A Man of the People

"You have no idea what it means to come out here and be addressed by my first name. I tell you this is something that money can’t buy."

(Prince Albert, Sask, 27 April 1962) 

A pragmatic politician more concerned with responding to society’s problems with practical solutions than with blind loyalty to ideology, John Diefenbaker was never shy about sharing his political views and what he saw as his legacy.

Despite many personal and political challenges, Diefenbaker was relentless in his quest to leave his mark on Canadian history. His dedication and perseverance ultimately carried him to the Prime Minister’s office. Through all his experiences, he remained dedicated to those he referred to as the “average Canadian”.

"They criticized me sometimes for being too much concerned with the average Canadian. I can’t help that. I’m just one of them."

    (9 September 1967)

The Perennial Candidate

Diefenbaker's determination carried him through many personal and political setbacks. 

His first disappointment came in 1925 when he was defeated in his election bid to represent Prince Albert in the House of Commons. He tried for the same seat again in a 1926 by-election, this time losing to Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Deciding to test the political waters provincially, in 1929 Diefenbaker became a contender for MLA under the banner of the Saskatchewan Conservative party. He lost again, but this time only by a narrow margin.

In 1933 Diefenbaker turned to local politics, running in the mayoral election in Prince Albert, where he was beaten once more. It was not however, in Diefenbaker’s character to give up.

"Mother gave me drive, father gave me the vision to see what could be done."

(One Canada: Memoirs of the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker)

Resolute Determination

Finally, in October of 1936, Diefenbaker threw his hat into the provincial Conservative leadership race and emerged triumphant. The victory, however, was hollow; the Conservative party was unable to win a single legislative seat in the 1938 provincial election.

Diefenbaker returned to the federal arena and in 1940 was rewarded by the constituents of Lake Centre with a seat in the House of Commons. Two years later, he ran for the leadership of the federal Conservative party and came third to John Bracken (who changed the party name to the Progressive Conservative Party). More determined than ever, Diefenbaker sought the leadership of his party in 1948, this time losing to Ontario Premier George Drew.

“I never once regarded a defeat as a termination. I have been beat often, but I have never been spiritually vanquished. The day after a defeat at the polls, I was always back at work. I never feel hurt or whipped.”

(Library, Saskatchewan. April 1960)

An Indomitable Spirit

Though politics had been more bitter than sweet for Diefenbaker in the time leading up to his election to the House of Commons, his most trying years came in the early 1950s. It was then that he lost his strongest personal and political supporter — his first wife, Edna, died. This, combined with the elimination of his Lake Centre constituency, caused Diefenbaker to consider giving up on politics altogether.

However, the call to political service was strong for Diefenbaker. Indomitable in spirit, he rallied in 1953 to again run for office in the riding of Prince Albert — this time successfully. Further opportunity presented itself in 1956 when George Drew, the leader of the Progressive Conservative party, suddenly resigned.

Surprising his detractors, Diefenbaker swept to a first ballot victory at the leadership convention. Few political observers gave Diefenbaker much of a chance and many predicted that the Liberals would easily win the next election. Diefenbaker proved them all wrong.

Making History

In 1957, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent called an election for the 10th of June, leaving Diefenbaker, who had just been elected the Leader of the Official Opposition, a mere five months to prepare. Initially, the Liberals were not concerned about Diefenbaker, who had lost countless elections.

However, running under the slogan, “It’s time for a Diefenbaker government,” Diefenbaker’s dramatic speaking style appealed to western farmers and workers, many of whom had felt increasingly marginalized by the Liberal government. To everyone’s surprise, the election ended with the Progressive Conservatives winning a minority government over the Liberals.

"I’ve lived history, I’ve made history and I know I’ll have my place in history. That’s not egoism."

("MacLean’s Magazine," January 1973)

Despite being made up of an inexperienced group of MPs, during their first term in power, the Diefenbaker Government proceeded to pass progressive social legislation. Several of Diefenbaker’s first appointments to Parliament also demonstrated his commitment to equal rights.