By MICHAEL BLISS
Lester “Mike” Pearson (1897-1972) was Canada’s greatest diplomat and the only Canadian ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Because of these achievements he won the leadership of the Liberal Party and served as prime minister from 1963 to 1968. His government had very important achievements to its credit, but was often in difficulty. Many Canadians loved and admired Prime Minister Pearson. Others thought his best work had been done before he became prime minister.
Pearson was the son of a clergyman in the Methodist Church of Canada. He served in World War I, taught history briefly at the University of Toronto before joining Canada’s tiny Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs). He advanced rapidly as a diplomat, serving as Canada’s chief representative to both Great Britain and the United States.
Pearson went into active politics in 1948 as minister of external affairs and served during some of the most difficult years of the early Cold War. In 1956 when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt in a dispute over the Suez Canal, Pearson played an important role at the United Nations, helping to arrange a temporary settlement. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for this effort, which involved one of the earliest uses of large neutral peacekeeping forces, including Canadian troops.
Canadians were deeply impressed by Pearson’s record of achievement as well as his pleasant personality. He easily won the contest to succeed Louis St. Laurent as leader of the Liberal party in 1958. It was more difficult for him to displace the very popular Conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. Pearson had to rebuild the Liberal Party and adopt new policies aimed at younger, urban Canadians. He also agreed to keep a controversial commitment (which Diefenbaker opposed) to install nuclear weapons in Canada, a decision important in helping the Liberals win the 1963 election.
Pearson’s minority governments are best known for introducing important social programs, most notably the Canada Pension Plan and Canada’s system of universal health insurance or medicare. The 1960s were prosperous years in Canada, symbolized by the happy celebration of the country’s 100th birthday in 1967. A great World’s Fair in Montreal, Expo ’67, was a huge success. Pearson had fought a very hard struggle in Parliament to have the first distinctively Canadian flag, the red maple leaf on a white background, created in time for Canada’s 100th birthday.
Pearson was less successful in world affairs, where middle-sized countries like Canada were increasingly ignored by the super-powers at the height of the Cold War. When Pearson spoke out publicly against the American war in Vietnam, he greatly annoyed U.S. president Lyndon Johnson. The Pearson government unified Canada’s army, navy and air force into the Canadian Forces and tried to promote peacekeeping as a special Canadian mission. It increased foreign aid and began the process of making immigration to Canada more accessible to non-Europeans.
The issue of national unity became a difficult problem for Pearson as French-Canadian nationalism in Quebec increased and began to express itself in a desire for a separate country. Faced with terrorist bombings in Quebec as well as interference in Canadian affairs by the president of France, Charles De Gaulle, Pearson tried to find a middle course that involved a greater Canadian emphasis on bilingualism and biculturalism. He tried to strengthen his government by attracting prominent French Canadians to Ottawa The most important of these, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, became his successor in 1968 and carried on the fight against separatism.
The Pearson government could not win a majority in the House of Commons, and was often under attack from former Prime Minister Diefenbaker, especially during the flag debate. Several minor scandals received much media attention. Even some Liberals thought that Pearson was somewhat weak and disorganized as a leader.
Many Canadians thought his very best work had been done years before, at a time when it appeared that Canada could be one of the more important countries on the world stage. Whether or not he was an excellent prime minister, Mike Pearson was known around the world as a spokesman for Canada and its values. His Nobel Prize was surely impressive – even though it did not lead to lasting peace in the Middle East. In the 1960s and for years afterwards, Canadians of all ages took pride in being able to display the red maple leaf as the emblem of a country that was bidding farewell to its colonial heritage.
Further Reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, by Michael Bliss; Shadow of Heaven: The Life of Lester Pearson, Volume One and The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson, Volume Two, by John English.
Next Instalment: Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Canada’s Fighting Prime Minister
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