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1963: Diefenbaker government collapses

The Story


It's the end of the line for Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. His beleaguered minority government is falling apart over the issue of placing American nuclear warheads in Canada. The controversy has already prompted Dief's defence minister to resign. Now, the final blows: two no-confidence motions that topple his government. As we hear in this clip, the tense drama in the House has barely concluded when the campaigning for the next election begins.

Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio News
Broadcast Date: Feb. 5, 1963
Guest: Lester Pearson
Reporter: Bill Beatty, Tom Earle
Duration: 5:11
Photo: Photo Pool/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-111424

Did You know?


• The internal dissent within the minority government of John Diefenbaker stemmed from the Bomarc missile crisis. In the fall of 1958, Diefenbaker agreed to a U.S. request to have Bomarc anti-aircraft missiles stationed in Canada. A total of 56 missiles were placed under Norad command in North Bay, Ont., and La Macaza, Que. The missiles were supposed to replace the Avro Arrow fighter jet in Canada's defences.

• Fervent debate erupted when the public learned, in 1960, that the Bomarcs were to be fitted with nuclear warheads. Despite strong pressure from U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Diefenbaker told his cabinet in early 1962 that he couldn't accept American nuclear arms on Canadian soil. Saying that Canada was reneging on its Norad commitment, Defence Minister Douglas Harkness resigned on Feb. 4, 1963. He was not present in the House of Commons for the no-confidence votes.

• Harkness and Diefenbaker had clashed before on defence policy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Diefenbaker hesitated when Kennedy -- with whom he had a stormy relationship -- asked Canada to put its troops on high alert. Harkness quietly defied the prime minister and effectively granted Kennedy's request three days before Diefenbaker officially relented.

• After the Harkness resignation, Diefenbaker demanded and received a loyalty pledge from the rest of cabinet. He was surprised a few days later when Trade and Commerce Minister George Hees and acting defence minister Pierre Sévigny quit over the nuclear issue.

• There were two back-to-back no-confidence motions that ultimately toppled Diefenbaker's government. The first motion was brought forward by the Social Credit party, the second by the Liberals. The results were identical: 142-111 against the government. Diefenbaker announced that he would confer with the Governor General the next day (meaning that Parliament would be dissolved and a new election called).

• The last speaker before the first no-confidence vote was New Democrat leader Tommy Douglas, who announced: "The hour of decision has come. Let the people decide." However, two British Columbia New Democrats ended up voting with Diefenbaker's government on the motion.

• Although Diefenbaker survived the challenge to his leadership that followed the collapse of his government, he lost the ensuing election. His six-year run as prime minister ended on April 8, when the Liberals under Lester Pearson won 129 seats to the Conservatives' 95.


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