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John G. Diefenbaker

[dE' fen bAk ur] Prime Minister of Canada, 1957-1963

John George Diefenbaker

Early Life and Education

John George Diefenbaker was born in Neustadt, Ontario, on September 18, 1895, the first child of William and Mary Florence (Bannerman) Diefenbaker. One brother, Elmer, was born in 1897. His father was a teacher who moved the family often in search of better pay, from Neustadt to Greenwood and then to Todmorden. The family was finally able to settle down in 1903, when William Diefenbaker accepted a teaching position at a rural school near Fort Carlton, Northwest Territories (now in Saskatchewan). John and his brother attended their father's school until 1910, when the family moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, so John could attend high school.

After graduating from high school in 1912, Diefenbaker entered the University of Saskatchewan, where he studied arts and law and was active in campus politics. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1915 and his Master of Arts in 1916.

Diefenbaker was commissioned a Lieutenant in the 196th Battalion of the Canadian Army in May 1916 and sent to England for pre-deployment training in September. He was sent home in 1917 after being deemed medically unfit for service at the front.

Legal Career

Diefenbaker received his law degree from the University of Saskatchewan in May 1919. He was called to the Saskatchewan Bar on June 30, 1919, and opened a small office in Wakaw, Saskatchewan, the next day. He almost immediately established himself as an eloquent and successful defense lawyer, winning almost half of the 62 jury trials he tried in his first year of practice. His first court case involved the defense of a client accused of careless wounding with a rifle. The assailant had immediately offered first aid and turned himself in to the police. Diefenbaker argued successfully in October 1919 that the shooting was an error committed in the fading evening light.

Diefenbaker as a law student, 1919
Diefenbaker as a law student, 1919

In 1924 Diefenbaker took on a partner, Alexander Ehman, in his Wakaw office and moved his own practice to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Two other partners succeeded Ehman before Diefenbaker closed the Wakaw branch in 1929.

As a major city, Prince Albert had far more serious crime than Wakaw, and Diefenbaker became well known for his defense of clients accused of murder. In The King v. Bourdon (1927), he initially appeared as junior counsel but became the lead. The defendant was found not guilty. In The King v. Olson (1928), Diefenbaker requested on appeal that a conviction for murder be quashed on the ground that the trial judge had improperly directed the jury. The judgement was sustained, but on the court's recommendation Diefenbaker petitioned for mercy, claiming that the defendant had been mentally incapable of standing trial, and the federal Cabinet commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. He was similarly successful in The King v. Pasowesty in having a death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He was unsuccessful in The King v. Wysochan when he defended his client by arguing that the murder had been committed by the victim's husband. In The King v. Bajer his client, a destitute young woman with two children, was found not guilty of suffocating her newborn child. He was unsuccessful in The King v. Bohun, his client being found guilty of murdering a storekeeper. In The King v. Fouquette, the crown stayed charges through lack of evidence and the murder remained unsolved. In The King v. Harms Diefenbaker called for a verdict of manslaughter in an unwitnessed alcoholic killing. John Harms was convicted of murder, but Diefenbaker successfully appealed on the ground of an improper charge to the jury. At the second trial he presented meticulous evidence of Harms's intoxication and won conviction on the reduced charge. Harms was sentenced to a prison term of 15 years.

Diefenbaker became a King's Counsel in 1929. In 1930 he served as junior counsel to the Bryant Charges Commission, which was investigating Conservative claims that the previous government had interfered with the operations of the provincial police force for partisan advantage. The commission ended its proceedings in early 1931 without coming to any conclusions. He served as vice-president of the Canadian Bar Association from 1939 to 1940.

Diefenbaker as King's Counsel, 1929
Diefenbaker as King's Counsel, 1929

Member of Parliament

Diefenbaker first entered politics in 1925, when he ran for a seat in the Canadian House of Commons as the Conservative Party (Progressive Conservative Party as of 1942) candidate from Prince Albert. He finished third behind the Liberal and Progressive candidates.

The winner of the 1925 election, Charles McDonald, soon gave up his seat in order to open a place for Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who had been defeated in Ontario. King won the February 15, 1926 by-election easily and managed to stay on as Prime Minister, but was forced to resign several months later. Parliament was subsequently dissolved, and Diefenbaker stood against King in the elections held on September 14, 1926. Despite a vigorous campaign by Diefenbaker, King won easily and regained his position as Prime Minister.

handout from Diefenbaker's 1926 campaign
handout from Diefenbaker's 1926 campaign

Having lost two bids for a seat in the House of Commons, Diefenbaker decided to try for a seat in the Saskatchewan Legislature in 1929. As did almost every other Conservative candidate across the country, he lost to a member of the Liberal Party. In 1933 he ran for Mayor of Prince Albert. He was defeated by 48 votes in an election in which over 2,000 votes were cast. Despite his string of election losses, he became leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party in 1936. He made another bid for the Saskatchewan Legislature in 1938, and once again lost to a Liberal candidate.

Diefenbaker finally made it to the House of Commons when he defeated the Liberal Party incumbent from Lake Centre on March 25, 1940. He was re-elected by Lake Centre in 1949, and from Prince Albert in 1953. He made his maiden speech as an MP on June 23, 1940, supporting wartime rules that allowed arrest and detention without trial. He vehemently opposed the government's forceful removal of Canadians of Japanese descent from the Pacific Coast, but his efforts were unsuccessful.

Although he failed to win a 1941 election as Conservative Party leader in the House of Commons, Diefenbaker proved to be a very forceful and vocal member of the House. Always a strong advocate for individual rights, Difenbaker argued for adoption of a national bill of rights; he failed to get such a bill passed in 1946, but succeeded in getting one passed after he became Prime Minister (in 1960). The first legilation he introduced into the House of Commons was the Canadian Citizenship Act. Prior to the act's passage in 1946, individuals born in Canada and naturalized immigrants were classified as British subjects rather than Canadian citizens.

In 1948, the Progressive Conservatve Party met to choose a leader to succeed John Bracken, who had defeated Diefenbaker in the 1941 leadership election. Some members wanted Diefenbaker, but George Drew was ultimately elected. Diefenbaker remained a vocal member of the House of Commons, and in 1956 was chosen to succeed Drew, who had resigned due to ill health.

Diefenbaker making a point in the House of Commons, 1948
Diefenbaker making a point in the House of Commons, 1948

Prime Minister

Progressive Conservatives as a whole did not expect victory over the Liberals in 1957, but Diefenbaker waged a vigorous campaign in which he charged that the Liberals had become too powerful. The campaign worked, as the Progressive Conservatives won 112 seats in the House of Commons; the Liberals won 105, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation got 25, and the Social Credit Party won 19. Although it was not a decisive majority, the Progressive Conservatives had won the prime ministership, and Diefenbaker was sworn in on June 21, 1957, becoming the first Conservative Prime Minister since Richard R. Bennett (1930-1935). One of his first actions was to appoint Ellen Fairclough as Secretary of State, making her the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in Canada.

The 23rd Canadian Parliament did not open until October 14, but once in session it acted very quickly and passed several Diefenbaker-sponsored bills, including an increase in old-age pensions, loans to economically depressed areas, and financial aid to expand hydroelectric power in the Atlantic provinces.

The wave of social legislation boosted the Progressive Conservatives' standings in the polls, so Diefenbaker decided to call for new elections in 1958, believing that his party would gain a far greater majority in the House of Commons. His belief was well founded, as the Progressive Conservatives won 208 of the 265 seats, the largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history.

The Progressive Conservative majority allowed Diefenbaker to continue and expand his social reform, including increased pensions for the blind and disabled, a program of federal hospital insurance, and the building of roads into the minerally rich but undeveloped northern areas.In 1960 he succeeded in getting the Canadian Bill of Rights passed. In that same year, First Nations peoples were given the right to vote in federal elections without first having to give up their treaty rights. Diefenbaker had already appointed the first First Nations member of the Senate, James Gladstone, in 1958.

Diefenbaker admiring a 'prize' from a 1958 hunting vacation at Prince Edward
Diefenbaker hunting trip, 1958


Diefenbaker's pursuit of equality for all Canadians made him unwilling to make special concessions to Quebec's French-Canadians. He did, however, recommend the appointment of the first French-Canadian Governor-General, Georges Vanier.

Bank of Canada

Diefenbaker's first major conflict as Prime Minister revolved around Bank of Canada Governor James Coyne, whose tight monetary policies clashed with Diefenbaker's economic policy. Appointed by former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent to a term expiring in December 1961, Coyne could only be dismissed before then by the passing of an Act of Parliament. Diefenbaker was able to get the House of Commons to pass such an act, but the Liberal-controlled Senate refused to confirm the act. Coyne was, however, finally convinced to resign after facing questions about the Bank's pension plan.

Economic Problems

In the early 1960's, Canada was importing far more from the United States than it exported there. In order to improve the trade balance, Diefenbaker wanted Canadians to increase their trade with nations of the British Commonwealth, and the government set up restrictions designed to discourage investing abroad. The measures did not solve the problem, however. Canada also faced major unemployment, with up to 11 per cent of the work force unable to find employment in 1961 and 1962.

In mid-1962 the government was forced to adopt austerity measures. Spending was reduced, tariffs on imports were increased, and loans totaling almost $1 billion were obtained from foreign banks. By the time Diefenbaker called an election for June 18, 1962, the combination of Diefenbaker's unwillingness to compromise with Quebec, his quarrel with the Bank of Canada, and the still lagging economy had seriously damaged the Progressive Conservatives' image. That image was further tarnished when the Bank of Canada had to devalue the Canadian Dollar to 92-1/2 cents (from 95 cents compared to the U.S. dollar). In response, people across the country passed out satirical "Diefenbucks" prior to and during the 1962 campaign.

'Diefendollars' used to mock Diefenbaker during 1962 campaign
'Diefendollars' used to mock Diefenbaker during 1962 campaign

The Progressive Conservatives managed to win the most seats in Parliament, but did not have an absolute majority. Diefenbaker was only able to maintain the prime ministership because the small Social Credit Party agreed to support him.

Foreign Policy

As Prime Minister, Diefenbaker was eager to make an impact on the international scene equalling that of his political rival, Lester B. Pearson. In the summer of 1958 he had welcomed both British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ottawa, and in the autumn of that year he toured Europe and the Asian Commonwealth. In Europe he gained the respect of President Charles de Gaulle of France, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of the German Federal Republic, and Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani of Italy. In Asia he admired the anti-communism of Pakistani dictator General Mohammad Ayub Khan and the political realism of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, while warning against the neutralism of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike of Ceylon.

South Africa One of the major issues facing the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in London, England, in May 1960, was whether to exclude South Africa from membership in the Commonwealth as long as it continued its policy of apartheid. Although he vehemently opposed South Africa's policies, Diefenbaker disagreed with exclusion because he did not believe the Commonwealth had the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of its members. He and Macmillan were able to work out a deal in which the conference offered South Africa time to revise its policies by agreeing that in the event it chose to become a republic, it would have to request consent from other Commonwealth members for readmission to the association.

Diefenbaker at the 1960 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference
Diefenbaker at the 1960 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference

When South Africa's whites voted in October 1960 in favour of a republic, Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd announced that he would seek continuing Commonwealth membership at the Prime Ministers' meeting in March 1961. At that conference, Diefenbaker advocated a declaration of principles to be adopted before a decision on South Africa's readmission. The effect would be to force a choice on South Africa rather than on the other members. When Verwoerd called for additional wording which would exclude his country's practices from blame, Diefenbaker sided with the non-white leaders in rejecting the proposal. Verwoerd withdrew the South African application and left the meeting. The conference did not adopt any declaration of principles, Diefenbaker received wide praise at home and abroad for his defense of the principle of non-discrimination.

United States U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower showed constant respect and consideration toward Diefenbaker, despite disagreements in joint defense policy and other matters. As his last official act before departing office, Eisenhower invited Diefenbaker to the White House for a ceremonial signing of the contentious Columbia River Treaty, on January 17, 1961.

Diefenbaker and Eisenhower signing the Columbia River Treaty
Diefenbaker and Eisenhower signing the Columbia River Treaty

Nuclear Controversy Diefenbaker's relationship with Eisenhower's successor, John F. Kennedy, was strained from the very beginning, and only got worse. To Diefenbaker's intense annoyance, Kennedy called him "Diefenbawker" when he first became president. To Kennedy's annoyance, Diefenbaker refused to accept any missiles armed with nuclear warheads in the country, despite Canada having signed an agreement with the United States to accept such missiles as part of a mutual defense and security treaty. Formal negotiations for an agreement on the warheads made no progress.

Relations between the United States and Canada reached their lowest point on January 30, 1963, when the United States charged that Canada had failed to propose a practical plan for arming its forces against a possible Russian attack. Diefenbaker angrily responded by saying that the U.S. statement was "an unwarranted intrusion in Canadian affairs." Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson, meanwhile, declared that Canada should live up to its agreement and accept the nuclear warheads.

The dispute over the nuclear warheads, combined with a still lagging economy and other issues, led the House of Commons to pass a a motion of no-confidence in the Diefenbaker government, on February 5, 1963. In elections held in April, the Liberals won 120 seats, the Progressive Conservatives 95. Difenbaker formally resigned as Prime Minister on April 22, 1963, and was succeeded by long-time nemesis Lester B. Pearson.

Later Career

Diefenbaker led the opposition in Parliament unril 1967, during which time he was often so intent on opposing Pearson that he brought Parliamentary business to a near standstill. In 1967 his party colleagues voted to replace Diefenbaker with Robert L. Stanfield. Diefenbaker continued to represent Prince Albert in the House of Commons until his death, which came in Ottawa on August 16, 1979.

Diefenbaker's state funeral, which he had planned himself, was the most elaborate in Canadian history. His open casket lay in the Parliamentary Hall of Honour for three days before being moved in a ceremonial parade to Christ Church Cathedral for an interfaith service. From Ottawa, an eight-car funeral train carried the coffin and more than 100 passengers westwards to Prince Albert and Saskatoon, with stops both scheduled and unscheduled for crowds along the way. He was buried beside the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker Centre, which had been constructed on the grounds of the University of Saskatchewan to house his papers and relics. The body of his late wife Olive was moved from Ottawa to lie beside him.


Diefenbaker married Edna May Brower, a Saskatoon schoolteacher in 1929. She died of leukemia in February 1951. In 1953 he married Mrs. Olive Freeman Palmer, an old friend from Wakaw; she was a widow with a grown daughter and gave up her job as assistant director of the Ontario Department of Education to remarry. She died in 1976.

Print Source

World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

Internet Sources

Canada History
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Dictionary of Canadian Biography

See Also

Lester B. Pearson
Harold Macmillan
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Charles de Gaulle
Konrad Adenauer
Jawaharlal Nehru
John F. Kennedy

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This page was last updated on 09/05/2018.