Today is the 39th anniversary of the death of former Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
John George Diefenbaker was born September 18th, 1895 in Neustadt, Ontario to William Thomas Diefenbaker and his wife Mary Florence. His father was of German descent, while his mother was of Scottish descent. In 1903, his family moved to the Northwest Territories (NWT), to a portion of the territory that would become the province of Saskatchewan two years later.
He would earn a B.A. in 1915 and M.A. in 1916, both from the University of Saskatchewan.
John Diefenbaker served in the Canadian army during the First World War, ending up as a Lieutenant as a member of the 196th Battalion (Western Universities), CEF in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
After the war, Mr. Diefenbaker would serve as a lawyer in Saskatchewan.
Between 1925 and 1940, he would be unsuccessful in several attempts to be elected, either to the House of Commons or the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly. However, he would finally win a seat in the House of Commons in the 1940 General Election.
On December 14th, 1956, after 16 years as a Member of Parliament, was made Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada – and the new Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. In June 0f 1957, a general election was held. During that campaign, he would summarize the party’s platform like this:
It is a program … for a united Canada, for one Canada, for Canada first, in every aspect of our political and public life, for the welfare of the average man and woman. That is my approach to public affairs and has been throughout my life … A Canada, united from Coast to Coast, wherein there will be freedom for the individual, freedom of enterprise and where there will be a Government which, in all its actions, will remain the servant and not the master of the people.
He would lead his party to victory on June 10th, winning the most seats of any party, albeit not a majority. The Liberals chose not to face Parliament, which they were entitled to do as the governing party, as the other parties in the House chose to support Diefenbaker. This meant that he became the first Progressive Conservative leader to form a Government since R.B. Bennett in 1930, and broke 22 uninterrupted years of Liberal rule.
Mr. Diefenbaker would serve as Prime Minister for six years, winning a Majority Government on March 31st, 1958 and another Minority Government on June 18th, 1962. He would be defeated by Lester B. Pearson and the Liberals on April 8th, 1963 – after defeating Pearson’s Liberals in 1958 and 1962.
During this term as the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Diefenbaker oversaw many events, including:
- The first woman Cabinet Minister: Ellen Fairclough became Secretary of State for Canada
- Michael Starr was made Minister of Labour, the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to be made a Cabinet Minister.
- On October 14th, 1957 Queen Elizabeth II became the first Canadian Monarch to officially present the Throne Speech when she opened the 23rd Parliament.
- Winning the largest percentage of seats in the House of Commons when he won 208 of the 265 seats contested in the 1958 election, or 78.5% of the seats.
- The creation of the Bill of Rights on July 1st, 1960 – which took effect on August 10th, 1960. The Bill of Rights would be used as the basis for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms now found in the Constitution.
- The first Native Canadian to be appointed to the Senate when James Gladstone was in January 1958.
- Native Canadians were granted the right to vote in 1960.
- In 1961, he would stand up to apartheid in South Africa. The country had just become a republic and had to formally request to the Commonwealth of its intention to remain a member despite no longer being a realm. Mr. Diefenbaker convinced Commonwealth members to pass a resolution supporting racial equality being a principle of the Commonwealth. As the new South African government could not support this, South Africa withdrew its application to remain in the Commonwealth – and would not return as a member until after apartheid.
- The cancellation of the Avro Arrow in 1959.
Mr. Diefenbaker would continue to serve as a Member of Parliament right up to his death in 1979. He was married twice – first to Edna (1929-1951) and then to Olive (1953-1976.) He would have no children.
In 1976, Mr. Diefenbaker was created a Companion of Honour by the Queen, which is a personal gift of the Sovereign.
Mr. Diefenbaker died one month prior to his 84th birthday on August 16th 1979, and just months after seeing Joe Clark end 13 years of Liberal rule, returning the Conservatives to power.