to let his name stand as the PC candidate for Prince Albert in the 1953 election. The campaign and its slogan, "Not a partisan cry, but a national need," captured the imagination of Prince Albert voters and Diefenbaker was elected. That same year he married Olive Freeman Palmer, who gave up her own highly successful career in the Ontario Department of Education. Olive Diefenbaker was closely associated with her husband's political career for the rest of her life.
In 1956 Diefenbaker was chosen to succeed George Drew, who resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. In 1957 Diefenbaker led his party to an upset victory over the Liberals, who were led by Louis St. Laurent, and formed the first Tory government since that of R.B. Bennett. Backed by a Cabinet that included Davie Fulton, Donald Fleming, George Hees, G.R. Pearkes, Douglas Harkness, Ellen Fairclough, Léon Balcer and Gordon Churchill, Diefenbaker consolidated his position in March 1958 when the electorate returned his government with 208 seats - the highest number held by a single party in Canada to that time.
The Diefenbaker Vision
The Diefenbaker era featured the personality and the style of the "man from Prince Albert"; many things now taken for granted were initiated during his administration. Wheat sales to China and agricultural reform revitalized western agriculture. His determination to guarantee certain rights for all led to the Canadian Bill of Rights and to granting the federal franchise to Canada's native peoples; James Gladstone, a Blood from Alberta, was appointed to the Senate. Under the philosophical umbrella of "social justice," many programs were restructured to provide aid to those in need. The "northern vision" that figured so prominently in rhetoric of the 1957 and 1958 elections increased public awareness of the Far North and led to some economic development. A tour of the Commonwealth in 1958 reinforced Diefenbaker's strong feelings about the value of that organization and other international bodies. It also helped to define his role as a supporter of the nonwhite Commonwealth; he played a key role in the 1961 antiapartheid statement that contributed to South Africa's withdrawal from the Commonwealth.
A Spectacular Campaign
During the 1962 election, the Liberals were able to exploit the crisis in the economy (the Canadian dollar had dropped to 92.5c US), the debate over nuclear weapons on Canadian soil (with charges against Diefenbaker of anti-Americanism) as well as the controversial 1959 cancellation of the Avro Arrow; the PC government was reduced to a minority. The 1963 election returned the Liberals to power, but Diefenbaker, travelling the country by train, almost won the election for his party. It was possibly the most spectacular one-man political campaign in Canadian history. In the period following that election, Diefenbaker delighted in questioning Prime Minister Lester Pearson's government to such an extent that the House's business slowed considerably. He argued vigorously against Pearson's proposal for a new Canadian flag (see Flag Debate) and led the attack on the Liberals during the scandals of 1965.
The Final Journey
Despite the electoral setbacks and a party deeply split over the question of his continuing leadership, Diefenbaker refused to resign and put up a spirited defence at the 1967 leadership convention, which chose Robert Stanfield as the new leader. Diefenbaker remained in politics, however, and won a seat for the thirteenth time in May 1979. His state funeral in Ottawa, the final train journey across Canada, and his burial in Saskatoon beside the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Centre at U of Sask - all planned by himself - is pageantry that few Canadians who witnessed it will forget.