CBC Digital Archives

1959: Diefenbaker cancels Avro Arrow project

It's the closest thing Canadian industry has to a love story and a murder mystery. The Avro Arrow, a sleek white jet interceptor developed in Malton, Ontario in the 1950s, could have been many things. It might have become the fastest plane in the world, our best defence against Soviet bombers, the catalyst to propel Canada to the forefront of the aviation industry. Instead, it became a $400-million pile of scrap metal, and the stuff of legends.

It's a day that would soon become known as "Black Friday." At 11:00 a.m. on Feb. 20, 1959, Prime Minister Diefenbaker stands before the House of Commons and makes the unexpected announcement that the Arrow and Iroquois engine programs are terminated immediately. Members of Parliament greet the announcement with stunned silence. CBC Radio reporters Norman DePoe and Tom Earle are on hand to witness the announcement and get a first-hand explanation from Prime Minister Diefenbaker.
• A key reason for cancelling the Arrow was the mounting cost of the program. Though the Arrow was an expensive plane, critics of the cancellation later argued that development could have been completed for the cost of the cancellation fees alone. The Arrow program was cheaper than purchasing the Bomarc, SAGE and replacement interceptors from the United States. It was cancelled a month before the end of the six month review period Diefenbaker gave the program.

• Canada still needed jet interceptors. Two years later the RCAF took possession of 66 used McDonnell F-101 Voodoo jet fighters from the United States, a plane they had rejected as inadequate before commissioning the Arrow. The planes were eventually given to Canada in exchange for Canadians staffing radar bases on the Arctic's Pinetree Line, the first of three Cold War lines of air defence that included the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line and the Mid-Canada Line.

• The Voodoos were eventually replaced by the MacDonnell-Douglas CF-18 Hornets used today. Between 1982 and 1988 the Canadian government purchased 138 Hornets from the United States at a cost of $5.2 billion.
• Defence Production Sharing was supposed to allow Canadian firms to compete on an equal footing with their American counterparts. But Canadian bids on defence contracts suffered from built-in delays and price penalties that usually favoured U.S. competitors.

• Other nations were also under the impression that manned fighters would become obsolete in the age of missiles. In April 1957, British minister of defence Duncan Sandys published a white paper arguing that all British fighter projects should be cancelled in favour of ground-launched missiles. The paper spelled the end of many British aircraft manufacturers. The United States Air Force cancelled similar interceptor plans.

• Canada and the United States were hotly debating deployment of atomic weapons in Canada. U.S. President John F. Kennedy demanded Canada accept the atomic warheads that the Bomarc was designed to carry. Diefenbaker said he was against it, which prompted the resignation of his Minister of National Defence Douglas Harkness. That forced a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons, leading to the collapse of Diefenbaker's minority government and the subsequent Liberal minority of Lester B. Pearson.

• The nuclear warheads were eventually delivered on Dec. 31, 1963 and remained in the Canadian armoury until 1969.

• The Bomarc and SAGE were ineffective systems, and were soon phased out in both Canada and the United States. Both of Canada's Bomarc squadrons formally disbanded on April 7, 1972, and the missiles were returned to the United States.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News
Broadcast Date: Feb. 20, 1959
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker
Reporter: Norman DePoe, Tom Earle
Duration: 5:48

Last updated: December 2, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: extra clips

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Woodstock Remembered

They say if you can remember Woodstock, you weren't really there. Of course, that's not entire...

John Diefenbaker: Dief the Chief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Barbara Frum: Pioneering Broadcaster Part 2

The sudden death of Barbara Frum on March 26, 1992 shocked Canadians. The loss of one of the c...

Leaders' Debates 1968-2011: Highlights

After months of anticipation and weeks of campaigning, it all comes down to one night. Televis...

Barbara Frum: Pioneering Broadcaster Part 1

The sudden death of Barbara Frum on March 26, 1992 shocked Canadians. The loss of one of the c...