Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister

The Progressive Conservative prime minister John G. Diefenbaker ushered in an era of tension with the United States, limiting U.S. imports and rejecting nuclear weapons.

Summary of Event

John G. Diefenbaker, a populist lawyer from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, was chosen as the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party Progressive Conservative Party, Canadian of Canada at the party’s convention in Ottawa, Ontario, on December 14, 1956. At the time, many Canadians were becoming concerned about the increasing control corporations from the United States exercised over Canadian businesses. Prime ministry, Canadian;John G. Diefenbaker[Diefenbaker]
Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1957
[kw]Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister (June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963)
[kw]Canadian Prime Minister, Diefenbaker Serves as (June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963)
[kw]Prime Minister, Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian (June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963)
Prime ministry, Canadian;John G. Diefenbaker[Diefenbaker]
Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1957
[g]North America;June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963: Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[05470]
[g]Canada;June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963: Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[05470]
[c]Government and politics;June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963: Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[05470]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 10, 1957-Feb. 5, 1963: Diefenbaker Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[05470]
Diefenbaker, John G.
Harkness, Douglas
Massey, Vincent
Pearson, Lester B.

In the spring of 1956, the minister of trade in the Liberal government, Clarence Decatur Howe Howe, Clarence Decatur , proposed that the Canadian government lend $80 million to Trans-Canada Pipelines Limited Trans-Canada Pipelines Limited[TransCanada Pipelines Limited] , a privately owned company controlled by U.S. financial interests, for the construction of a trans-Canada pipeline. Diefenbaker spoke out against the “bludgeoning” of the Parliament, as the Liberal leadership had severely restricted debate on the pipeline measure, and the sellout of Canadian interests to U.S. big business. During the campaign, Diefenbaker promised he would try to increase the proportion of domestic ownership of Canadian enterprises, shift Canadian imports away from the United States and toward the United Kingdom, and increase the amount of interprovincial trade, which would be a shift from the historic pattern of provinces trading with nearby regions of the United States.

The Liberal Party Liberal Party, Canadian had governed Canada for the previous twenty-two years, winning five consecutive national elections. During this period, Canada had been prosperous, benefiting from the industrial growth driven by the demands of World War II and the lack of European competition in international markets during the immediate postwar years. By the mid-1950’s, European industry was rebuilding, and Canada had more serious competition in the international marketplace. Diefenbaker charged that although the nation had prospered under Liberal leadership, some regions, notably the Atlantic Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland) and the Prairie Provinces (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta), had not shared equally in the economic growth.

On June 10, 1957, 6.6 million Canadians voted in a general election that gave Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives 38 percent of the vote and sent 111 Progressive Conservatives to the 265-member House of Commons. Although Progressive Conservatives outnumbered Liberals, who won 106 seats, the former had to make an alliance with smaller parties to assume control of the government. That working majority quickly fell apart, as the Liberals attacked with forecasts of higher unemployment and a worsening economy. On February 1, 1958, Diefenbaker asked Governor-General Vincent Massey to dissolve Parliament and call new elections Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1958 .

Diefenbaker pointed out that Canada’s vast natural resources gave it the capacity to play a major role in North America and the world. He appealed for a clear majority, and the Canadian people responded in the March 31, 1958, election, giving the Progressive Conservative Party the largest majority in Canadian history, with 208 of the 265 seats in the House of Commons.

Throughout his term, Diefenbaker took a strong stand on human rights Human rights;Canada , both at home and abroad. On July 1, 1960, he secured parliamentary passage of a bill of rights. However, this bill of rights emphasized the rights of individuals, much to the dismay of French Canadians, who were interested in protection as a distinct cultural group. Support for the Progressive Conservative Party declined in Quebec, the province with the largest French-speaking population.

At the meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers in 1961, Diefenbaker argued that the Commonwealth of Nations should recognize the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of color or race. His insistence, coupled with similar demands from the prime minister of India, resulted in the withdrawal of South Africa’s application for continued membership in the Commonwealth.

Under Diefenbaker, the Canadian economic and social system was redesigned. Diefenbaker’s concept of social justice was based on “the principle that public money should be used to relieve distress on the basis of need,” establishing the idea that individual Canadians had a right or entitlement to financial help from their fellow citizens. Social welfare payments increased from $885 million in 1957 to $1.97 billion in 1962; by 1960, about 80 percent of the Canadian population was receiving some form of government aid. An extension of Diefenbaker’s philosophy of social justice was his belief that Canada should make a particular effort to equalize economic opportunities throughout the country by promoting economic growth in the two poorest regions, the Atlantic Provinces and the prairies.

As part of his effort to spread economic growth to the Prairie Provinces, Diefenbaker entered into negotiations that opened up the large market of Communist China to Canadian wheat. Cold War;Canada
Canada;trade with China
China;trade with Canada At this time, U.S. law prohibited trade with Communist China, and Diefenbaker’s wheat sales represented a clear foreign policy difference from the United States. At the time, the Atlantic Provinces traded mostly with the New England region of the United States. Diefenbaker hoped to encourage more east-west trade between the Canadian provinces. Under Diefenbaker, the economic situation in the Atlantic Provinces improved, but the historical pattern of trade with New England did not diminish, and the people in the Atlantic Provinces remained significantly poorer than the national average.

Although Diefenbaker had promised to decrease both imports from the United States Canada;trade with the United States
Canadian-U.S. relations[Canadian U.S. relations] and foreign control of Canadian corporations, imports from the United States grew faster than imports from the United Kingdom during the Diefenbaker era, and ownership of Canadian enterprises by foreign interests also increased.

After fourteen years of negotiations, the Diefenbaker government concluded an agreement with the United States on how the hydroelectric power potential of the Columbia River Columbia River treaty (1961)
Power plants would be shared. Signed by Diefenbaker and U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. on January 17, 1961, this agreement provided for the construction of three storage dams on the Canadian side of the border, with the initial power production on the U.S. side. The United States agreed to deliver half the electric power back to Canada. However, the Diefenbaker government fell before the Columbia River treaty could come up for debate in Parliament, and a revised agreement was not approved until 1964, after he had left office.

On August 1, 1957, the Diefenbaker government accepted the North American Air Defense Agreement, negotiated in part by the previous Liberal government. This agreement established the North American Air Defense Command North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) by integrating the air defenses of Canada and the United States under a U.S. commander and a Canadian second-in-command. Part of the plan for North American defense called for the installation of nuclear weapons Nuclear weapons;Canada in Canada: nuclear-tipped Bomarc air-defense missiles to be operated by Canadian forces, nuclear weapons for interceptor aircraft based in Labrador and Newfoundland, and nuclear bombs for U.S. Strategic Air Command bombers based at Goose Bay, Labrador. The U.S. Atomic Energy Act Atomic Energy Act (1954) required that custody of these nuclear weapons remain in American hands, while control over their use could be shared by the two governments.

By 1960, the disarmament movement was gaining support in Canada, and opposition to deployment of nuclear weapons in Canada increased. During President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ottawa in May, 1961, Diefenbaker indicated to the president that he was unwilling to accept the introduction of nuclear weapons onto Canadian soil at that time. When construction of the Bomarc launch sites was completed in 1962, Diefenbaker delayed introduction of the warheads.


Diefenbaker’s government lost a no-confidence motion on February 5, 1963. Relations between the United States and Canada had been deteriorating as the U.S. Department of State took the unusual step of issuing a press release attacking some of Diefenbaker’s public statements on the nuclear weapons controversy. Diefenbaker refused to change his position, prompting Douglas Harkness, Canada’s minister for national defense, to resign. This brought about a no-confidence vote in Parliament, leading to Diefenbaker’s defeat.

Diefenbaker attempted to appeal to Canadian nationalism in his reelection campaign, decrying U.S. interference in the Canadian government’s decision on nuclear weapons and saying that his Liberal Party opponent, Lester B. Pearson, who had endorsed acceptance of nuclear weapons, would make Canada “a decoy duck in a nuclear war.” However, Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative Party was defeated in the 1963 general election, returning only ninety-five members to the House of Commons. Prime ministry, Canadian;John G. Diefenbaker[Diefenbaker]
Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1957

Further Reading

  • Holman, D. F. NORAD in the Next Millennium. Toronto, Ont.: Irwin, 2000. A brief study of the future of NORAD and of U.S. and Canadian air and aerospace defense requirements in the twenty-first century and beyond.
  • Johnston, James. The Party’s Over. Don Mills, Ont.: Longman Canada, 1971. An inside account of the Diefenbaker years, written by the national director of the Progressive Conservative Party, providing insight into the prime minister’s thinking.
  • MacLennan, Christopher. Toward the Charter: Canadians and the Demand for a National Bill of Rights, 1929-1960. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. A history of the movement for civil rights in Canada, up to and including the year the Canadian bill of rights was passed.
  • Newman, Peter C. Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1973. A detailed history of the Diefenbaker era by a journalist who covered Canadian politics.
  • Robinson, H. Basil. Diefenbaker’s World: A Populist in Foreign Affairs. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1989. An account of Canada’s role in foreign affairs, including the controversy over accepting nuclear weapons, during the Diefenbaker era.
  • Smith, Denis. Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker. Toronto, Ont.: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995. A leading biography of Diefenbaker. Smith’s study provides useful content on Diefenbaker’s role in the creation of NORAD.
  • Story, Donald C., and R. Bruce Shepard, eds. The Diefenbaker Legacy: Canadian Politics, Law, and Society Since 1957. Regina, Sask.: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1998. Conference proceedings on the political, social, and legal legacy of Diefenbaker’s prime ministership.
  • Stursberg, Peter. Diefenbaker: Leadership Gained 1956-1962. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1975. An oral history comprising the recollections of many of Diefenbaker’s associates.

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