“Dief the Chief”

Nickname given to Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker.

Ontario-born and Saskatchewan-raised, Diefenbaker was an MP for the Progressive Conservative Party for almost 40 years. And like most long-serving politicians, he fancied a run at leadership along the way. Missing out in 1949, he took the Tory reins in late 1956, going on to narrowly defeat Louis St. Laurent in 1957 with a slight majority. “Uncle Louis” opted to resign rather than fight on, making Diefenbaker Prime Minister.

Soon thereafter, Mike Pearson became Liberal Leader, setting up an election in March 1958. Diefenbaker roared to a massive majority that time. He almost doubled the number of seats held by the Conservatives in winning what was the largest parliamentary majority of any western democracy. But four years later that majority was in ruins.

Diefenbaker had a mercurial leadership style as Prime Minister. He canceled the Avro Arrow and bristled during meetings with the young and TV-friendly JFK. Members of his own cabinet tried to sack him as Tory leader in 1962, the Liberals made fun of his economic policies with Diefenbucks, and in 1963 he was electorally punished for his initial support of anti-ballistic Bomarc missiles. As Peter C. Newman wrote of Diefenbaker in 1962, shortly after losing his majority government, “in four years, ‘the man of the people’ had become a Man of Power. Now he’s neither one.”

However, Diefenbaker engendered tremendous loyalty among many party faithful, especially young Tories. Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark, inspired by Diefenbaker’s wins in 1957 and 1958, went on to lead the party themselves. And in 1962, they very likely wore “Keep the Chief” buttons created to help propel their man to another majority. It didn’t work. But “Dief the Chief” stuck. The phrase even has its own play, which you can see, fittingly, at the Diefenbunker.

Dief was an old-school Canadian to the end. Unmoved by the fancy new flag introduced by Pearson in 1965, he went to his grave in 1979 with the Red Ensign draping his coffin. The old flag was stitched to the new flag, a symbolic gesture that was hard to miss.

Image source: Toronto Public Library Archives

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