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John Diefenbaker (1895 - 1979)

Former Canadian Prime Minister

For 22 years Canada's Liberal party had controlled the government under two successive prime ministers. Then in June 1957 John Diefenbaker led the Progressive Conservatives to victory, but by a very close margin. Nine months later, as Prime Minister, he called for another election. This time his party won by the greatest landslide in Canada' s history.

John George Diefenbaker was born on Sept. 18, 1895, in Newstadt, Ontario. His father was a schoolteacher. When the boy was 8, the family moved to a homestead in Saskatchewan. His father tutored him until he was ready for high school at which time the family sold their wheat farm and moved to Saskatoon.

In 1916 John Diefenbaker received his M.A. in political science from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. After serving in World War I, he returned to the university and got a law degree in 1919. He made his home in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and became an outstanding criminal lawyer. In 1929 he married Edna May Brower who died in 1951. In 1953 he re-married to Olive Freeman Palmer.

The "prairie lawyer" lost five elections until at last, in 1940, he won a seat in the House of Commons. In 1956 he became leader of the opposition. In the 1957 elections, charging that the Liberals had become too powerful, he replaced Louis St. Laurent as Prime Minister.

In March 1958 Diefenbaker campaigned against the new Liberal leader, Lester B. Pearson, former minister for external affairs and winner of a Nobel peace prize. A new spirit of nationalism had developed in Canada. Diefenbaker sensed this and gave the people a "vision of a new and greater Canada," less dependent economically upon the United States. He won 10 of the 12 provinces and territories.

In 1962 he was reelected by a small margin and formed a coalition government. It fell in 1963 on the issue of his refusal to accept nuclear weapons from the United States. Pearson became Prime Minister after the April elections.

Diefenbaker remained the opposition leader until 1967, when he was succeeded by Robert L. Stanfield of Nova Scotia. He was elected for a record 13th term in the House of Commons in May 1979.

The Diefenbaker years (1957-63) saw the passage of the Canadian Bill of Rights, a "roads-to- resources" program to encourage the development of northern resources, legislation providing support for agriculture, encouragement of technical training and improved health and welfare programs. Regional development was emphasized by significant public works such as construction of the South Saskatchewan Dam, and simultaneous translation was introduced in the House of Commons.

Diefenbaker died Aug. 16, 1979 at his home in Rockliffe Park, Ottawa.