John George Diefenbaker (1895-1979) was prime minister of Canada and leader of the Progressive Conservative party. Though his government had some remarkable successes, he left a legacy of bitterness and disunion for his party.
John Diefenbaker was born in Neustadt, Ontario, on Sept. 18, 1895. In 1903 his family, which was of both Scottish and German descent, moved west to Fort Carlton, north of Saskatoon, to homestead. His father, William Thomas Diefenbaker, was a teacher and encouraged literacy in his family. It was from this love of books that young John learned of Canadian prime minister Sir Wilfred Laurier, and decided he would follow in his hero's footsteps.
Diefenbaker achieved a B.A. in 1915 and an M.A. in political science and economics in 1916, both from the University of Saskatchewan. After war service in England in 1916, he was invalided home, and resumed studies at Saskatchewan, graduating with an LL.B. in 1919. His law career in Wakaw, near Prince Albert, was successful from the outset, and Diefenbaker became well-known as a fierce cross-examiner. During this time, in 1929, he married Edna May Brower.
Politics was clearly his first love, though his first attempts were unsuccessful. He was defeated in five elections before he won a seat in Parliament in 1940. There he quickly established a reputation, and in 1942 and 1948 he tried but failed to win leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. Meanwhile, in 1951, Edna died, and Diefenbaker was remarried in 1953 to Olive Evangeline Freeman Palmer. In 1956, however, Diefenbaker was the overwhelming choice of a leadership convention, becoming at age 61 the leader of the Opposition Party.
In a stunning upset in the 1957 election, Diefenbaker won a minority victory and formed a remarkably successful government. New legislation flooded the statute books, helping pensioners and farmers and cutting taxes. Early in 1958 Diefenbaker dissolved Parliament and scored a devastating victory, winning 208 of 265 seats, the first non-Liberal government in 22 years. In 1958 he also sponsored a Bill of Rights for all Canadians, not just those of English or French lineage, and by this philosophy appointed James Gladstone, a Native Canadian, as senator. He also appointed Ellen Fairclough, the first woman federal Cabinet member.
The Conservative leader could only go downhill from the heights of 1958. Unemployment soon began to climb, Quebec was restive, there were difficulties with the United States over Cuba and arms, and the Liberals were recovering. The forceful image that had propelled Diefenbaker to victory was replaced with one of bumbling indecisiveness. An election in 1962 saw Diefenbaker returned to office with a minority government, and early in 1963 the administration was defeated in Parliament. The defeat was caused by the Prime Minister's inability to decide if Canada should accept nuclear warheads for the country's NORAD defense systems. His defense minister resigned, the U.S. State Department intervened, and the Conservatives were soon in a state of collapse. It was a tribute to Diefenbaker's campaigning skills that, although his party lost the election of 1963, it survived at all.
The last four years of Diefenbaker's party leadership were stormy. Bolstered by the support of loyal westerners, he was still a force to be reckoned with, but to urbanites the "Chief" was electoral poison. An attempt to challenge him in 1964 was crushed, and although the party came together to fight the 1965 election, the final attack came in 1966, when Diefenbaker was discredited. For a year more he hung on, but at a leadership convention in 1967 he was trounced by Robert Stanfield.
Nevertheless, Diefenbaker was committed to politics, and remained active within Commons for the next twelve years. Olive died in 1976, but Diefenbaker continued on. He was re-elected in 1979, but he died that year on August 16. His body was carried by train back to Saskatoon, and he was buried beside the Right Honorable John G. Diefenbaker Centre on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan.
Further Reading on John George Diefenbaker
There are as yet no scholarly studies of Diefenbaker, although an official biography has been in preparation. The best sources are Peter Newman, Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years (1964) and The Distemper of Our Times: Canadian Politics in Transition, 1963-1968 (1968).