How arrogance cost the Liberals the 1957 election

The Liberals were confident they would emerge victorious in the 1957 federal contest. But, thanks to Louis St. Laurent’s stumbles and John Diefenbaker’s vision, they were headed for an election upset
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Oct 07, 2019
a politician on a podium
Louis St. Laurent onstage at the Liberal rally at Maple Leaf Gardens, June 7, 1957. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4211)

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Headed into the 1957 federal election, the Liberals were confident of victory. After 22 years in power, they believed they were the natural governing party. So what if such powerful cabinet members as “minister of everything” C.D. Howe made no apologies for overstepping their authority? So what if, as in the case of the Pipeline Debate (a month-long battle in 1956 over the approval of a new cross-country gas pipeline), they tried to silence the opposition through the use of closure? Canadians would support grandfatherly “Uncle Louis” St. Laurent and his cabinet veterans because nobody else could run the country.

But the public had other ideas.

St. Laurent had been expected to face off against Progressive Conservative leader George Drew for the third time. But when Drew was stricken with a viral infection in the summer of 1956, doctors gave him a choice between retiring and dying within six months. He went with the former. At a leadership convention held that December, Prince Albert MP John Diefenbaker was chosen as his successor.

Diefenbaker wanted to change the party’s dated image. The traditional ties binding voters to parties had weakened as the country had become more urban, economically prosperous, and ethnically diverse. He believed that the PCs’ promotion of English-French divisions, opposition to low taxation (which irritated Western farmers, who enjoyed subsidies), hostility to the welfare state, and distrust of foreign-sounding names, such as his, had kept it in opposition. While debating the federal budget in March 1957, he criticized the government for not spending enough on public programs, especially old-age pensions.

The 1957 race marked the first time the PCs had organized a national campaign committee: its leaders included admen Alistair Grosart and Dalton Camp, economist Merril Menzies, and Winnipeg-area MP Gordon Churchill. To attract disgruntled Liberals, new voters, and undecideds, campaign materials downplayed the PC brand, declaring, “It’s time for a Diefenbaker government.” During previous elections, too much effort had been wasted chasing votes in Quebec, so resources were distributed more evenly. As the business community expected another Liberal victory, party funds were low when the campaign began. Hours before the party’s first major rally at Toronto’s Massey Hall, on April 25, Broadview MP George Hees used his contacts at the Royal Bank to secure enough money to hand each of Ontario’s 85 Tory candidates a packet containing $1,000 to fund their campaigns.

At the rally, Diefenbaker introduced the New Frontier Policy, which focused on developing the North’s resources and communities. He told the audience that his aim was to encourage Canadians to have stronger faith in one another, the future, and the destiny of the country. As Denis Smith observed in his book Rogue Tory, “The audience responded to his extraordinary gleaming eyes, his undulating voice and shaking jowls, his dashes of self-mockery and sarcasm, his assertion of that enticing northern vision.”

He was joined on stage by Ontario premier Leslie Frost. While the latter had stayed away from previous federal campaigns, he believed that Diefenbaker could help his party secure a stronger federal-provincial tax-sharing agreement — and he promised Diefenbaker the full support of the Ontario PCs. Later in the campaign, St. Laurent attempted to portray the alliance as a conspiracy to enrich Ontario at the expense of other provinces; Frost dismissed the claim as an attempt to play divide-and-rule politics.

The Massey Hall speech served as the model for the rest of Diefenbaker’s campaign addresses, in which he outlined a positive vision of Canada’s future almost in the manner of an evangelist. He stressed his links with local communities and showed interest in their needs. He called for “One Canada — with equality of opportunity for every citizen and equality for every province from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Ads depicted his humility, intelligence, intensity, and passion; by contrast, Liberal promotional materials either highlighted policy or gave candidates plenty of space to display their inflated sense of self-importance.

As the campaign went on, Diefenbaker grew more relaxed, and St. Laurent more irritable. He thought little of television as a campaigning tool, preferring to use hand-held notes instead of teleprompters and eschewing makeup. On air, he looked older than his 75 years and projected a lack of self-confidence. His public speeches were disjointed, mixing anecdotes with dull selections from old policy documents.

His behaviour increasingly undermined his grandfatherly image: at one campaign stop, he snapped at children who had become bored by his speech on Canadian history. He also suggested that unhappy voters could look elsewhere but that he didn’t know “where you will find anyone who can do any better.” In Jarvis, a community in Haldimand County, he confused reporters he’d travelled with for local voters. Party supporters, though, remained confident of the election outcome: it was rumoured that C.D. Howe suggested the Liberals would win “even if we have to run him stuffed.”

St. Laurent’s attempts at negative campaigning often backfired. After he mocked the Conservatives for playing up Diefenbaker instead of the party, Tory officials sent the speech to every candidate to demonstrate that they were now the “Diefenbaker party.” When, during a June 7 rally at Maple Leaf Gardens, St. Laurent accused the PCs of having behaved selfishly during the Pipeline Debate, 15-year-old Tory supporter William Hatton climbed up to the platform and tore up a St. Laurent placard in front of him. A local Liberal official sitting onstage lunged at Hatton, who lost his balance and hit his head on the concrete floor. Hatton did not suffer any major injuries, and no charges were laid. St. Laurent carried on with his speech, saying, “This is not the way Toronto audiences usually act.”

When the votes came in, on June 10, the PCs won 112 seats — and minority-government status — and the Liberals, 105. The Grits were in shock. Late polling had indicated that they’d held on to their lead. Maclean’s had gone to press two days before the vote with an editorial predicting that the newly re-elected St. Laurent government “could be easily forgiven for accepting this as a mandate to resume the kindly tyranny it has exercised over parliament and the people for more than 20 years” (it ran an apology in the following issue). St. Laurent looked stunned as the results came in. Diefenbaker delivered an appreciative address to the nation from the CBC studio in Regina. “Our task is not finished,” he said. “In many respects, it has just begun.”

Ontario elected 61 Tories, 21 Liberals, and three CCF members. The PCs improved their vote in all but three ridings (Cochrane, Lambton West, and Port Arthur). When Diefenbaker formed his first cabinet, his Ontario picks included Canada’s first female minister (Hamilton’s Ellen Fairclough) and first Ukranian-Canadian minister (Oshawa’s Michael Starr).

The most spectacular defeat in Ontario saw C.D. Howe lose in Port Arthur, a riding that stretched from modern-day Thunder Bay to Hudson Bay. First elected in 1935, Howe had been one of the government’s most powerful ministers, directing resources during the Second World War and industrial growth in the postwar period. Considered one of the more arrogant cabinet members, he had alienated many through his efforts to shut down the opposition via closure during the Pipeline Debate.

Over the course of the campaign, Howe had regularly insulted voters who disagreed with him. In rural Manitoba, he told an angry farmer that he looked as if he’d “been eating pretty well under a Liberal government.” Later that day, in another town, he yelled at a heckler — who turned out to be the head of the local Liberal association. When Howe was blocked from leaving the meeting hall, he hissed at the man, “When the election comes, why don’t you just go away and vote for the party you support? In fact, why don’t you just go away?”

His main competitor had been CCF candidate Douglas Fisher. The high-school teacher’s strategies included buying television time to discuss issues and talk to local voters, and visiting bush camps in remote areas of the riding. Near the end of the campaign, Howe accused Fisher of being influenced by Communists and charged that union bosses were intimidating members to vote CCF.

After the results came in, though, Howe was gracious in defeat when he joined Fisher at the local TV studio. “At that moment,” Fisher wrote in the Canadian Forum, “Mr. Howe felt that television, a medium he detests, had beaten him. One sensed a gratefulness that it was all over.” Fisher remained an MP through 1965, by which point he had already embarked on what would prove to be a 45-year career as a political columnist for the Telegram and the Toronto Sun.

St. Laurent quietly served as Opposition leader until he was replaced by Lester Pearson in January 1958. Blaming the Tories for the country’s economic woes, Pearson immediately demanded that they resign and allow the Liberals to form government. Diefenbaker tore into Pearson, noting that a report prepared by the Liberals before the 1957 budget had predicted a downturn. Sensing an excellent opportunity to show that defeat had not erased Liberal arrogance, the PCs called an election. When the country voted on March 31, 1958, they gave them 208 seats — then the largest majority in Canadian history.

Sources: Pendulum of Power by J. Murray Beck (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1968); Fights of Our Lives by John Duffy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002); Old Man Ontario: Leslie M. Frost by Roger Graham (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990); Rogue Tory by Denis Smith (Toronto: Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1995); Diefenbaker: Leadership Gained 1956-62 by Peter Stursberg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975); the September 1957 edition of the Canadian Forum; June 8, 1957, edition of the Globe and Mail; and the June 22, 1957, edition of Maclean’s.

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