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John Diefenbaker's 1957 minority miracle

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."

John Diefenbaker is the man of the moment. His Progressive Conservatives have done the impossible, winning more seats in the federal election than Louis St-Laurent's seemingly invincible Liberals. It's not yet clear if the Conservatives have enough MPs to lead the new minority parliament. But, as we see in this CBC Television clip, that hasn't dampened the excitement in Diefenbaker's adopted city of Prince Albert.

The 61-year-old Tory leader can't walk more than a few steps on the street without being stopped by well-wishers. At home, the phone rings 24 hours a day with congratulations from across the country. Many calls are answered by Diefenbaker's wife, Olive. As the final votes are tallied and recounts conducted, Diefenbaker, trailed by camera crews, manages to squeeze in a haircut and some fishing. 
• After the dust settled, John Diefenbaker's Conservatives had indeed won enough seats to lead a minority government. The Tories more than doubled their seat total while the Liberals lost just under half their seats. The final seat total was:
- Conservatives: 112
- Liberals: 105
- Co-operative Commonwealth Federation: 25
- Social Credit: 19
- Other: 4

• Diefenbaker's 1957 triumph remains one of the greatest upsets in Canadian political history. There had been so little doubt that Louis St-Laurent's Liberal dynasty would continue that Maclean's magazine went to press before the election with an editorial assessing a Liberal re-election that, in fact, never happened. The Liberals were equally confident and strode into the contest without bothering to fill 16 vacant Senate seats.

• During the campaign, Diefenbaker's promises included shifting Canada's trade focus from the United States to Britain; enacting a Bill of Rights; establishing a program to stabilize farm incomes; and developing Canada's north. Promising to listen to the "average Canadian," the Scottish-German Diefenbaker became the first prime minister with roots that were neither purely British nor French.

• Voters seemed to react more strongly to Diefenbaker's vision than to his specific promises. With soaring oratory, he painted a picture of a country on the brink of a dazzling future. His campaign literature said: "We have a choice -- a road to greatness in faith and dedication -- or the road to non-fulfillment of Canada's destiny."

• According to Peter C. Newman's 1963 book, Renegade in Power -- The Diefenbaker Years, Diefenbaker spent 39 days on the campaign trail giving more than 100 speeches. Crowds were rapturous. The turning point was a Vancouver rally where Diefenbaker's speech was interrupted by applause 41 times. Newman wrote that, "in the awed tones of a prophet evoking a miracle," Diefenbaker told his supporters: "I think across Canada tonight something is happening."

• The 1957 election marked the first time that television played a significant role in a Canadian campaign. Diefenbaker embraced the medium and used it whenever possible to spread his vision of Canada's impending greatness. St-Laurent, on the other hand, told a TV reporter: "I will be more interested in seeing people than in talking to cameras."

• While St-Laurent's Liberal government had suffered no major scandal, its fortunes at the polls were hurt by the so-called Pipeline Debate. During bitter debate in Parliament in 1956 over a proposed natural gas pipeline from Alberta to central Canada, the Liberals twice used closure -- a mechanism to limit debate -- to get their way. Diefenbaker successfully exploited the move as evidence of the St-Laurent government's arrogance.

• Between 1957 and the next federal election a year later, the minority Conservative government was busy. It hiked the pay of 104,000 federal employees, established a program to provide loans for low-cost homes, raised old-age pensions, cut income taxes and sent a 50-man trade mission to Britain.

• Diefenbaker is seen fishing in this clip. An avid angler, one of his few other non-political pastimes was duck hunting. He also, according to friends, enjoyed watching circuses and televised professional wrestling.

Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: June 16, 1957
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker
Host: Gordon Burwash
Reporter: Donald C. McDonald
Duration: 4:28

Last updated: February 26, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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