As he embarked on the federal election campaign in April 1957, John Diefenbaker was filled with doubts. He had led the Progressive Conservatives for just four months and didn’t think he had done well as opposition leader. The opinion polls were showing the incumbent Liberals miles ahead. He was concerned that he might even lose his own seat in Saskatchewan. The Liberals “are out to beat me at all costs,” he wrote to his brother, Elmer. “Gee it would be my end if I got defeated personally and I would be out for sure.”
The next two months would show just how wrong Diefenbaker had been to worry about disaster. He narrowly won that 1957 campaign, as the Liberals showed their fatigue after twenty-two years in office. The following year, he caught fire with voters in a way that’s rarely seen in this country, and the PCs won what remains the most massive victory in Canadian political history.
But Diefenbaker’s reputation hasn’t fared well in the decades since he left 24 Sussex Drive. Over his six years as prime minister, he led a government that was, at times, remarkably dynamic and that fostered a connection with people who had never had much time for politics. At other times, though, it was shambolic. It eventually lost its mandate amid chaos and recrimination, while its leader succumbed to the paranoia that he carried deep within his soul.
Diefenbaker is consistently in the middle of the pack when historians rank prime ministers, and the image of him as a slightly crazed figure at the podium, with his glaring eyes and quivering jowls, endures in the public imagination. Yet, as John C. Courtney argues in Revival and Change: The 1957 and 1958 Diefenbaker Elections, we shouldn’t overlook him or his dominant performance in the late ’50s.
The key to Diefenbaker’s success was his innate embrace of populism and the fate of “the little people,” as well as his good fortune in becoming the PC leader just when Canadians were looking for something different. Although he had first been elected to Parliament in 1940 (after a string of defeats at all levels of government), he was seen within his party as a rogue. He stood for the leadership twice before winning it in 1956, after a meticulously organized campaign that included a cross-country train trip to the convention in Ottawa. At each stop, he would meet with delegates, displaying the powerful oratorical skills he had honed as a lawyer in Saskatchewan, where he had often swayed juries on behalf of his clients in death penalty cases.
Finally leader, he faced a Liberal government that had been in office for decades, first under the calculating Mackenzie King and then the avuncular Louis St-Laurent. The Liberals appeared set to win again in 1957, but St-Laurent, who had just turned seventy-five, looked tired and, as one commentator put it, “bored with the job.” He was also carrying the burden of a recent controversy: the Liberals had pre-emptively shut off parliamentary debate on their plan to build a natural gas pipeline across Canada.
The perpetually squabbling Tories united behind their new leader and adopted the campaign slogan “It’s Time for a Diefenbaker Government.” It wasn’t very snappy, but it fit a growing sense that change was needed in Ottawa. Diefenbaker made countless appearances as he travelled some 32,000 kilometres — by rail, road, and air — sometimes speaking a half-dozen times a day. And by harnessing the growing influence of television, he helped his party to break out of its base in central Canada.
The Liberals, smug in their belief that they were the natural governing party, were blindsided by this energetic man with a funny name from the hinterlands. St-Laurent ran a business-as-usual campaign, with the uninspired slogan “Unity, Security, Freedom,” and didn’t have any public engagements for the first ten days. Rather than TV, he relied on radio and print advertising.
As Diefenbaker tapped into discontent with St-Laurent’s style of governing, he visited every province to deliver spellbinding speeches. Courtney includes a lengthy account, by Dalton Camp, a Conservative stalwart who later fell out bitterly with the leader, of a characteristic rally, in Amherst, Nova Scotia:
In the close, damp stillness of the packed hall, the only sound is Diefenbaker’s vibrant, emotive voice, his the only face in the crowd — his eyes lit by the ceiling lights and by the inspiration of his calling. . . . In Diefenbaker’s passion is incorporated all the grievances of his audience; he absorbs their indignation and, at the end, after they have laughed with him, cheered him, felt their nerve-ends respond to his voice, they find that he has repossessed their hopes, and they believe in him as they have not believed in anyone in a long, long time, if even then.
On election night in 1957, the Liberals won a greater share of the popular vote — thanks to their strength in Quebec — but the Tories won more seats. St-Laurent honourably stepped aside to allow Diefenbaker to form a minority government. Once in power, he and his ministers set to work undoing the Liberals’ cautious approach to spending. Knowing that another election was likely just months away, they ignored a looming recession and loosened the purse strings, while lowering personal and corporate tax rates. “Few Canadians came away empty-handed,” Courtney writes. “Compared with the final years of the St. Laurent government, Diefenbaker’s was seen to be vigorous, attentive to public concerns, and sympathetic to the needs of Canadians.”
Diefenbaker got his excuse for another election when the new Liberal leader, Lester Pearson, called on the PCs to resign so that his own party could return to government. It was an unorthodox move — one that Pearson himself later called a “fiasco.” Diefenbaker cited it relentlessly as an example of the Liberals’ arrogance.
Given such ammunition and the favourable impact of the Conservatives’ legislative agenda, it was no surprise that the party was headed for a majority in 1958 (although its breakthrough success in Quebec would be surprising). Again, Diefenbaker whistle-stopped across the country, accusing the Liberals of all manner of sins and offering hope about a bright future. “I ask you to have faith in this land and faith in our people,” he implored audiences as he sketched out a new national purpose that included development of the North. The campaign slogan was simple: “Follow John.” Even with his fresh Nobel Peace Prize, Pearson didn’t stand a chance.
Diefenbaker’s finest hour came as he won the largest share of Commons seats in Canadian history; four in five eligible voters cast ballots, which remains a record. The massive majority proved to be a burden, however. There were too many MPs and not enough cabinet seats or plum assignments to keep everyone in line. The government grew sluggish.
The overwhelming success of 1958 also inflated Diefenbaker’s ego. Flora MacDonald, later a cabinet minister but then a pillar of the Tory national office, watched Diefenbaker change during that term in office. “He saw himself as the infallible saviour of the party and the country,” she later recalled. “His paranoia hardened. Every critic became an enemy.”
Diefenbaker proved himself a scattershot prime minister who got ensnared in numerous issues: the fallout from his cancellation of the Avro Arrow; a worsening economy; his firing of the governor of the Bank of Canada; and Washington’s insistence that Canada install nuclear-armed missiles as part of a NORAD defence program. Scandals erupted, and ministers resigned. By 1962, the disarray meant the writing was on the wall. In that year’s election, the Conservatives lost half their seats against the rejuvenated Liberal Party, but they did hang on for a minority mandate. The next year, though, they were ousted from office, and they didn’t return to government until 1979 — and even then for just nine months.
Courtney, who taught politics at the University of Saskatchewan for decades and still has easy access to the Diefenbaker Archival Collections, argues the former prime minister left an important legacy, despite the judgment of many historians. Indeed, the list of his transformative accomplishments is long. He started the process of making federal institutions more representative of the population by relaxing the grip that white men had on them. He appointed the first Indigenous senator, he gave Status Indians the vote, and he backed the creation of a land claims commission. He brought all the provinces into a hospital insurance scheme, which paved the way for publicly funded medical insurance. He modernized support for provinces as part of an improved equalization scheme. He introduced a Bill of Rights that, though mostly symbolic, prepared Canadians for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He overhauled the immigration system to remove the bias toward people from western Europe and the United States.
Despite occasional eruptions of populist fervour in the past — the rise of the Progressive Party in 1921, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation before and after the Second World War, and the Reform Party in 1993 — the Conservatives are unique in having formed a federal government with a populist leader. But it’s almost impossible to read Revival and Change without wondering whether Canada is ripe for another populist wave. Are voters ready to once again take a walk on the wild side?
In their foreword to the book, part of UBC Press’s Turning Point Elections series, the editors Gerald Baier and R. Kenneth Carty describe “the striking similarities” between the electoral landscapes of the late ’50s and contemporary Ottawa. Most obviously, then and now, there are the Liberals, accused of being smug and looking to burnish their track record as the natural governing party. And there are the Conservatives, recently riven by leadership struggles but now seemingly behind a man who is self-consciously in the populist mould. This much might seem obvious; less obvious is the impact of technology on electoral politics. The emergence of television decades ago was as revolutionary as that of social media is today. Like Diefenbaker, Pierre Poilievre is adept at mastering the newest medium.
Courtney doesn’t mention Poilievre in Revival and Change, but he was asked about similarities between the two politicians when he recently appeared on the Witness to Yesterday podcast. He replied that Poilievre and Diefenbaker share attributes as outsiders who speak directly to voters and who have a sharp sense of the issues that resonate with people. But, he noted, “trying to draw parallels between various political figures in Canadian politics is a bit of a mug’s game.”
Indeed, there are many reasons to think Poilievre is not the Chief incarnate: he hasn’t yet displayed any great oratorical skills, he alienates women voters, and he’s struggling to find support in Quebec. But it’s the nature of a populist surge to defy rational consensus. John Diefenbaker understood that better than anyone.