Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker

Diefenbaker was a populist conservative and a noted speaker

John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada 1957-63
John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada 1957-63. Jimmy Sime / Hutton Archive / Getty Images

An entertaining and theatrical speaker, John G. Diefenbaker was a Canadian populist who combined conservative politics with social justice issues. Of neither French nor English ancestry, Diefenbaker worked hard to include Canadians of other ethnic backgrounds. Diefenbaker gave western Canada a high profile, but Quebecers considered him unsympathetic.

John Diefenbaker had mixed success on the international front.

He championed international human rights, but his confused defense policy and economic nationalism caused tension with the United States.

Birth and Death

Born on Sept. 18, 1895, in Neustadt, Ontario, to parents of German and Scottish descent, John George Diefenbaker moved with his family to Fort Carlton, Northwest Territories, in 1903 and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 1910. He died on Aug. 16, 1979, in Ottawa, Ontario.

Education

Diefenbaker received a bachelor's degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1915 and a master's in political science and economics in 1916. After a brief enlistment in the army, Diefenbaker then returned to the University of Saskatchewan to study law, graduating with an LL.B. in 1919. 

Professional Career

After receiving his law degree, Diefenbaker set up a law practice in Wakaw, near Prince Albert. He worked as a defense attorney for 20 years. Among other accomplishments, he defended 18 men from the death penalty.

Political Party and Ridings (Electoral Districts)

Diefenbaker was a member of the Progressive Conservative party. He served Lake Centre from 1940 to 1953 and Prince Albert from 1953 to 1979.

Highlights as Prime Minister

Diefenbaker was Canada's 13th prime minister, from 1957 to 1963. His term followed many years of Liberal Party control of the government.

Among other accomplishments, Diefenbaker appointed Canada's first female federal Cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough, in 1957. He prioritized extending the definition of "Canadian" to include not only those of French and English ancestry. Under his prime ministership, Canada's aboriginal peoples were allowed to vote federally for the first time, and the first native person was appointed to the Senate. He also found a market in China for prairie wheat, created the National Productivity Council in 1963, expanded old-age pensions, and introduced simultaneous translation in the House of Commons.

Political Career of John Diefenbaker

John Diefenbaker was elected leader of the Saskatchewan Conservative Party in 1936, but the party did not win any seats in the 1938 provincial election. He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1940. Later, Diefenbaker was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1956, and he served as leader of the Opposition from 1956 to 1957.

In 1957, the Conservatives won a minority government in the 1957 general election, defeating Louis St. Laurent and the Liberals. Diefenbaker was sworn in as prime minister of Canada in 1957. In the 1958 general election, the Conservatives won a majority government.

However, the Conservatives were back to a minority government in the 1962 general election. The Conservatives lost the 1963 election and Diefenbaker became leader of the opposition. Lester Pearson became prime minister.

Diefenbaker was replaced as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada by Robert Stanfield in 1967. Diefenbaker remained a member of Parliament until three months before his death in 1979.