Saskatchewan’s John G. Diefenbaker became Canada’s thirteenth Prime Minister with a Progressive Conservative minority government in June 1957, ending twenty-two consecutive years of Liberal leadership in Canada. The establishment was shocked. In the snap election called nine months later, in March, 1958, Diefenbaker won an unprecedented 53.6 percent of the popular vote and the largest percentage majority in the House of Commons to date with 208 of 265 seats.1 Throughout the federal campaign races of 1957 and the later campaign in 1958, Diefenbaker capitalized on his prairie roots to portray himself as a champion of the average Canadian willing to stand up to the Liberal “Ivory Tower Boys” who, he insisted, had grown arrogant and no longer served the best interests of Canadian citizens. His campaign touted a ‘New National Policy,’ and it served as a rallying cry to citizens across the country. Dedicated to delivering on his campaign rhetoric, Diefenbaker’s Speeches from the Throne solidified his vision for ‘One Canada’ outlining the priorities of his Conservative Party to create a modern nation and a prosperous future through membership in the Commonwealth, the development of the richness of Canada’s resources, and the promotion of an united, un-hyphenated citizenry. This chapter will focus on a selection of Diefenbaker’s Speeches from the Throne and his subsequent Leaders’ Day replies to provide a lens into Diefenbaker’s vision for an inclusive Canada, recognized internationally as a champion for human rights.
The Speech from the Throne opens each new session of Parliament and is carefully crafted by the Prime Minister’s Office and delivered by the Governor General as Canada’s Head of State and the representative of the Crown. The speech outlines the goals and priorities of the government for the session and speaks to the legislation and particular policies the government intends to pursue to achieve these goals. Diefenbaker had the opportunity to pen a total of seven Throne Speeches as prime minister of Canada. For the purposes of this analysis, the speeches that bookend his six year tenure — the very first speech, delivered by Queen Elizabeth II, in October 1957, his second Throne Speech delivered just eight months later in May 1958, and his very last Throne Speech, delivered in September 1962.2 These speeches provide considerable insight into the vision of the populist Prime Minister and demonstrate his commitment to human rights and multiculturalism and his belief in the promise of Canada. Analysis of these speeches will also evaluate if Diefenbaker’s priorities shifted throughout his time as Prime Minister and, therefore, determine if his rhetoric was more than empty hyperbole.
The Making of a Prairie Populist
Since Confederation in 1867, those who have governed Canada have worked to realize a cohesive national identity. Founded on a compromise between largely French-speaking Catholic and English-speaking Protestant values, Canada’s foundational national narrative purposely excluded portions of citizens who populated the vast land. It was Diefenbaker’s personal experience with life on the margins of the ‘two founding nations’ narrative that compelled him to advocate for a more inclusive Canada with protected rights for its citizens. His political journey began in 1920, when he joined the village council in Wakaw, Saskatchewan, but it would be a long and often disappointing road to the House of Commons. He did not succeed in any of federal elections where he was often a candidate until 1940, and then he served as a Tory backbencher for sixteen years before he was finally successful in becoming the party leader.
Before this chapter explores the language of Diefenbaker’s Speeches from the Throne and his Leaders’ Day replies, it is necessary to consider, even if briefly, an overview of the Canadian political and social climate that set the stage for Diefenbaker’s success in the election of 1957.3 Timing is everything, especially in politics, and this was most certainly true for John Diefenbaker. If he would have won any of the multitude of elections he had contested between 1925, when he first ran for federal office, and 1956, when he became the leader of the Progressive Conservative party, he might not have found his way to the office of the Prime Minister, his ultimate ambition since his humble childhood in Saskatchewan.
As Canada, still a relatively young country in the early 1950s, entered the modern era following the Second World War, there was a “proliferation of writing on the philosophies and principles of Liberalism and Conservatism in Canada” which “reveals the extent to which political thinkers and politicians believed they were in the midst of a period of ideological flux.”4 Beginning in the 1950s, the Conservative narrative was re-energized, due in part to the new writing of Canadian history, specifically, the publication of Donald G. Creighton’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, The Young Politician, and The Old Chieftain, which “defined the conservative view of Canada to a whole generation.”5 Diefenbaker realized that Canadians, who were no longer British citizens after the passage of the Canadian Citizenship Act, 1947 and under threat of cultural and economic absorption into the fast emerging world superpower the United States, were looking for a home grown narrative with which to identify. Canada was changing and Diefenbaker’s narrative attracted many, specifically Western Canadians but others, too, yearning for a new, modern, inclusive national identity.
In the prosperous years following the Second World War, Canadians did not think of Macdonald as an “architect of genocide” as some do in 2020. Therefore, there was no irony for the public that Diefenbaker harkened to the legacy of Macdonald while espousing a vision and rhetoric for an inclusive Canada which included “unhyphenated Canadians” of varying ethnicities and religions. A cursory glance at the legislation proposed by each federal leader highlights this stark contrast in defining a “Canadian”. Macdonald introduced the Electoral Franchise Act and Chinese Immigration Act in 1885 in an effort to ensure “…that the new polity of Canada was to be for European men who owned property”.6 By contrast, Diefenbaker assigned his Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (and Indian Affairs), Ellen Fairclough, the first female cabinet minister in the history of Canada’s parliament, to introduce regulations that would eliminate racial discrimination from Canada’s Immigration legislation.
Diefenbaker biographer, Peter C. Newman, remarked at the time that in the post-World War II era of “the easy materialism of the lush Fifties, many Canadians were groping for some deeper national purpose. John Diefenbaker successfully drew upon this widespread frustration to create a shared vision of a more vigorous and more noble future.”7 The prairie grown populist capitalized on any opportunity to launch into a targeted speech to appeal to his audience. Cara Spittal, in her Ph.D thesis “The Diefenbaker Moment” highlights Diefenbaker’s experience as a successful defence lawyer in which he selected high profile cases where he could represent the underdog. “Experience had taught him that the greatest speeches—political or otherwise— were stories designed in the manner of dramas that involved an introduction, a problem and conflict, periods of rising and falling action, a climax, and a resolution.”8 In contrast to the Liberal party of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, Diefenbaker clearly understood the importance of rhetoric and speeches, and embraced every opportunity to engage with citizens.
In December 1956, Diefenbaker became the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party after poor health lead to the resignation of his predecessor, George Drew. Drew had played a significant role in the Pipeline Debate of 1956 and Diefenbaker claimed this victory as his.9 The pipeline debate represents a watershed moment for the long reigning Liberal party because in an effort to begin construction on the pipeline that would carry natural gas from Alberta to Montreal by June of 1956, the Liberal party implemented a time limit on debate for the bill introduced to Parliament. The Northern Ontario Pipe Line Crown Corporation Act, 1956 proposed the creation of a Crown Corporation that would construct the problematic portion of the pipeline through the Canadian Shield.10 The Crown Corporation was necessary to demonstrate Canadian ownership as Canadians were becoming more aware of the extent to which the country’s economy was owned and controlled by foreign, specifically American companies.11 Diefenbaker seized the opportunity, citing Liberal arrogance by highlighting the party’s disregard for Parliamentary institutions. The Pipeline Debate played a significant role in the defeat of the Liberal party in 1957, giving Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives a minority government.
Speeches from the Throne
Diefenbaker’s inaugural Throne Speech, read on October 14, 1957, holds a significant space in Canadian history as it marked the first time the Speech was delivered by the sitting Monarch. It also marked the new Queen, Elizabeth II’s, first North American tour upon her succession to the British Throne. Diefenbaker ensured the event was well publicized with CBC television cameras allowed in the House of Commons and in the Senate for the first time, to broadcast the Queen reading Diefenbaker’s vision to a national audience. The sense of excitement was further heightened by a temporary power failure caused by the lighting required for the broadcast. In addition to raising the temperature of the room to thirty-three degrees Celsius, the lights blew the breakers of the House of Commons and the matter was only resolved with minutes to spare.12 The occasion also marked Prince Edward Island’s Heath MacQuarrie’s first throne speech; he would go on to serve twenty-two years as a member of Parliament and fifteen as a senator, but he noted that the 1957 Speech from the Throne was the most memorable in the country’s history. The Throne Speech of 1957 held special reverence for him because it contained “…a cornucopia of beneficial things for the regions and people of Canada. Seniors would have [their] pensions increased, success to them made easier. The blind, disabled persons and the war veterans were to be assisted and hard-pressed farmers saw relief coming their way. New assistance and attention for the Atlantic region heartened the people of the East.”13 Diefenbaker had risen to the office of Canada’s Prime Minister with promises to help the common people of Canada and his inaugural Speech from the Throne demonstrated his commitment to the people who had helped to get him there.
However, it was not only domestic issues that were given priority in the 1957 Speech. On the international front, the Speech highlighted the importance of the Commonwealth as the means to which Diefenbaker would bolster Canada’s economy. The Speech described the Commonwealth as a “bright constellation” that “illumines our times” through “the overcast of international affairs.”14 The Commonwealth was the means through which Canada would access global markets, thereby lessening its reliance on the United States. The Commonwealth would continue to be an important aspect of Diefenbaker’s vision for Canada. As Spittal writes,
In Diefenbaker’s mind, the Commonwealth was at the cutting edge of liberal internationalism and epitomized the modernization and progress of the postwar period. Within its ranks, the Commonwealth could hold all ethnic groups. It was the means by which the acts of middle powers like Canada and developing powers like India could come to have world-historical meaning.15
Diefenbaker’s Leaders’ Day reply on October 16, 1957, in contrast to the formal and poetic language of the Throne Speech, was adversarial. After his many years as a defence lawyer and lengthy period as a backbencher, Diefenbaker was ready to take the spotlight and play hero to the Liberal party’s villain. He spoke of the problems of average Canadian people, of turkeys and skim milk and of coal and droughts, all the while pointing to the indifference of the Liberal government to the struggles of Canadian citizens. In speaking of International matters and the disarmament program offered by the American President to the U.S.S.R., Diefenbaker commented that Canada shared “…joint purposes with the United States on this continent” that “are peaceful and not aggressive.”16 The decision, whether Canada would acquire nuclear weapons as well as his relationship with a new President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, would later have a great impact on Diefenbaker and his popularity. The Defence Crisis of 1962 and 1963 between the US and Cuba would also become one of the most tumultuous periods in Canadian and American relations. It would demonstrate, as George Grant contends, that Diefenbaker was serious in his conviction for a determined Canadian nationalism.17 “The Defence Crisis,” Grant wrote, “illustrated how profoundly Diefenbaker’s Canadianism was bound up with the British connection. Since 1914, Britain had ceased to be a great power. Both [Howard] Green [the minister of defence] and Diefenbaker continued to accept as real, however, the meaning of Canada’s membership in the British Commonwealth.”18 This belief would prove to be significant in the fall of Diefenbaker’s government.
Diefenbaker’s second Throne Speech followed an unprecedented campaign which resulted in the largest majority government and the largest percentage of the popular vote in Canadian history. The Speech, delivered on 12 May 1958, by Governor General Georges Vanier, announced what Diefenbaker would consider his greatest achievement. “My Government will propose to you the enactment of a Bill of Rights to safeguard the rights of all persons in Canada in respect of all subjects within the jurisdiction of Parliament.”19 On Dominion Day, 1960, the Canadian Bill of Rights was introduced to Parliament and passed on August 10, 1960. As Peter C. Newman noted in a Maclean’s magazine article published a year later, “To Prime Minister Diefenbaker himself, the passage of the Bill of Rights was a victory in an intensely felt personal battle.”20 In 1961, Diefenbaker shared what the Bill of Rights meant to him:
My advocacy of a Bill of Rights was to assure Canadians, whatever their racial origins or surnames, the right of full citizenship and an end to discrimination. This was basic to my philosophy of ‘One Canada, One Nation’. It was to give Canadians a new sense of national greatness and the opportunity to pridefully declare it that the 1961 decennial census for the first and last time asked the question: ‘Are you a Canadian?’ Hundreds of thousands of Canadians answered: ‘Yes,’ with pride.” The question was removed when the Liberal returned to office.21
Diefenbaker was a champion of human rights, something he began advocating for as early as 1946 when he pressed the Government of Mackenzie King to introduce a Canadian bill of rights when it enacted the Citizenship Act in 1946.
Diefenbaker’s final Throne Speech, delivered on 27 September 1962 continued to advance the trajectory he had embraced in earlier Throne Speeches. Once again highlighted the significance of the Commonwealth as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In order to realize his commitment to human rights, Diefenbaker believed that Canada had to participate in the international institutions that were committed to peace and security. The Speech announced that the Conservatives would seek to take a “significant step in rounding out the concept of Confederation” and “consider a resolution to provide for the “repatriation” of the Constitution of Canada.”22 The Speech also spoke of job creation as unemployment in Canada was at a dire point. It also announced measures to establish an “Indian Claims Commission to investigate claims on the part of various tribes and bands that certain of their rights have been restricted or abrogated, and make recommendations for the equitable and final settlement of such claims.”23 This represents a significant step forward to reconciling the efforts of Canadian governments, from the time of Macdonald, to disenfranchise Indigenous peoples from their lands. The Terms of Reference for the Commission were approved by Cabinet in October 1962; however, Diefenbaker’s Draft Bill on the matter did not make it to Parliament before his government fell in February 1963. Still, his intentions of dealing with Indigenous issues demonstrate that he brought a new approach to dealing with the marginalized peoples in Canada.
In his Leaders’ Day reply in 1962, Liberal party leader, Lester B. Pearson, chastised the Prime Minister for not recalling Parliament in the summer so that the currency crisis (a precipitous drop in the value of the Canadian dollar) could be dealt with. He referred to the Throne Speech as a “dish of Tory leftovers” with “no evidence of real change.” According to Pearson, the dire situation that Canada faced in the devaluation of the Canadian dollar was the result of “the government’s financial mismanagement, the government’s policies regarding foreign capital, and especially the government’s mishandling of the [James] Coyne [the Governor of the Bank of Canada] affair.”24 This was not an over exaggeration on Pearson’s part, but rather a deft and competent assessment of the Conservative administration’s action. Mr. Pearson was in total command when he reminded Prime Minister Diefenbaker of his own words regarding the effectiveness of minority governments and urged a vote of confidence.
Following the 1962 election, Diefenbaker’s hold on power was tenuous. Diefenbaker had first been elected to the office of Prime Minister on his vision of ‘One Canada’ and an inclusive concept of ‘un-hyphenated’ Canadians. Once in power, he consciously reached out to populations that had historically been disenfranchised from politics and power in Canada through legislation and an array of social policy initiatives. Those sentiments can be best captured in his own words:
I am the first prime minister of this country of neither altogether English or [sic] French origin. So I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration….I’m very happy to be able to say that in the House of Commons today in my party we have members of Italian, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Chinese and Ukrainian origin — and they are all Canadians.25
Diefenbaker’s other ‘firsts’ include the appointment of the first female Cabinet minister, the first Indigenous person as senator and the first French-Canadian Governor General. The ideas he championed throughout his prime ministership would set the foundation on which modern concepts of tolerance, gender equality and reconciliation would be solidified in Canada’s modern national identity. In the fractious 1962 Parliament, however, those accomplishments would not be sufficient to keep Diefenbaker in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Even so, an engagement with his Throne Speeches and Leaders’ Day addresses clearly demonstrate that Diefenbaker gave national attention to the concerns and realities of everyday Canadian citizens. His approach to statecraft and governing might help explain why Canadian voters gave him the largest percentage of the popular vote in Canadian history to date and why many Canadians remained loyal to him even after many in his own party deserted him. But such policies and his rhetoric of a strong, inclusive national identity was not sufficient to keep the Tories in office and Diefenbaker in the office of the Prime Minister. High unemployment, despite Diefenbaker’s Throne Speech commitment of job creation, the untimely devaluation of the dollar in June of 1962, as well as the cancellation of the Avro Arrow Project and the Diefenbaker government’s indecision around nuclear warheads on Canadian soil all conspired to discredit Diefenbaker in the minds of many voters. Moreover, the American government, the media and the Liberal party of Canada were all “baying for Diefenbaker’s blood.” Diefenbaker maintained, however, his principle that Canada was a sovereign nation and only the Canadian Government would decide, for instance, on its military commitments for possible war in Europe or itself. This insistence from Diefenbaker came after meetings of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) publicly chastised Diefenbaker on its military policy, and he was having none of it. “His opponents successfully raised the cry of ‘indecisiveness’ … [as] they explained his actions by saying that he was trying to have the best of [Douglas] Harkness’s [Minister of Defence] and Green’s positions for the low motive of political success … His speech at the dissolution of Parliament made clear that the one thing he would not stomach was the United States government determining Canadian defence policy.”26 Diefenbaker was a nationalist to the bitter end.
Much has been written about John G. Diefenbaker’s prolific career in politics which spanned decades and ended only with his death in 1979. He has often been referred to as a wonderful campaigner, but a terrible leader. As Peter C. Newman wrote in one of his many Maclean’s articles about Diefenbaker, “He came to the toughest job in the country without having worked for anybody else in his life; he had never hired or fired anyone and never administered anything more complicated than a walk-up law office.”27 Despite his lack of administrative skills, “Dief the Chief” contributed significantly to Canada’s national identity and was unwavering in his vision for ‘One Canada’. While Diefenbaker did not alter his message greatly from the days of his early campaigns and key Parliamentary speeches compared to those of his later years in office, the ideas that that had rallied the nation in 1957 and 1958 were out of touch with the realities of 1963. Through his Speeches from the Throne, Diefenbaker championed the rights and needs of everyday people, stressed the importance of the Commonwealth, and the potential of the country if its richness were developed, specifically those resources in Canada’s vast northern frontier. As demonstrated by the policies he championed in his Speeches from the Throne, Diefenbaker did not change, but the times did. Yet, many of the ideas and values he vigorously promoted would come to fruition only after his death.