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A political misfit with a grand legacy

Seen as weak and vacillating, Lester Pearson gave Canada medicare, pensions, and a flag. A hard man to know, admits former Prime Minister KIM CAMPBELL

By Kim Campbell

Lester B. Pearson

VIDEO from
Campbell on Pearson

Pearson on the UN

Pearson lights Centennial Flame (January 1, 1967)

W-FIVE: Lester Pearson (January 1,1968)

Pearson resigns (April 6, 1968)

Canada AM: Pearson on his peers (1972)

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If you ask Canadians to identify some of the elements that define us as a country, they will cite our medical plan, our two official languages, our international role as peacekeepers and our maple leaf flag that even Americans put on their backpacks when traveling abroad. All these symbols - including the reputation that would make an American want to be taken for a Canadian - can be traced to the leadership of Lester Bowles Pearson, Canada's 14th prime minister.

Long before Pierre Trudeau caught the international imagination (more for his style and marriage than for his policies) Pearson, as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was the world's best-known Canadian. Yet his extraordinary career was not due to any early commitment to politics nor any remarkable political skills.

Born in 1897 into a Southern Ontario Methodist minister's family, he went off to the University of Toronto to study history. War came. His decision to leave his studies and join the Royal Flying Corps in England was a momentous one for two reasons. His squadron leader, deciding that "Lester" was a poor name for a flying ace, named him "Mike," a nickname that stuck for life. And he survived the war because, after crashing on his first solo training flight, the recuperating "Mike" Pearson snuck off to London where he was hit by a bus and was then sent home to Canada.

Pearson returned to England to do graduate studies in modern history at Oxford, and to play hockey. (A keen jock, his knowledge of baseball statistics was legendary.) Returning to Toronto, he became a lecturer, married one of his students, Maryon Moore, and then wrote the foreign service exam for the Canadian government's new department of External Affairs. After earning the top mark, he left academe to become a career diplomat.

He'd found his calling. His affable manner, self-deprecating humour, and his passion to avoid the tragedy of war that had so shocked him in his youth, made him an effective player on the international stage. An early advocate of what would become NATO, he was present at the birth of the United Nations. By the 1940s, Mackenzie King was noting him as a potential prime minister.

In 1948 Pearson won a by-election in Algoma East and was sworn in as the new External Affairs Minister. He happily admitted that his membership in the Liberal Party dated from that same moment.

For the next 10 years, his bow tie, smile and slight lisp formed Canada's face to the world. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, he proposed creating a peacekeeping force to separate Egypt and Israel and to force the British and French to withdraw, a proposal that earned him the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.

After John Diefenbaker's Tories defeated the Liberals in 1957, Pearson replaced Louis St. Laurent as Liberal leader. He got off to a bad start, suggesting in his maiden speech that Diefenbaker, who led a minority government, should resign and let the Liberals govern without an election. A baseball aficionado like Pearson should have recognized what a slow pitch he was sending his rival. Diefenbaker, whose talent for ridicule was unequaled, took his time chewing Pearson up before spitting him out. It was a humiliating moment for the new Liberal leader, and only the start of a long animosity.

In the 1958 election the Diefenbaker Tories swept the land, prompting Maryon Pearson to lament, "We lost everything. We even won our own constituency." Her husband set about rebuilding the Liberal Party and by 1963 was able to eke out a minority government - a victory that emerged after he gambled on committing the Liberals to allow nuclear weapons in Canada.

It was a cynical move: He intended to get rid of them as soon as possible. His cynicism cost him; a potential candidate named Pierre Trudeau defected to work for the NDP. In 1965 Pearson was persuaded to go to the people again in the hopes of winning a majority. The campaign was a disaster and resulted in only two more seats for the Liberals. One was won by Trudeau.

Pearson's colleagues often regarded him as a weak and vacillating leader. It was said that he told people what they wanted to hear, and held the views of the last person who spoke to him. His governments were scandal-ridden. What's astonishing is that in the midst of this political chaos, measures were taken that put their stamp on Canada.

In the 1960s, the Union Jack was still the official flag of Canada (our foreign missions flew the Red Ensign, a naval flag, to distinguish Canada from Britain). In 1964 Pearson told Cabinet he wanted Canada to have a flag of its own; by February 1965, after wrenching national debate, we had one.

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism took the first serious look at the relationship between the two founding languages of Canada. The Canada Pension Plan was negotiated (Quebec opting out to create a comparable arrangement). Universal medical coverage, pioneered by Saskatchewan, was enacted into national law in 1966 - without any opt-out provisions. At the urging of ministers such as Judy LaMarsh, as well as his wife, Pearson created the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. His government pioneered free trade with the Auto Pact.

He was firm (if not necessarily wise) when he told an American university audience that the U.S. should halt the bombing of Vietnam. Nor did he mince words when Charles DeGaulle declared "Vive le Quebec Libre" in Montreal, reminding the French President that Canadians had died liberating France in two world wars. And it was Pearson who decided that Canada's 100th birthday should be celebrated with the exuberance of Expo 67. The personality that Canada showed to the world was optimistic, modern, imaginative and free.

He was 70 when he stepped down as leader. Because the new Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, moved for dissolution on Pearson's last day in the House, it precluded tributes from his colleagues, or a chance to bury hatchets. Writing about that day in his diary, his comment was simply, "Tough."

He was a hard man to know, even for his own children. Yet his influence on Canada has rarely been matched. What enabled a man in many ways so unsuited to politics to accomplish all he did? Perhaps it was the times - or perhaps the values he held so strongly. Whatever the reason, we are all Pearsonians today.

Kim Campbell was Canada's 19th Prime Minister.

• April 9, 1963
Liberals take lead
Liberals 127, PCs 97

• December 28, 1972
Pearson hovers near death as cancer spreads to his liver
Lester Pearson dies in Ottawa


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