John George Diefenbaker
Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, Diefenbaker championed human rights, granting the vote to Aboriginal people in federal elections and introducing the Canadian Bill of Rights, forerunner to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He was the first Progressive Conservative prime minister after 22 years of Liberal rule.
Diefenbaker lived at two addresses in Sandy Hill: In 1953, he moved to 300 ½ Wilbrod (Sidmore Appartments) after he married his second wife, Olive Freeman (he had stayed at the Chateau Laurier before that). That was a busy year because he also ran in a new riding (as a result of redistribution) and he campaigned nationally for the Progressive Conservatives in the national election.
In 1955, he moved to the Strathcona Apartments (404 Laurier Ave E.) where he and Olive lived until he became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and leader of the official opposition in the House of Commons in December 1956. Built in 1927 to be Ottawa’s finest address, the Strathcona boasted Ottawa’s first indoor parking and a choice location in Sandy Hill close to Strathcona Park. The building features monumental Doric pillars, large balconies and an elaborate front entrance dominated by a five-storey art glass window. According to an ad of the time, the roof featured “a wonderful garden providing all the delights and attractions of the ‘promenade deck’ on a large ocean liner” (Ottawa Citizen, 20 April, 1927).
Diefenbaker was an introvert and an outsider with few close friends, but he could be warm in private and loved to impersonate colleagues and adversaries and tell anecdotes. In public, he was a brilliant debater and an effective critic of the Liberal government during the 17 years he was in opposition. Throughout his career, he had a national reputation for championing civil rights and the welfare of average Canadians. His colourful speaking style made him a favourite of the press and a popular public speaker.
Diefenbaker was supremely confident and persistent. He ran in five elections over 15 years before winning a seat and it took him three tries to become the leader of his party. One of his biographers, Peter C. Newman wrote that “no Canadian politician before him rose so steadily through a succession of personal humiliations”. (Newman, 1963)
Diefenbaker was a staunch monarchist and unflaggingly loyal to Britain and the Commonwealth. As a politician in opposition, he was aloof and rarely attended meetings of the Conservative caucus. In December 1956, when he finally won the party leadership, he ran as a populist and anti-establishment candidate. He became a controversial leader and often had to endure slings and arrows from his own party caucus. He once asked: “What is the difference between the Conservatives and a porcupine? Well, you see, a porcupine has all its … ah … all its … pricks on the outside.” (Munro, 1982)