Flashback Friday – Lester B. Pearson

When I was writing Monday’s post on Stephen Harper’s five years in office, it was interesting to me to read that Harper would become the longest serving minority prime minister in Canadian history. I quickly set out to prove the writer of that fact wrong, as I knew that Lester Pearson was another prime minister who was never fortunate enough to win a majority government. But sure enough, Harper has been prime minister for five years (as of February 6) while Pearson was prime minister for two days short of five years. Therefore, Harper has beat the nobel peace prize winning leader for the title of longest serving minority prime minister. Regardless, Pearson has many more accomplishments to be proud of, and thus he is the focus of today’s Flashback Friday.

Pearson remains one of the most well respected prime ministers in Canadian history. While he was only leader for five years, he was a prominent MP for many years, and was a successful diplomat before that. Lester Bowles Pearson, or Mike as he was often known, was born in what is modern day Toronto. His parents were Irish immigrants. Pearson attended Victoria College at the University of Toronto. While studying, he volunteered with the University of Toronto hospital. That volunteering took him overseas, where he was involved with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. A few years later he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He was successful here, but injuries ultimately sent him home early. He finished his education, and when all was said and done, he had a B.A. and an M.A. in history.

He then began what would be an eventful and successful life, which would lead him all the way to Canada’s top job. He briefly took a position teaching history at the University of Toronto. He then joined the Department of External Affairs, which sent him to London. He worked in the office of the High Commissioner for Canada. After that he came home, worked in Ottawa and was then sent to Washington to work in the Canadian Embassy. In 1945 he became the Canadian Ambassador to the United States. Pearson was very much involved in the creation of the United Nations and nearly became its first secretary-general.

During this time, Pearson had capably worked in each of his positions, earning him glowing reviews and much respect. Prime Minister Mackenzie King had courted Pearson on many occasions, but Pearson was not personally fond of King. But when King retired and Louis St. Laurent took over, Pearson happily accepted the portfolio of Minister of External Affairs after securing a seat in the House of Commons. While in the St. Laurent cabinet, he became the UN General Assembly President in 1952. This was the period when the Suez Canal Crisis was going on. It was Pearson’s leadership during this crisis that kept the tension from escalating. Canadian troops ultimately oversaw the withdrawl of the combatants. It was this effort that won Pearson a nobel peace prize in 1957.

That very same year, Louis St. Laurent was defeated by John Diefenbaker and the PC’s. St. Laurent retired, and Pearson went on to beat Paul Martin Sr. for the Liberal leadership. Pearson got off to a very rocky start as leader. Within a year, the PC’s had won the largest majority in Canadian history, and Pearson appeared to be a dud leader. But Pearson hung in there, and eventually the electorate became unhappy with Dief, and turfed him in favour of Pearson in 1963. The Liberals were handed a small minority, perhaps a trial government. The electorate had done the same for Diefenbaker in 1957, then rewarded him with a majority shortly after. Pearson fully expected the same thing to happen, but in 1965 he was handed a barely improved seat total, and still just a minority.

While Pearson was a nice guy and a common sense leader, he struggled with scandals, messy budgets and issues of independence. Canada was nearing its centennial, and many were struggling with how independent Canada should be. During this period, Pearson also undertook the enormous task of finding a new flag. Our beloved maple leaf was introduced during the Pearson government. He also implemented universal healthcare, examined bilingualism, and multiculturalism and pursued a quiet, but competent foreign policy. After five years of leadership, and numerous successes and failures, Pearson called it quits and retired in 1968. He was succeeded by Pierre Trudeau, who extended the Liberal dynasty.

Pearson's personal choice for the new flag

Pearson’s approach to governing was very accommodating. The unfortunate reality of this, was that it often made him appear weak and ineffective, since he always tried to include so many viewpoints. But somehow he managed to accomplish a lot in his five years. A whole lot more than Stephen Harper has, and he too only had minority governments. So what did Pearson do right and what is Harper doing wrong? I don’t know. Perhaps the political climate is different from the 1960’s, but Pearson is remembered very well, whereas Harper is going to be barely remembered.



About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on January 28, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Today I was reflecting on how poor our foreign policy has been as of late, but then I remembered Pearson and that brought a smile to my face.

    This is a great tribute to a great statesman. Most welcome.

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