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

Images

John Diefenbaker with John F. Kennedy
John Diefenbaker, Dwight Eisenhower, and their aides at table
John Diefenbaker with George Pearkes and General Lauris Norstad
John Diefenbaker speaking with fighter pilots

Audio

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: 16 November1963

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T200-PAC150a

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: 24 November1960

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T213-PAC57a

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: 3 July1961

Identifier:MG01/XVIII/T209a-c-PAC54

Documents

Letter from from F.E. Boaten, General Secretary, Accra Assembly, Ghana, to John Diefenbaker

Creator: F.E. Boaten

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

Description: Boaten introduces the Accra Assembly, an organization of non-aligned, non-governmental organizations that seeks world peace and requests financial support for the organization

Date Created: 18 December1962

Identifier:MG01/XII/F/342 Volume 104 (080859 – 080861)

Letter from the Defence Liaison Commission to H.B. Robinson

Creator: Defence Liaison Commission

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

Description: Covering letter and enclosed document entitled “Chronology of Government Statements Regarding Negotiations on Acquisition and Storage of Nuclear Weapons

Date Created: 4 November1960

Identifier:MG01/XII/B/236 Volume 37 (025648 – 025668)

Draft Statement Regarding the Acquisition and Control of Nuclear Weapons for Possible use in the House of Commons

Creator: Unknown

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

Description: Presents material to be used by Government officials when answering questions in the House of Commons regarding acquisition and control of nuclear weapons

Date Created: 16 February1959

Identifier:MG01/XII/F/100 Volume 104 (071558 – 071561)

Memorandum for the Prime Minister: Re: Nuclear weapons; Policy Statement

Creator: R.B. Bryce

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

Description: Bryce, Clerk of the Privy Council, advises Diefenbaker on tactics for formal policy on nuclear issues, urging him to make the issues public to clear up rumors, and to bring the issue to a House of Commons debate

Date Created: 8 February1961

Identifier:MG01/XII/F/100 Volume 104 (071585 – 071587)

Nuclear Weapons for Canadian Forces

Creator: Unknown

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

Description: Draft statement prepared for Diefenbaker regarding nuclear weapons for Canadian forces, in which Diefenbaker declares that the Government desired to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, yet was considering storing such weapons on Canadian bases

Date Created: 14 January1960

Identifier:MG01/XII/F/100 Volume 104 (071575 – 071576)

Telegram to the Prime Minister

Creator: Charles Ritchie

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

Description: Briefing for Prime Minister on forthcoming US State Department press announcement regarding negotiations on Canadian acquisition of nuclear weapons

Date Created: 31 January1960

Identifier:MG01/XII/D/151 Volume 86 (060563 – 060564)