On 10 June 1957, confident that his Liberal government would be re-elected, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called a federal election. St. Laurent possessed strong personal popularity and an experienced Cabinet, and many Canadians viewed the Liberals as successful stewards of Canada’s post-war economic boom. Convinced that the Liberals, having been in power since 1935, had become arrogant, complacent, and stingy in a time of national prosperity, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, with newly-elected leader John G. Diefenbaker, was confident that they could make electoral inroads.
Recognizing that electoral success depended upon expanding party appeal beyond traditional supporters, Tory strategists crafted the campaign around John Diefenbaker, running under the slogan “It’s Time for a Diefenbaker Government.” This proved highly effective. With his erect carriage, piercing blue eyes, tremendous energy, and a spellbinding, evangelical speaking style, John Diefenbaker made an immediate impact on the campaign trail. Diefenbaker energized Canadians with promises that his Government would respect Parliamentary practice, initiate a national development program, expand social justice programs, and strengthen Canadians’ human rights. Critically important was the Progressive Conservatives’ ground campaign, which won the backing of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Premiers and their political machines. Most importantly, the Diefenbaker government was able to secure the support of Ontario Premier Leslie Frost – important due to the many available seats in the House of Commons in Ontario.
On Election Day, the Conservatives scored a historic upset, winning 112 seats to 105 for the Liberals, 25 for the CCF Party, 19 for the Social Credit Party and 4 Independents.
The Diefenbaker Government shepherded a flurry of progressive legislation through Parliament which increased funding to social assistance, pensions, and hospital insurance. Other legislation introduced by the Diefenbaker Government provided cash advances to farmers for stored grain and tax cuts for low-income Canadians.
Diefenbaker waited for an opportunity to call an election in order to achieve a majority Government. It came on 20 January 1958, when newly-elected Liberal Leader Lester B. Pearson rose in the House of Commons to make an amendment to a supply motion. Declaring the Progressive Conservative Government had lost the confidence of Canadians, Pearson called on them to resign and hand power back to the Liberals. Diefenbaker responded with a blistering attack on this Liberal attempt to regain power and, on 1 February 1958, the Governor General acceded to Mr. Diefenbaker’s request for the dissolution of Parliament.
Diefenbaker’s campaign theme was national development. Northern development, or, “The Vision” as Diefenbaker described it, involved significant federal investment in infrastructure to permit the development of northern resources while the ideals of “One Canada” would ensure that Canadians from all regions of Canada would share in the national prosperity.
The 1958 election campaign was unique in Canadian history. Captivated by Diefenbaker’s vision and enraptured by his oratory, thousands of Canadians flocked to his rallies. His speeches were constantly interrupted by cheers and, at many stops along the way, Canadians would reach out simply to touch Mr. Diefenbaker. The excitement generated by the campaign manifested itself on Election Day on 31 March 1958, when Canadian voters gave the Diefenbaker Conservatives 208 of 265 seats in the House of Commons, with 53.7% of the popular vote, including 50 of 75 seats in Quebec. Although Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won more seats in an expanded House of Commons in the 1984 federal election, as a percentage of the total seats in the House of Commons, Diefenbaker’s 1958 victory remains the largest in Canadian history.