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In 1963, the Cold War was in full swing and John Diefenbaker was in the last months of his tenure as Prime Minister. What were Canadians thinking heading into that election 50 years ago?

Thanks to data from Gallup Canada's polling hosted at the ODESI archive, we can find out. Five polls from 1963 by Gallup are hosted at the archive, giving us a look at how Canadians felt about their political leaders as well as the issues of the day.

The biggest issue: threat of nuclear war

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In March 1963, the next election was only weeks away. The Progressive Conservatives under Mr. Diefenbaker were trailing in the polls, despite their leader being more popular than the Liberals' Lester B. Pearson. As has often been the case, a lack of jobs was seen as the main problem facing Canada (for 34 per cent of people) but the fear of nuclear war was also a major issue (the biggest, according to 15 per cent of respondents).

In fact, a split in the PC ranks over whether to host nuclear weapons in Canada was a direct cause of the election in April 1963. Mr. Diefenbaker was against hosting American nuclear missiles, while portions of his party (and Pearson's Liberals) were for it. According to the Gallup poll, 58 per cent of Canadians thought that Canadian Forces should be armed with nuclear weapons.

When it came to leadership, Canadians thought that Mr. Diefenbaker was 'doing a good job' (51 per cent of those who approved of him) and that he was an 'honest man' (13 per cent). Pearson was also considered a good opposition leader and a conscientious and honest man, but roughly a third of those who disapproved of him saw him as a flip-flopper and a harsh, destructive critic.

Gallup got it right

In April, election month, Gallup quizzed Canadians on their views on international issues. Only 32 per cent believed that Great Britain's status as a world power was finished, a low number considering that the British Empire was in its death throes, decolonization in full swing. 58 per cent said that they thought Canada was becoming more dependent on the United States – and were split down the middle on whether that was a good thing or not.

One of the campaign promises of Mr. Pearson's Liberals was to give Canada a new flag. Canadians liked the idea: given the choice, 52 per cent supported designing a new flag. But 30 per cent preferred the British Union Jack, and another 18 per cent wanted to keep the Red Ensign.

In terms of the election itself, Gallup found that 42 per cent intended to vote for the Liberals, 32 per cent for the PCs, 13 per cent for Social Credit, and 12 per cent for the New Democrats. Fully 94 per cent of respondents said they were interested in the campaign, and 96 per cent said they would vote.

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In the end, only 79 per cent of Canadians did vote (the over-enthusiasm of poll respondents to this question has not changed 50 years later). But Gallup did nail the election: Mr. Pearson's Liberals took 42 per cent of the vote, compared to 33 per cent for Mr. Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservatives, 13 per cent for the NDP, and 12 per cent for Social Credit. Pearson formed a minority government and leaned on the NDP for survival.

Smoking, MP salaries, and bilingualism

By June, Gallup had turned its attentions to Canadians' pastimes. One-in-five wanted the government to ban bingo games and a majority was against legalizing off-track betting, but 79 per cent supported provincial governments setting up lotteries. Nine out of ten Canadians agreed that boys and girls in high school should not be allowed to "go steady," while two-thirds agreed that Canadian artists had no chance of developing their talents in Canada. On smoking, virtually all respondents had heard that smoking causes lung cancer – but 30 per cent did not believe it and a majority felt the government had no place running an anti-smoking campaign.

In August 1963, 68 per cent of Canadians disapproved of the plan to increase MP salaries – and 81 per cent disapproved of increasing the salaries of senators. The increase? From $10,000 to $15,000 for senators and $18,000 for MPs. Based on the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator, the equivalent increase would be from $77,000 to $138,000 today (the base salary for MPs is currently $160,200). And the 44 per cent of Canadians who preferred that the country's population not get larger would be disappointed to know that Canada's then-population of about 18 million has ballooned to about 35 million today.

Gallup was also curious about views on bilingualism. In November, The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism had just been established, and 73 per cent of Canadians considered its work fairly or very important. Half of the country thought it would be possible for all provinces to officially recognize 'English and French' cultures. The recommendations of the commission would eventually be taken up by Pearson's successor, Pierre Trudeau, and would lead to Canada becoming an officially bilingual country.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.

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