After 64 years of serving the Canadian people, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker stepped down from his office on Wednesday, October 30th, 1968. With him went a way of life that Canadians had come to know and admire; a life characterized by his humble beginnings, incredible dedication to duty and country, and above all, by his strong personality. As the nation mourned, Canadians were inspired by the example of a man who had dedicated his entire life to his country and to whom they still had a deep respect and affection.
The son of a railway stoker, John Diefenbaker was born in Belleville, Ontario on November 9th, 1895. He grew up in a small town in Eastern Ontario where he started his working career as a telegraph operator at the age of 15. After serving in World War I, Diefenbaker received a commission in the Royal Canadian Regiment and was sent to France in 1919 as part of the British Expeditionary Force. He saw action at the Battle of Amiens and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery. During the war, Diefenbaker worked in secret to help establish the Canadian Aviation Corps and in March 1920, the unit was officially launched. He then worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (CPR) for the next 24 years, rising to the rank of Director General. The combination of his World War I wounds and the rigours of hard labour perhaps contributed to the strain that manifested itself in Diefenbaker’s health in later life. A lifelong bachelor, Diefenbaker was a popular patriarch, dispensing sage advice and support to those around him. He treasured his time with family, friends, and the community of which he was so proud.
After Diefenbaker stepped down, his Cabinet colleagues praised him for his lifelong service to his country. Pierre Trudeau, who had served as the Prime Minister’s deputy for only a month before assuming office, said “There is no question that he [Diefenbaker] has left an indelible mark on the history of our country. He will always be considered a great Canadian who stood for the rights of small nations and fought for peace. His leadership stands out as a shining example of steadfastness and strength.” While civil servants at the Department of External Affairs were saddened by the passing of their colleague, many praised Diefenbaker for his long service and commitment to his country. The Prime Minister will be remembered for taking a stand against the Soviet Union in the Suez Crisis and for maintaining Canada’s neutrality in the Cold War.
Diefenbaker was an unlikely king. He worked his entire life in relative obscurity, rising from an inconspicuous beginning to hold one of the most influential positions in the Commonwealth. Tall and commanding, the Prime Minister stood out among the crowd. When he assumed office in Ottawa in October of 1940, he was 42 years old and had been a Cabinet minister for only six months. He was known as a man of action, and throughout his long tenure as Prime Minister he consistently put his excellent organizational skills into use, setting up a series of meetings, conferences, and committees to deal with postwar reconstruction and to address the country’s needs.
Diefenbaker’s leadership was characterized by a no-nonsense approach and a firm belief in the value of hard work. “I have never been a particularly patient man,” he once said. “If I see something worth doing, I usually do it myself.” He also valued loyalty and independence of thought, holding firmly to the notion that “a Cabinet is a team, and no team is a team in all its parts.” In an age of conformity and groupthink, it was a refreshing change to come across a strong leader who valued individualism and originality.
Style Of Government
Another way in which Diefenbaker’s legacy will be felt is in the style of government he implemented. There are many parallels between him and the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who was 44 when he took office in 2016. Like Diefenbaker, he too represents a break from the past, and his youthful energy and optimism are in marked contrast to the Prime Minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, who was 76 when he left office.
Trudeau’s father was the architect of the modern Liberal party and Justin’s own political career was nurtured under his wing. As a young man, Trudeau was elected to Parliament but lost his seat in the 1958 election. He then became a journalist and public speaker and in the 1963 election, he was able to return to Ottawa as an MP. He became Minister of Justice in Pierre Trudeau’s Cabinet in November 1968, but stepped down three months later to assume office as the Prime Minister of Canada.
Trudeau was not the only beneficiary of Diefenbaker’s political acumen. Several of his ministers went on to hold prominent positions in Canadian politics and three – John Turner, Donald Macdonald, and Roy Romanow – served as the Prime Minister of Canada. While this was not a total reflection of the political power-structures of the day given that the Governor General played an essential role in appointing a new Prime Minister, it does indicate the enduring influence of ‘the Chief’.
It is said that Diefenbaker had a ‘can-do’ attitude to governing and his approach was characterized by a readiness to get to work. One civil servant who worked with him during this time described him as ‘a serious man with a sense of humour’. Although he implemented many progressive policies – above all, the expansion of social security – it was his dedication to duty that set Diefenbaker apart. As Prime Minister, he consistently turned down generous offers from business and political leaders alike who sought his support or endorsement. Perhaps this is what will be missed most about the man. He was proud to play a role in the lives of ordinary Canadians, desiring not to be remembered as the Prime Minister who made federal welfare reforms. He is, however, often credited with modernizing welfare in Canada. In Diefenbaker’s words: “It is a matter of principle with me never to accept a position or act in a way that could be construed as being partisan or political.” For this reason, he refused to take a stand in favour of either party during the height of the Cold War.
More Than Meets The Eye
It is important to note that while Diefenbaker’s political influence was immense, he was not a dictator. He was a strong leader who set the agenda and expected everyone around him to act accordingly. An astute judge of character, he was also prepared to listen to others. These two qualities – decisiveness and openness – enabled him to become the longest-serving Prime Minister in Canadian history. In an age where leaders are expected to provide answers and have all the right opinions, it is perhaps this very quality that Canadians will miss most about John Diefenbaker.