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Alone at the Top
The Path to Power
Leading Canada
Private Life
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John George Diefenbaker banner
John George Diefenbaker.


1895 - 1979

"I am the first prime minister of this country of neither altogether English or French origin. So I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration....I'm very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin -- and they are all Canadians." -- John Diefenbaker, March 29, 1958

While previous prime ministers had concerned themselves with the reconciliation of French and English culture in Canada, John Diefenbaker aspired to include those of other ethnic extractions in the national identity. Furthermore, he drew attention to the rights of Canada's indigenous population, who had also been left out of the "two founding nations" equation. Under his prime ministership, Canada's Aboriginal peoples were allowed to vote federally for the first time, and James Gladstone, a member of the Blood tribe was the first native person appointed to the Senate.

Diefenbaker's political career is a lesson in determination and tenacity. He met with failure and opposition many times in his life, but never let it prevent him from pursuing his goals. John George Diefenbaker was born in Neustadt, Ontario in 1895; his parents were of German and Scottish descent. His family moved to Fort Carlton, north of Saskatoon in 1903 where the Diefenbakers homesteaded. John's father taught school and encouraged his sons to read. At a young age, Diefenbaker read a book about Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and decided that someday he too would lead Canada.

Diefenbaker attended the University of Saskatchewan, graduating with a general B.A. in 1915 and an M.A. in political science and economics in 1916. He enlisted in the army in 1916 and served briefly in Britain, before being invalided home the following year.

Returning to university to study law, he graduated with an LL.B. in 1919. He set up a law practice in Wakaw, near Prince Albert. Diefenbaker quickly established himself as a successful criminal lawyer. Over his 20-year career, he defended 18 men from the death penalty.

Diefenbaker had not forgotten his political ambitions. However his attempts to enter politics at any level initially met with failure. He ran for a seat in the House of Commons in 1925 and 1926, but lost. He tried the provincial legislature in 1929 and 1938, with no luck. His attempt to run for mayor of Prince Albert in 1933 also failed. Diefenbaker was elected leader of the Conservative party of Saskatchewan in 1936, but the party won no seats in the 1938 election. Finally in the 1940 election, he won a Commons seat in the Opposition. The Conservatives remained in opposition throughout the King and St. Laurent governments. It was here that Diefenbaker began his campaign for the average Canadian and ethnic minorities. In 1942, he criticized the government's treatment of Japanese-Canadians. He even opposed his own party in his crusades; in 1948 he blocked a Conservative campaign to outlaw the Communist party.

Diefenbaker stood as a candidate for leadership of the party in 1942 and in 1948, but lost both times. He finally succeeded in 1956. As Opposition leader, he harried the Liberals throughout the Pipeline Debate and discredited them in the eyes of the electorate. In the 1957 election, Canadians saw for the first time Diefenbaker's remarkable campaign style. Part circus barker, part vaudeville actor, Diefenbaker's theatrical delivery entertained Canadians, and his appeal to the farmer, store-owner and factory-worker won their hearts and their votes. He became "Dief, the Chief."

The Conservatives won a minority government in 1957 and the following year were returned with, at that time, the greatest majority of seats in Canadian history. But Diefenbaker's policies were radical and often contrary to traditional Conservative values. The fact that the party had been out of office for twenty-two years added to their problems. Nevertheless, Diefenbaker introduced legislation that improved social programs. His Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act helped many farmers across Canada and he found a new market in China for their wheat. Diefenbaker initiated projects to revive the Maritimes. The first woman federal Cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough, was appointed by Diefenbaker. He championed human rights outside Canada by supporting the independence of many non-white Commonwealth countries. His anti-apartheid statement in 1961 contributed to the withdrawal of South Africa from the Commonwealth. Diefenbaker antagonized the Americans by refusing to support their hostilities against Cuba.

But high unemployment, the devaluation of the dollar and the cancellation of the Avro Arrow project eroded the Tories' popularity. They were reduced to a minority government in 1962 and lost to the Liberals in the election the following year. Diefenbaker's radical policies eventually alienated his party. A leadership review was called and he lost to Robert Stanfield in 1967. Nevertheless, he continued to represent his riding in the Commons. He won his last election in 1979, three months before his death on August 16.

Sir John A. Macdonald was Diefenbaker's hero, and he was determined to have a state funeral as grand as that which had honoured Canada's first prime minister. A special train bore the Chief's body back to Saskatoon where he was buried.

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

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