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John Diefenbaker: Leadership at last

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada alight with his vision of a bountiful land on the threshold of greatness. Yet many feel the Saskatchewan lawyer's promise as prime minister exceeded his deeds. His own party eventually turned against him. But nobody can deny that "Dief the Chief" forged an intense bond with his beloved "average Canadians."

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The Progressive Conservative party will fight next year's federal election with a new leader. Saskatchewan MP John Diefenbaker is the first-ballot winner after 2,000 Tory delegates vote in Ottawa. In this television clip, the tall, wavy-haired lawyer pledges to honour their trust in him to lead "the party of Macdonald and Cartier." The job will one day be passed to his successor, Diefenbaker says, "unimpaired and enhanced to the limit of my capacity and my ability." 
• Diefenbaker's leadership win on Dec. 14, 1956 was his third attempt at the job. He had come a distant third at the 1942 convention won by Manitoba Premier John Bracken. In 1948, Diefenbaker finished second to George Drew, a former Ontario premier. Diefenbaker, a small-town populist lawyer, was considered an outsider and maverick in a party that had traditionally aligned itself with the corporate titans of Toronto's Bay Street.

• The party's old guard appointed 300 "delegates-at-large" to help Drew beat Diefenbaker in 1948. Diefenbaker recalled in his diary going to Drew's hotel suite after that leadership vote: "They were celebrating. I was an intruder. I walked into that gathering to congratulate him and it was as if an animal not customarily admitted to homes had suddenly entered the place."

• Casting a shadow over Diefenbaker's 1956 triumph was a walkout by the Quebec delegation. Léon Balcer, a prominent Quebec MP, was unhappy that Diefenbaker did not choose a French-Canadian to nominate him or second the motion. The nomination was made by Major-General George Pearkes and seconded by New Brunswick Premier Hugh John Flemming.

• Balcer later served in Diefenbaker's cabinet along with Davie Fulton and Alvin Hamilton, the two men Diefenbaker beat for the Tory leadership in 1956.

• Quoted in the 1975 book Diefenbaker 1956-62 by Peter Stursberg, P.E.I. Tory MP Angus MacLean said of the 1956 convention: "In a strategical sense, the party was becoming a bit desperate. It had gone through a lot of lean years... there were a great many people who were devoted followers of Diefenbaker, who were caught up in his personality and the sort of mystic aura that he was able to develop around himself, the sense that he had a mission."

• Diefenbaker's perseverance in winning the party leadership was outstripped only by his determination to gain public office in the first place. Prince Albert voters rejected him in federal elections in 1925 and 1926 and provincially in 1929 and 1938. He was similarly spurned in a bid to become Prince Albert mayor in 1933. He finally gained office on his sixth try, as MP for Saskatchewan's Lake Centre riding, in 1940.

• Diefenbaker was re-elected in Lake Centre in 1945 and 1949 but almost quit politics after the federal Liberals re-drew electoral boundaries and eliminated his riding. However, he was elected in 1953 in Prince Albert, which he represented for the next 26 years with the rallying cry: "Not a partisan cry but a national need." Supporters in the riding had started "Diefenbaker clubs" that crossed party lines. In 1953 he was the only Conservative elected in Saskatchewan.

• Three years before gaining the Tory leadership in 1956, the widowed Diefenbaker married Olive Freeman Palmer. She was his beloved and constant companion until her death in 1976 and became tremendously popular with the Canadian public.
Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: Dec. 30, 1956
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker, George Drew
Narrator: Bruce Marsh
Duration: 2:41

Last updated: November 6, 2014

Page consulted on November 6, 2014

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