If the photo above this article was shown to all Canadians, only a miniscule fraction would be able to identify the towering man in the foreground. Taken during the federal election campaign in the summer of 1957, this photo prominently displays Canada’s 13th Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. It was during this campaign that then Member of Parliament John Diefenbaker ascended to stardom, swaying thousands with his spellbinding oration, and motivating the Progressive Conservative caucus to make him their centrepiece. The slogan “It’s Time for a Diefenbaker Government” was plastered to newspapers and repeated over radio ads. To the astonishment of the superfluously confident Louis St. Laurent, his government was usurped by the Diefenbaker Conservatives in the election, handing the Saskatchewan-bred lawyer the position of Prime Minister. While his energy and patriotic zeal persuaded many, it was his vision, specifically the desire for a “new national policy” that ensured his victory and could assure victory in contemporary Canada.
On April 25, 1957, Diefenbaker delivered a rousing speech to a packed-house in Toronto’s Massey Hall pertaining to his vision of a new national policy reminiscent of the nation-building undertakings of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. Diefenbaker sought to unite Canadians under an ambitious agenda prioritizing infrastructural, agricultural, and economic development. Canada’s north was the main target, its vast tundra and untapped resources were to be the focal point of the New Frontier Policy.
Over the course of 10 years, investments expanding communications infrastructure such as radio and telephone networks were to be accompanied by federally contracted highway construction projects to ensure the accessibility of the northern territories. Additionally, the establishment of renewable electricity apparatuses, particularly hydroelectric pants would, as Diefenbaker put it, would allow Canadians to “control their economic destiny.” In the realm of science, the New Frontier Policy would mandate federally led exploration of the Polar Continental Shelf and a new Oceanography institute would be incorporated for further research into ocean currents and potential shipping routes. Foreign investment into Canada and the movement of internationally owned companies into Canada due to these huge undertakings would only be tolerated to the extent that Canadians were employed at all technical and senior levels, as well as if the funds were directly benefiting Canadian firms.
All of this does not even begin to display the enormity of Diefenbaker’s vision, as he also committed to extensive tax cuts for small businesses, financial aid to farmers, and the distribution of a portion of the profits made to economically struggling provinces. Diefenbaker’s ambitions all came down to a single burning love though, a love for Canada, the country he wanted nothing more than to see united, as he put it, “One Canada, with a new vision! A new hope! A new soul!” Some supporters and political pundits characterize Diefenbaker as the last truly conservative Prime Minister Canada due to this uncompromising patriotism and zest for public service. His ideals, however, could be the genesis of a new populist conservative generation if utilized to address the regional and cultural divisions plaguing Canada today.
One does not have to be a political junkie or avid Maclean’s reader to realize that Canada’s confederation is at risk. Alberta and Quebec fuming over pipeline disagreements, the West experiencing a rise in separatist sentiment, Indigenous populations resentful of Ottawa due to impoverished living conditions, ethnocultural tension due to increasingly racialized politics, and Atlantic provinces disenchanted with frequently unreliable equalization payments are just a few examples of Canada’s current national fragility. Rekindling Diefenbaker’s populist vision could solve these tensions by providing Canadians with a national purpose to rally around, and a sign that the nation, battered and bruised by divisions, is still buoyed by the prosperity of the Canadian people.
When Diefenbaker campaigned on his new national policy, he won nearly every province, including the hyper-liberal and quasi-separatist Quebec. He won by astounding margins in both the urban centres of Montreal and rural plains of Manitoba. This is because an ambitious agenda focused on empowering the population economically combined with the optimistic message of unifying national patriotism gives people an idea of the tangible ways in which their lives will change for the better more so than any half-baked ideological appeal to the abstract notions of “equality” or “freedom.” Under this vision, the population has a reason to get up in the morning, as they are crucial to building the nation.
Therefore, it is clear that “Dief the Chief” was on to something, and his vision should be fully used to inspire a new generation of true populist conservatives bent on advancing Canada’s prosperity for the sake of reunifying our country that so desperately needs it.