DIFFENBAKER, JOHN (1895-1979)
John George Diefenbaker, criminal lawyer, politician, and Progressive Conservative prime minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963, was born at Neustadt, Ontario, on September 19, 1895. Although Diefenbaker was born and died in Ontario, his reputation will be linked forever to the Canadian West and, in particular, to the province of Saskatchewan. He was, as a colleague once described him, "a prairie man to the core." As such, his character was shaped by his early life in Saskatchewan, his priorities influenced by that region's attitudes toward the issues he would face as prime minister, and his policies directed toward making the country's peripheries more important considerations in national decision making.
Diefenbaker moved with his family to the Fort Carlton region of the Northwest Territories in 1903, when it was still a frontier. His early years were spent in small Prairie communities and, after 1910, in Saskatoon. After attending the University of Saskatchewan and serving in World War I, Diefenbaker obtained a law degree and practiced law in Wakaw and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. In subsequent years his legal career flourished, but he was also drawn to politics.
Diefenbaker was nearly sixty-two when he became prime minister, and the many defeats he endured en route might have deterred a man less convinced of his political destiny. He stood for both Parliament and the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly twice, and he led the Conservative Party in the provincial election of 1938, in which not one of his candidates was elected, before winning a federal seat in 1940. He also contested the leadership of the national Progressive Conservative Party twice without success before winning it in 1956.
During his years in opposition, however, Diefenbaker developed into a formidable debater and platform performer, skills that served him well in the 1957 and 1958 national election campaigns. He led his party to a minority victory in the first of these, but it was in the second that his "vision" of a new and better Canada captivated the electorate and brought the Conservatives the greatest electoral triumph in Canadian history to that time. His charisma and oratory enthralled his audiences, and he offered hope to a nation thirsting for innovative ideas for strengthening the economy, especially in the outlying regions of the country.
Once in power, Diefenbaker, with the able assistance of a small group of advisers from western Canada, attempted to set the country on a new course after what they believed to have been two decades of drift under the uninspired leadership of the Liberal Party. These men were motivated by Canadian nationalism, a commitment to social justice, and a conviction that government must create the conditions whereby private enterprise could develop all regions of the country. They believed Canada to be a "treasure-house" of wealth waiting to be tapped for the benefit of all Canadians, and they were determined to use these resources for both economic and social goals. Under the auspices of the "New National Policy," they emphasized natural resource development to spur the economy, create employment, and provide additional revenues for much-needed social programs. The Atlantic Provinces Power Development, the South Saskatchewan River Dam, the Roads to Resources that opened the north, and the Resources for Tomorrow conference, which catalogued Canada's potential, rank high on the list of achievements of the Diefenbaker government. So do its actions in aid of Canadian agriculture, including the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development program and the sale of grain surpluses to communist countries such as China, which not only brought prosperity to Prairie farm communities but also created opportunities for Canadian businesses which remain in place today. Other accomplishments include legislation of Canada's first Bill of Rights, extension of the franchise to Aboriginal Canadians, and the adoption of Diefenbaker's stand against apartheid by the Commonwealth.
Despite these successes, Diefenbaker's staggering victory in 1958 created expectations that probably no leader could have satisfied, and a downturn in the economy of Central Canada and unpopular decisions in the realms of defense and foreign policy led to the defeat of his government in 1963 and the loss of his party's leadership four years later. Diefenbaker remained in his beloved House of Commons until his death in Ottawa on August 16, 1979, but he never regained his former prominence. Nevertheless, during his lengthy career, John Diefenbaker accomplished much of merit. He brought the concerns of western Canada to the forefront of national politics. He rejuvenated the Progressive Conservative Party in all regions of the country. He brought to Canadians a heightened awareness of their potential greatness and the importance of "justice" as a fundamental principle of their polity. Any deficiencies he displayed while prime minister do not outweigh these important contributions to his country.
Patrick Kyba University of Guelph
Diefenbaker, John G. One Canada: Memoirs. 3 vols. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975.
Smith, Denis. Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker. Toronto: MacFarlane Walter and Ross, 1995.
Story, D. C., and R. B. Shepard, eds. The Diefenbaker Legacy: Canadian Politics, Law and Society since 1957. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1998.