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Total triumph for Diefenbaker, Tories in 1958

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."

It's an electoral rout the likes of which Canada has never seen before. Not in the 91 years since Confederation has any party received such a massive majority in Parliament. Winning 208 of 265 seats is a political earthquake and complete conquest by Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker. For new Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson, as we see in this television clip, it's a disaster. The last Grit bastion -- Quebec -- has swung solidly Tory. 
• Seat totals for the March 31, 1958 election:
- Progressive Conservatives: 208
- Liberals: 49
- Co-operative Commonwealth Federation: 8
- Social Credit: 0

• The 1958 campaign saw an outbreak of full-blown Diefenbakermania. Thousands crammed halls and auditoriums to hear him speak. Women held up their babies for him to touch. Pierre Sévigny, a Quebec Conservative MP, told Life magazine that, after a barnburner speech in Winnipeg, "I saw people kneel and kiss his coat. Not one but many. People were in tears. People were delirious. And this happened many a time after."

• Biographer Peter C. Newman recalled in 1979 that, each night of the 1958 campaign, Diefenbaker would "turn on his audiences like some medieval necromancer dispensing rhetorical fire. With an energy born of gloating, he would dance out his joy at the wickedness of his political opponents." As he had a year earlier, Diefenbaker campaigned on the premise that he alone was destined to guide Canada to greatness.

• Diefenbaker's vision of Canada's North and his ambitious plan to develop it struck a chord with voters. He portrayed the top of Canada as a vast treasure chest of natural resources just waiting for roads and other infrastructure to open it. His hero, the first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, had championed the opening of Canada's West in similar terms.

• The 1958 Tory landslide that swept Canada knocked many well-established politicians out of office. Co-operative Commonwealth Federation leader M.J. Coldwell and Stanley Knowles, a highly respected Manitoba CCF MP, both lost their seats. (The CCF was reorganized into the New Democratic Party three years later.) Social Credit, which won 19 seats in 1957, was shut out.

• Only one province -- Newfoundland -- was immune to the Tory charms of 1958. The Liberals won five of Newfoundland's seven seats while the Conservatives won two.
• Diefenbaker's unprecedented victory, along with its trade implications, made international headlines. The Manchester Guardian described his campaigning style as that of an "Old-Testament prophet talking of the new Zion."

• Among the many congratulatory notes received by Diefenbaker was one from U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon. Nixon, who had met Diefenbaker in Washington in 1957, said he followed the 1958 campaign with great interest. "There is no question but that history will record that you are one of the truly great political campaigners of our time," Nixon wrote. He called the 1958 Conservative landslide, "an achievement which has seldom been equalled in history."

• The massive Conservative majority lasted until 1962, when Diefenbaker's Conservatives were reduced to a 116-seat minority government. The electorate punished him for high unemployment, the nuclear arms debate, a slumping dollar (branded the "Diefenbuck" by critics) and cancellation of the Avro Arrow fighter jet program. Quebec voters deserted the Conservatives amid criticisms that Diefenbaker didn't understand emerging French-Canadian desires to be maîtres chez nous ("masters of our own house").
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: April 6, 1958
Guest(s): M.J. Coldwell, John Diefenbaker, Solon Low, Lester B. Pearson
Duration: 7:14

Last updated: April 1, 2014

Page consulted on April 1, 2014

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