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John Diefenbaker’s cabinet in chaos

The Story


It has been a week of rapid-fire events unlike anything witnessed before in Ottawa. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's minority government was toppled by two non-confidence votes after bitter debate in Parliament over his nuclear arms policy. Also, Diefenbaker's cabinet was rocked by three resignations -- Defence Minister Doug Harkness and then his acting replacement Pierre Sévigny, along with Trade and Commerce Minister George Hees. With an election set for April 8, cabinet revolt is the talk of the capital. 

Medium: Radio
Program: Sunday Morning Magazine
Broadcast Date: Feb. 10, 1963
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker, Douglas Harkness, George Hees, Lester B. Pearson
Host: Bruce Rogers
Duration: 6:10

Did You know?


• The root of the internal dissent with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was the Bomarc missile crisis. In autumn 1958, Diefenbaker agreed to a U.S. request to have Bomarc anti-aircraft missiles stationed in Canada. A total of 56 missiles was 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.

• 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.

• In his 1977 memoirs, One Canada, Diefenbaker wrote that a rebel "cabal" within Cabinet tried to oust him as leader. He blamed the rebels for encouraging the Opposition Liberals to bring down the government with the Feb. 5, 1963, non-confidence votes.

• 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.

• "I still believe that we would have won that (1963) election had it not been for Hees's decision to resign a few days later. The one question in the 1963 campaign I could not answer was: "Why did George Hees resign?" -- John Diefenbaker in One Canada

• Although Diefenbaker survived the 1963 leadership challenge, he lost the ensuing election. His six-year run as prime minister ended April 8 when Lester Pearson's Liberals won 129 seats to the Conservatives' 95. The Liberals, who formed a minority government, had promised a new flag, healthcare reform and a public pension plan. Diefenbaker exceeded expectations, blitzing the country in what the Canadian Encyclopedia called "possibly the most spectacular one-man political campaign in Canadian history."

• Hear a clip of Diefenbaker's address on CBC Radio conceding the 1963 election to Pearson.


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