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The departure from cabinet came with a stark, unequivocal statement: “I resigned as a matter of principle. The point was finally reached when I considered that my honour and integrity required that I take that step.” So spoke Conservative defence minister Douglas Harkness in the House of Commons on Feb. 3, 1963 when he announced his decision to resign from the cabinet of John Diefenbaker. In the words of a memo in the Diefenbaker Canada Centre, Harkness left no doubt that the “people of the nation, Party, Cabinet and he had lost confidence in the Prime Minister.”

The split happened after Diefenbaker reneged on a commitment to the United States that Bomarc missiles in Canada would be equipped with nuclear war heads. At the time, there were strenuous protests during anti-nuclear marches around the country. Diefenbaker made the commitment after he faced vigorous opposition to the cancellation of  the Avro Arrow, the supersonic jet interceptor amid swirling controversy. The disclosure that the Russians were building missile basis in Cuba added intensity to the debate about the Bomarcs — especially after Lester Pearson switched policies and embraced nuclear warheads. Harkness’ associate minister Pierre Sevigny and George Hess joined him in resigning over the issue. In September, the Pearson Liberals defeated Diefenbaker and his embattled government in a federal election.

Cabinet defections on principle do have consequences — but they are few and far between in Canadian history. A sample:

>1905 Clifford Sifton, the towering minister of the interior in Laurier’s cabinet — and voice of the West — resigned because he opposed public funding of Catholic schools in newly-created Alberta and Saskatchewan.

>1976 Jean Marchand quits the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau over the government’s refusal to let airline pilots speak French in the air (the so-called gens de l’air crisis).

John Diefenbaker lost three cabinet ministers

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Robert Lewis

Twelve years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, former Editor-in-Chief at Maclean's, author "Power, Prime Ministers and the Press" (2018, Dundurn; available as audiobook).


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