In 1957 and 1958, Canadian voters swept aside 22 years of Liberal rule for the untested Conservatives under John Diefenbaker, whose campaign brilliance won him first a minority government, and then a historic majority.
"Uncle Louis" Calls Election
Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent did not have to call an election for 10 June 1957. His government had not been toppled by a vote of non-confidence, and there was still more than a year remaining in his term. But after 22 consecutive years of Liberal government, extending back to 1935 and the third return to power of Mackenzie King, St-Laurent was under the illusion that the Liberals would win regardless of when the election was held.
From the Liberal perspective, there were compelling reasons to believe that they would win another majority government. The leader, while old and presumably fighting his last campaign, was nevertheless respected and even loved as "Uncle Louis," the benevolent prime minister of a nation thriving in the aftermath of the Second World War. The economy was booming. The Cabinet St-Laurent had built included some of the strongest ministers and best minds ever assembled in Ottawa — C.D. Howe had his finger in every pie, but was in reality Minister of Trade and Commerce and of Defence Production; Paul Martin Sr. was a highly respected Minister of National Health and Welfare; and Lester Pearson, on the verge of being awarded Canada's first Nobel Peace Prize for his solution to the Suez Crisis, was Secretary of State for External Affairs. There were others, too, and they ran the Liberal Party with a precision that comes only with years in office. There was nothing, surely, that would turn the voters away from the efficient, successful government of the Liberals under Louis St-Laurent.
New PC Leader
The Progressive Conservatives (PCs) saw things differently. The business of government might have been dispatched with managerial efficiency, but it was also conducted with a degree of arrogance that the Conservatives found unbearable. They hoped the electorate would too. Debate over the building of a gas pipeline across Canada had been suspended by the imposition of "closure," a decidedly undemocratic and rarely used parliamentary procedure, which unilaterally cut off House of Commons discussion on the matter. Conservatives across the country campaigned against the sense of entitlement with which the Liberals seemed to govern. They also drew attention to Liberal stinginess: in an era of economic prosperity, the Liberals had agreed only to a $6.00 increase to the existing Old Age Pension, prompting calls of "Six Buck Harris" in the direction of Finance Minister Walter Harris. From the Conservative perspective, these were issues that could be turned into campaign fodder in the spring of 1957. Whether or not they could be turned into gains in the House of Commons was another matter.
The new PC leader, John Diefenbaker, was the real unknown in the equation. Selected at a leadership convention the year before, Diefenbaker was by no means a unanimous choice. Frequently on the losing end of campaigns and leadership contests in the past, his win came as a surprise, and was secured with virtually no support from Québec Conservatives. Because Québec was one of the provinces where the party most needed to make gains if they wanted a chance at winning the election, Diefenbaker's selection was considered risky by many.
What no one had really taken into account was Diefenbaker's powerful presence on the campaign trail. A tireless orator, he brought vitality to the election, something that was missing on the Liberal side. On the advice of his aide Merrill Menzies, Diefenbaker began to talk of a new national policy, one based on a program of developing Canada's North. Without much in the way of a formal platform, what Diefenbaker said on the hustings became the Conservative policy.
Diefenbaker was a self-proclaimed underdog. The party campaigned under the slogan "It's time for a Diefenbaker government," emphasizing the need for change after so many years of Liberal rule. But in 1957, more was needed to slay the Liberal goliath than that, and a more powerful weapon came in the shape of Ontario's Big Blue Machine. A Conservative stronghold since 1943, Ontario premiers George Drew — coincidentally Diefenbaker's unsuccessful predecessor as the leader of the national PCs — and Leslie Frost had built a powerful political organization in the province.
After working with the Liberals in Ottawa for the better part of a decade, Frost had finally tired of the federal government's position on tax-sharing and, hoping for better fiscal results from the Conservatives, agreed that it was, indeed, "time for a Diefenbaker government." Frost threw his considerable political weight into Diefenbaker's campaign, and lent him the use of his own party machinery.
No one predicted the results of the 1957 election, which saw 112 Conservatives elected, despite making little headway in Québec, but thanks in large part to the support of Ontario. That left 105 Liberals, 25 members of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party (CCF), 19 Social Credit members and 4 Independents. The result was Canada's first post-war minority government. It was the least anticipated result of any previous Canadian federal election. The Conservatives were thrilled at the chance to govern. But the Liberals – facing defeat not only as a party in the election, but also individually in the ridings of many of the powerful ministers – were in a state of shock. That response was to have important implications for the next election.
The Liberals – stripped of power and access to the civil servants who had helped them design policy, and having lost the Cabinet ministers who in the past had kept them in touch with the mood of the country (though obviously not in 1957) – tried to regroup. St-Laurent retired, and was replaced as leader by Lester Pearson, a boy wonder in the diplomatic field but one as yet unprepared for the prime minister's chair. New policy advisers were quickly pulled together, but there was not nearly enough time for a complete rethinking of Liberal Party policy. Rashly, Pearson took the first parliamentary opportunity available to him to demand Diefenbaker's resignation, giving Diefenbaker just the excuse he needed to call a snap election.
Once again, Diefenbaker shone brightly on the campaign trail. He had perfected his new national policy rhetoric, offering up a vision of "One Canada" for everyone, and a northern development policy built on "roads to resources." There were flaws in the scheme, and little of the policy would ever be fully realized, but it caught the imagination of the electorate in ways that Pearson's platform never did. The Liberals ran a disorganized campaign, offering increases to old social policies and the addition of new ones such as health insurance, but the public was more inclined to give the Conservatives — who had already increased pensions and mother's allowances — a real chance to govern. The Conservatives won 208 seats in the election of 31 March 1958, the largest majority ever. It would be surpassed only by Brian Mulroney's staggering victory in 1984.