The Nuclear Question in Canada (1957 - 1963)

Throughout his term as Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker struggled to determine whether Canada should acquire nuclear weapons. Minister of Defence George Peakes recommended that Canada integrate its air defences with the United States in order to present a united front designed to protect both nations. The North American Aerospace Defence Command policy (NORAD) was approved by Diefenbaker in early 1957. Although NORAD represented a major defence commitment, the decision was made without discussion with Cabinet or the Defence Committee. 

In order to meet the requirements of NORAD, Canada planned to make a significant investment in upgrading its military technology and resources. Previously, Canada’s military planning had focused primarily on the development of the Avro Arrow interceptor. After a lengthy debate, it was determined that the Avro was too costly and unable to effectively meet Canada’s security needs. The Avro project was abandoned, and in its place the government agreed to establish an arrangement with the United States for the sharing of Bomarc ground-to-air missiles as well as utilizing the American Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE), a system for tracking and intercepting enemy aircraft. 

The Bomarc missile was designed exclusively to carry a nuclear warhead; therefore arrangements had to be made for Canada to acquire them.   According to Minister of National Defence Douglas Harkness “it was unreasonable to secure the Bomarc without the nuclear warhead.”  By September of 1958, the direction of the Canadian Defence Policy indicated that the nation fully intended to acquire nuclear warheads from the United States. 

A number of delays were encountered as the negotiations over the details of storing, transporting and authorizing the nuclear missiles continued. In May 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy met with Diefenbaker in Ottawa. The intention of Kennedy’s Administration during the meeting was to push the issue of Canada’s incorporation of nuclear missiles into its national defence policy. However, Diefenbaker’s cabinet was increasingly divided over the question of  whether nuclear warheads should be utilized at all. 

Internationally, Canada objected to the spread of nuclear weapons. The new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Howard Green, attempted to discourage the use of nuclear missiles in the nation's defence plan as it would be inconsistent with foreign policy. At the same time, Diefenbaker began receiving letters and petitions from Canadian citizens who felt the same way. The cabinet failed to make a firm decision on the issue and it was put on hold, despite public scrutiny of the delay. 

In 1963, Liberal Leader of the Opposition, Lester B. Pearson declared his support of acquiring nuclear weapons in order to meet the obligations of Canada’s NATO and NORAD agreements. Pearson expressed his misgivings over the defence role that Canada had agreed to play but stated that until Canada’s defence policy changed, a Liberal government would not evade its commitments.

Tension mounted within the Diefenbaker Cabinet until 3 February 1963. In a Cabinet meeting that morning, Harkness announced that the “people of the nation, Party, Cabinet and he had lost confidence in the Prime Minister”.  Diefenbaker asked for a standing Vote of Confidence and, upon seeing several of his Ministers remain seated, left to submit his resignation to the Governor General. Diefenbaker was persuaded to return to the meeting and remain as Prime Minister.  His government fell in the House of Commons on 6 February.  In the election that followed, the Liberals emerged victorious and formed a minority government while Diefenbaker took up the position of Leader of the Opposition. Pearson quickly concluded an agreement with the United States to obtain nuclear warheads and presented it to the House of Commons in September of 1963.  In January 1969, Canada ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the missiles were phased out. Canada is currently a member of every international disarmament organization and is committed to pushing for an end to nuclear weapons.

John Diefenbaker talking to fighter pilots at Canadian Forces base, Soest, Germany
John Diefenbaker speaking with fighter pilots
Media and Document Gallery


John Diefenbaker with John F. Kennedy
Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | United States – Head of State | White House

Description: John Diefenbaker and US John F. Kennedy seated and chatting in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C.

Date Created: 20 February 1961

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD1377

John Diefenbaker, Dwight Eisenhower, and their aides at table
Creator: White House

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | United States – Head of State | Columbia River Treaty

Description: John Diefenbaker, US President Dwight Eisenhower and their aides at signing of Columbia River Treaty.

Date Created: [1961]

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD6879

John Diefenbaker with George Pearkes and General Lauris Norstad
Creator: Capital Press Service

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Canada – Minister of Defence | NATO – Supreme Allied Commander Europe

Description: John Diefenbaker, George Pearkes, and General Lauris Norstad, NATO Supreme Commander, talking in Prime Minister’s Office

Date Created: 19 May 1959

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD1191

John Diefenbaker speaking with fighter pilots
Creator: Unknown

Subject: Canada – Head of Government | Canada – Canadian Forces | Military Aircraft

Description: John Diefenbaker talking to fighter pilots at Canadian Forces base, Soest, Germany

Date Created: November 1958

Date Ended: Day Month John Diefenbaker en conversation avec des pilotes de chasse

Identifier: MG01/XVII/JGD828


Speech by John Diefenbaker to the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Association, Halifax

Creator:Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Subject:Canada – Leader of the Official Opposition | Canada – Nuclear Weapons

Description:John Diefenbaker chastises the Liberal Party of Canada for what he claims was their unfounded criticism that his Government had made a commitment to United States to acquire nuclear weapons

Date Created:16November1963


Speech by John Diefenbaker at a meeting of the Canadian Club, Ottawa Creator: Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Creator:Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Subject:Canada – Head of Government | Canada – Nuclear Weapons

Description:John Diefenbaker addresses the threat of nuclear war, indicating that Canada will not consider the use of nuclear weapons unless it has full joint control of the weapons

Date Created:24November1960


Speech by John Diefenbaker at the 46th Annual Kiwanis International Convention, Toronto

Creator:Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Subject:Canada – Head of Government | Canada – National Defence

Description:John Diefenbaker advocates for a strong defence for Canada, brushing aside the wishes of those who want Canada to remove itself from defence commitments and embrace neutrality

Date Created:3July1961



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