John Diefenbaker, a new national policy, 1957

John Diefenbaker spoke with messianic fervour in the 1957 election campaign about a new national policy
John Diefenbaker, a new national policy, 1957

John Diefenbaker, Canada’s 13th prime minister died this month in 1979. He was one of Canada’s finest political orators and election campaigners. He became leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1956, and six months later the governing Liberals called an election. A young economist named Merril Menzies sent Diefenbaker a series of memos proposing a new national policy reminiscent of the nation-building of John A. Macdonald. Diefenbaker used those ideas in a set-piece speech which he delivered with evangelical fervour. He gave this one to a packed house in Toronto’s Massey Hall on April 25, 1957. Diefenbaker’s Conservatives won a minority government and then won in a landslide when he called a snap election in 1958.

“This party has a sacred trust”

A new national policy

My fellow Canadians, at the commencement of this national campaign you have come here to hear discussed the issues of the day. You have come here to have us lay before you a policy, a Canadian policy, to provide for an equality of rights everywhere in Canada and in every province in Canada . . .

I am of those who believe that this party has a sacred trust, a trust in accordance with the traditions of Macdonald. It has an appointment today with destiny, to plan and to build for a greater Canada. It has a sacred trust handed down to us in the tradition of Macdonald to bring about that Canada which is founded on a spirit of brotherhood, vision, and faith—one Canada, with equality of opportunity for every citizen and equality for every province from the Atlantic to the Pacific . . .

We intend to launch a national policy of development in the northern areas which may be called the New Frontier Policy. Macdonald was concerned with opening the west. We are concerned with developments in the provinces with provincial co-operation, and in our northern frontier in particular. The North, with all its vast resources of hidden wealth, the wonder and the challenge of the North must become our national consciousness. All that is needed, as I see it today, is an imaginative policy that will open its doors to Canadian initiative and enterprise. We believe in a positive national policy of development, in contrast with the negative and haphazard one of today. We believe that the welfare of Canada demands the adoption of such a policy, which will develop our natural resources for the maximum benefit of all parts of Canada, a policy which will encourage more processing of Canada’s raw materials in Canada, and will foster a greater financial participation by Canadians. In short, we believe that Canadians must recognize that Canada’s economic policy shall ensure and preserve for the people of Canada, and for future generations of Canada, the control of our economic destiny. That we believe . . .

Restoration of Parliament

I would be remiss if I did not return to rediscuss something that affects the freedom of Canadians everywhere. I mean that institution that is one of the three pillars of democracy, those pillars being the Canadian people, the Canadian provinces, and the Canadian Parliament. I speak now of Parliament, I speak with my colleagues here from the House of Commons. Parliament, the place that I love . . .

I have seen the progressive restriction of the supremacy of Parliament in the last ten years. I have seen Parliament bludgeoned—and I say that is no pipe dream—bludgeoned by a majority. I have seen the hands of the Cabinet directing members and disciplining them into an abject servility. My friends, there is an issue that transcends all others—the preservation of freedom, its maintenance, the restoration of Parliament, and above everything else in that connection, an imperative and immediate necessity of a return to the two-party system in this country if freedom is to be preserved and political democracy maintained.

I am one of those who does not form personal antagonisms with others who sit opposite to me; I hope I shall continue in that. But I witnessed scenes—my colleagues here witnessed scenes—that deny anything like it ever having taking place in all the history of a democracy. We say we will restore Parliament. Closure has its use. We have now found what its abuse means. We shall abolish closure to guard against its abuse in the days ahead . . .

In this opening meeting of the campaign, the first of several major speeches that I intend to make, what I have dealt with is the need of a national development policy to keep our young men and women in Canada, to build for Canada a Parliament that will be effective, a human betterment policy that will assure opportunity.

Freedom of the individual

The platform, as it is revealed, will show that the policy of this party is based on its abiding faith in freedom; in the maintenance of our institutions which are the buttress of that freedom; in the sovereign independence of Canada; in the assurance of equal opportunity to all Canadians; in our dedication that the state shall be the servant and not the master of the people; that communism will be resisted from within and from without Canada by every means within our concepts of freedom of the individual . . .

My friends, this is a time for greatness in planning for Canada’s future. Unity demands it; freedom requires it; vision will ensure it.

As far as the road on which the Liberal Party has travelled in recent years is concerned, if it is followed after the next election in the same direction, Canada would be led to the eventual extinction of its true parliamentary system.

I believe that if this nation is to have a new birth of unity and freedom, we must go back to the vision and the idealism of Canada’s first nation builder. He led the way, Macdonald did, to national tolerance, dignity, and unity, as he joined with Cartier in brotherhood and in faith.

One Canada

My pledge, on behalf of this party, will be to do my part to achieve one Canada. I don’t think the people are asking for political carpentry today for both purposes. They are asking for something of a vision of a new Canada, the Canada that appears to me at this time, with its opportunity for Canadians. They ask for a lift in heart. They have a desire to serve. My purpose and my aim with my colleagues on this platform will be to bring to Canada and to Canadians a faith in their fellow Canadians, faith in the future in the destiny of this country . . .

We must make articulate the yearnings and the aspirations of Canadians everywhere, even unto the humblest of our people. If we are dedicated to this—and to this we are—you, my fellow Canadians, will require all the wisdom, all the power that comes from those spiritual springs that make freedom possible, all the wisdom, all the faith, and all the vision which the Conservative Party gave but yesterday under Macdonald, change to meet changing conditions, today having the responsibility of this party to lay the foundations of this nation for a great and a glorious future.

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Source: University of Saskatchewan Archives, Northern Research Portal, John G. Diefenbaker fonds. Series VII. Reference Series, 1957-1967, Subseries A: General Reference, Northern Development, Folder 1.
More Information: John Duffy, Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership, and the Making of Canada (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.), pp: 173-230.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

4 thoughts on “John Diefenbaker, a new national policy, 1957

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  1. Thanks Martha. I agree. It was another time, when Macdonald was lionized rather than criticized as he justly is today. Dief certainly tried to dine out on comparing himself to Macdonald, and to Churchill, the Great Man ploy. But to give Dief some credit he was the PM who extended the vote to Indigenous peoples, in 1960 no less. That’s almost 100 years into Confederation. And he introduced and passed a Bill of Rights, although admittedly it was not constitutionally binding upon government.

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  2. The Liberals had promised to build a dam on the South Saskatchewan River during a couple elections. I believe that Diefenbaker did do a couple things for Western Canada. For example, he did arrange for the building of that Diefenbaker Lake dam. It did make him popular here. But I think his arrogance destroyed him among his fellow Conservatives. Some of those examples of that arrogance were that he demanded that he be carried back to Saskatoon by a slow funeral train. He also insisted that he and his wife Olive be buried with him on the grounds of the University of Saskatchewan. He got his wishes because of his popularity in the West.

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