Prime Minister of Canada 1957-1963
Let’s get right to it. In my opinion, John Diefenbaker’s greatest attribute was his incredible stamina to stand up for what he believed in. This man, who became the first elected Prime Minister from west of Toronto, was attacked mercilessly his entire career, not only the press and his Liberal opposition, but from within his party ranks. He had many other strong characteristics as well, and he would need them as no one that came before him faced such attacks. (Did you know that to this day there has never been a Liberal Prime Minister from west of Toronto?)
But first off full disclosure, I may have some bias and a tad bit of pride. My Grandfather, C.O. (Tim) Cooper was an MP under Dief from 1958 until his death in 1966. Legend has it that as a young lad I sat upon Dief’s lap when he stopped for the night at my Grandparent’s big old farmhouse, which was located on highway 15 between Outlook and Kenaston.
Born in Ontario the Diefenbaker family moved to Saskatchewan when John 8 years old. He was through and through a prairie boy and by having that perspective he would shake up federal politics like no one before him.
Prior to politics Diefenbaker was a well-known trial lawyer and is especially remembered for his success in the R. v. Atherton, known as the Canoe River case, which I urge you to look up. He won numerous other cases and was widely regarded as one of the best of his time.
In the 1958 election Diefenbaker clearly stated his vision, “One Canada”. It was a vision that saw all Canadians having equal opportunity. You needn’t be born in Upper or Lower Canada to participate and he vowed to open the North. A policy that was condescendingly mocked by Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson as “igloo-to-igloo” communications.
During the election, his popularity grew, and he won in what still is today the largest majority, in terms of percentage of seats, in Canadian history.
A champion of civil rights, once elected, Diefenbaker appointed the first female Cabinet Minister and the first aboriginal to the Senate, granted the vote to First Nations people. He furthered championed civil rights by criticizing the Soviet Union for the treatment of their people and headed the movement for racial equality in the Commonwealth.
He never forgot his roots as a farm boy and passed the Agricultural Stabilization Act providing minimum prices for farm commodities and supported the construction of the Gardiner Dam which had been proposed and out-rightly ignored for 15 years by the ruling Liberals. (My Grandfather gave his maiden speech in the HoC on this very project).
Introducing the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960 was one his most important accomplishments and was considered ground-breaking in those days. He also ushered in the Royal Commission on Health Services in 1961 which was the beginning of Canada wide Medicare.
Diefenbaker was well known for his dogged determination but also had charisma which would shift based on the crowd. He was a character, liked to have fun and joke around when campaigning. But when he was serious, he could deliver the greatest of speeches with authority. His unforgettable voice that made you proud to be a Canadian, his pounding fist, his stern face, his pointing finger all commanded attention.
The Liberal’s mocked him because they knew he was a threat. Even before he became Prime Minister they changed the boundaries of his constituency in two successive elections to make to more difficult for him to win.
But eventually it was his own party that brought him down. Led by Party President Dalton Camp, the Ontario wing encouraged by Bay Street Conservatives led a movement to take him out as leader. In 1967 they were successful. He was replaced by the likeable but bland and ever unsuccessful, Robert Stanfield. There would not be another Conservative Prime Minister until Westerner Joe Clark ran.
Clark, like Diefenbaker before him and Harper after, was attacked similarly by the press and his own party. And like Dief, Clark and Harper stuck to their authenticity and genuine love for all Canadian’s. And like Dief, their inability to be bought by special interest groups proved to be politically costly.
Crazy the things we remember as kids but at 6 years old in 1967 I remember the sombre feeling in the big old farmhouse the night Diefenbaker lost. Surrounded by family and still mourning the passing of Grandpa Tim who was the MP, it was the end of an era for our family.
But Diefenbaker’s legacy carries on as an inspiration to any prairie kid that with strength of character, love of country, perseverance, and authenticity you can be Prime Minister. These are traits, traits that have ran common in the first three leaders I have blogged about and characteristics that are missing so badly in Ottawa today.
Yours in love of the great province we call Saskatchewan