By 1948, Canada was 81 years old and in all that time, it had only one francophone prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. That would finally change upon the retirement of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who chose Louis St. Laurent to succeed him in the top post in the country.
Today, I am looking at Louis St. Laurent, a man often forgotten amid prime ministers of the last half of the 20th century, but who had an immense impact on Canada, its infrastructure, and its institutions.
The St. Laurent family dates to the early days of New France, with Nicolas Saint Laurent arriving in 1660, settling around Quebec City and eventually moving west along the St. Lawrence River. Nicolas would serve as a sheriff in Quebec, but most of his descendants were farmers who did not attend school. It was not until Jean Baptiste St. Laurent, over 150 years after Nicolas, that the first member of the St. Laurent family attended school. Jean would marry a woman named Mary Anne and the couple’s first child would go on to become the leader of the country.
Laurent was born on Feb. 1, 1882 in Compton, Quebec. While his father was a French-Canadian, his mother was Irish Canadian, giving the family a unique balance that would influence St. Laurent heavily in his life. Growing up bilingual, his gestures tended to be French, while his English had a slight Irish accent. He would speak French to his father, and English to his mother, a practice he thought was common in families and something that would influence in him in his desire for national unity as prime minister.
Growing up, his father was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party, even when the riding he lived in was dominated by the Conservatives. Jean-Baptiste would run in a provincial by-election in 1894 to no success. In 1896, when the Liberals and Laurier came to power, St. Laurent would relay the election returns from the telephone in his father’s store to many waiting in to hear the results. Despite having a passion for politics, he inherited from his father, St. Laurent was never drawn to the profession, preferring to focus on his law career. During the campaign tour of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, St. Laurent would meet him and shake hands with him, something he would relate later in life.
St. Laurent would earn a B.A. in 1902 from the Saint Charles Borromee Seminary, and then attended Laval University where he earned his law degree. While offered a Rhodes Scholarship after graduating from Laval in 1905, he declined it. While his parents hoped that he would become a priest, St. Laurent was drawn to the law. In the process of earning his degree, he finished at the top of his class, and won the Governor General’s Medal.
In 1908, he married Jeanne Renault, and together they would have two sons and three daughters.
From 1905 to 1941, St. Laurent worked as a lawyer and then became a law professor at Laval University in 1914. By this point, he was making $10,000, allowing for a comfortable life for himself and his family. By 1917, the family had grown to five children and they lived in a 15-room house in Quebec City, complete with an automobile and servants.
Throughout the 1920 and 1930s, he worked as a corporation lawyer, and was the head of the Quebec Bar, and the president of the Canadian Bar Association from 1930 to 1932. During this time, he was one of the country’s most respected counsel. An example of the respect he commanded came in 1926 when Prime Minister Arthur Meighen offered him a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada, which he declined, and a post in the cabinet, which he also declined.
A contemporary in law, Warwick Chipman, would say that St. Laurent was, quote:
“solid, sound, pleasing to his courts and established an intimacy with them. He had a human touch despite his technical detail and toughness.”
One reason for his success was the fact that he was bilingual, which allowed St. Laurent to represent French clients in Ottawa, the United States and Britain.
St. Laurent would often speak in English Canada, but rarely took part in politics beyond appearing on a platform in support of Charles Power in 1926. During the First World War, St. Laurent was part of a movement to reconcile the diverging views of French and English Canadians, and he would often speak on national unity.
By the mid-1930s, St. Laurent began to expand his horizons by helping the Liberals as a counsel on federal matters. In 1936, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King submitted legislation regarding minimum wage and hours of labour to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. At the time, it was felt that such matters were a provincial responsibility, while the federal government wanted control over it. St. Laurent was hired as a government counsel in the matter. In 1937, King appointed St. Laurent as a royal commission counsel on dominion-provincial relations. This would have a huge impact on St. Laurent, who was not acquainted with Western Canada. Magazine stories at the time stated that western wheat farmers took winter vacations in California, and that they had unlimited revenue. What St. Laurent found out was that the west was dealing with misery amid the Great Depression, and the provincial governments had no means to support their people. The entire matter increased the desire of St. Laurent for national unity. He would speak to a French-speaking audience in Winnipeg in 1938, stating, quote:
“It seems likely that our constitution will have to be amended if Confederation is to survive.”
The commission would recommend constitutional adjustments in 1940, giving the federal government more power in the field of social security.
Prime Minister King had called St. Laurent on Dec. 4, 1941 and asked him to be in Ottawa the next day. Over lunch, King asked him to take over as the Minister of Justice and the MP for Quebec East. At the time, King knew that St. Laurent was making $50,000 a year, or $850,000 today, so he appealed to his sense of duty to the country.
At the time, St. Laurent was 59 and had no political experience. At the time, despite some work with the government, St. Laurent barely knew King and King only knew St. Laurent as, quote:
“a distant and rather chilly lawyer.”
Despite this, he felt a duty to serve and took the post. Ernest Lapointe, a top advisor from Quebec for King had died in November of that year, and with the conscription issue coming up, King wanted someone highly respected and strong enough to deal with it in Quebec. King did not want the same Conscription Crisis that was seen in 1917, and the divisions it created in Parliament and Canada. On Dec. 10, St. Laurent was sworn in as the Minister of Justice.
While Laurent agreed, he did so on the condition that after the war, he would return to his law practice. Little did he know, he would spend the next decade and a half in politics.
On Feb. 9, 1942, he was elected in Quebec East, taking 56.7 per cent of the vote, winning the riding that had once been occupied by Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Unlike many Liberal ministers from Quebec, he did not oppose conscription during the Second World War, and he supported King in 1944 when it was imposed for overseas service. This increased his profile for King, and it would have long lasting consequences for the political career of St. Laurent. St. Laurent also helped King due to the respect he commanded in Quebec, which prevented several Quebec Liberal MPs from leaving the party. When King went to London in the spring of 1944, St. Laurent was made the acting minister of external affairs until King’s return. In May of 1945, he participated with King in the founding conference of the United Nations and took part in the conference that led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund.
In the 1945 election, which the Liberals won with a smaller majority than before, many were surprised that St. Laurent ran given his original statement that he would not be in politics after the war. Nonetheless, he ran and picked up 59.8 per cent of the vote in his riding, and 17,000 more votes than his second-place opponent.
With the Liberals losing 59 seats to finish with 118 seats, and the Progress Conservatives gaining 27 seats, King knew that his time in power was coming to an end. In addition, he was 70 and he was soon looking for a successor.
King began to give Laurent more important assignments as well, including representing Canada at international conferences and at the United Nations, while also promoting Canadian membership in the new NATO. By this point, King considered St. Laurent his most trusted minister.
As a representative for Canada at the founding of the United Nations, he felt that the UN would be ineffective in times of war, and that it would need to impose its will. As a result, he advocated for the adoption of a UN military force. He wanted a force that would deal with violent situations, but also preserve peace and prevent combat. A decade later, this idea would be put into reality by St. Laurent and his Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, in preventing the Suez Crisis from escalating into nuclear war.
In 1946, King returned from a trip to Europe exhausted and he was met by St. Laurent in Montreal, who was serving as acting prime minister. King raised the question of succession and asked St. Laurent to accept the possibility. St. Laurent was unsure if he wanted to be prime minister as he had drained his savings serving as a minister and his law practice was suffering. His sons were running the practice, but they lacked the legal skill of their father. After some time to think, St. Laurent would accept the proposition. He was then made the Secretary of State for External Affairs in 1946.
Canada’s diplomatic staff quickly found St. Laurent to be the opposite of King in the role of external affairs. While King was fussy at times, St. Laurent was courteous and easy to brief, and relied on his staff to bring him clear recommendations he could consider on the spot. He also attended his office on a regular basis.
Escott Meredith Reid, a senior diplomat in the department, would state, quote:
At the Liberal convention on Aug. 7, 1948, the first held since 1919, St. Laurent was nominated for leader along with three others, including Paul Martin Sr, father of future prime minister Paul Martin. The convention would ratify the decision on Nov. 15, 1948, making St. Laurent the 12th Prime Minister in Canadian history. He was also the first married prime minister since Arthur Meighen in 1926, since both R.B. Bennett and William Lyon Mackenzie King never married. He was also the second French-Canadian prime minister after Sir Wilfrid Laurier, four decades previous.
A reception was held in his honour to celebrate his election as the new leader of the party, but he would forget about it and instead took his wife out for dinner.
St. Laurent quickly set himself apart by not having the RCMP guarding him, or anyone waiting on him in the House of Commons. On the night he was sworn in as prime minister, he left the East Block at 7:30 p.m. and he asked the elevator operator why he stayed so late. The elevator operator said that he had orders to stay until the prime minister left. St. Laurent stated quote:
“After this go home at the same time as the others. I can walk downstairs.”
With the RCMP, Laurent noticed a man trailing him and he called Commissioner S.T. Wood asking why his orders had been disobeyed. The RCMP said they had no one following him, but when St. Laurent stated that someone was following him, the RCMP discovered it was an American reporter looking to get material for an article.
In his new role, St. Laurent differed from King in that he gave each minister their own individual responsibility and he did not intrude unless a subject required a higher political direction. He also hated foreign travel and typically assigned travel outside the country to Paul Martin Sr. or Lester B. Pearson.
As 1949 dawned for St. Laurent, he would get down to work on several tasks, while also preparing for his first election and the first election for the Liberals without William Lyon Mackenzie King at the helm of the party. Prior to the election, he would help negotiate the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation on March 31, 1949, the last change to the Canadian political map until 1999, and the first new province since 1905, which came during the time of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
With that out of the way, he got down to work on becoming an elected prime minister. When we look at Canadian history, prime ministers who succeeded a long-standing prime minister tend to have short careers. It was seen when Sir John Abbott succeeded Sir John A. Macdonald, when Arthur Meighen succeeded Sir Robert Borden, and it would be seen with John Turner succeeding Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Kim Campbell succeeded Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin succeeding Jean Chretien. St. Laurent stands out in this regard because not only did he win the election, but he also won it big.
The election, held on June 27, 1949, was the first with Newfoundland in Confederation and the first since 1908 with the Northwest Territories gaining representation. In that election, St. Laurent would win 191 seats in the house, an increase of 73 seats from the 1945 election. At the time, it was the largest majority in Canadian history, and today remains the third largest majority. It is also the largest majority in the history of the Liberal Party. The Progressive Conservatives would lose 24 seats, finishing with only 41.
Prior to that election, many worried if St. Laurent would appeal to post-war Canada but through the first use of a “media image” in Canadian politics, St. Laurent was shown talking with children, giving speeches in shirt sleeves, and having a common touch to appeal to voters. One example of this was seen in an election stop when he got off the train and went to talk to children on the platform instead of reporters. This gained him the name Uncle Louis, which greatly increased the view of his common touch and broad appeal.
With such a large majority, St. Laurent would be able to make huge changes to the Canadian landscape, and he would.
As prime minister, St. Laurent commanded respect from those around him, and he demanded his MPs and ministers work as hard as he did. He also made a point of knowing the portfolios of his ministers, often showing a greater knowledge of those portfolios than the ministers assigned to them. He would often read every cabinet paper and consulted with the clerk of the Privy Council and cabinet secretary before any cabinet meeting. Within these meetings, all were given equal consideration for their ideas and thoughts. While he was easy to talk to, the general rule was to always refer to him as Mr. St. Laurent or Mr. Prime Minister, but never Louis.
For the Canadian public, St. Laurent was a breath of fresh air and many applauded his kindness for children. In 1954, while standing at a railway station in Ottawa with Prime Minister Yoshida of Japan, a young girl named Jill Winnett began crying because her grandmother was going to England for the winter. St. Laurent walked away from the Japanese prime minister and comforted Jill. Events like this pushed the view of Uncle Louis, the benevolent patriarch who loved children.
Of course, it was not always like that with St. Laurent. At one campaign stop, he yelled at Maritime fishermen that he had no intention of using taxpayer money to buy their surplus fish, and in another campaign occasion, told Saskatchewan farmers he would not provide federal funds for their irrigation projects unless they could convince him it was of national importance and that they had not convinced him of that.
Throughout his first term, St. Laurent stressed national unity, stating that without unity, Canada would be powerless in the world. He would say on Aug. 6, 1948, quote:
“Our nation was planned as a political partnership of two great races. It was planned by men of vision, of tolerance, as a partnership in which both of the partners would retain their essential characteristics, their religion, their culture.”
In 1949, he was a leading proponent for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Overall, St. Laurent took a harder line to Communism than King, disliking it to a much greater degree than his predecessor. He chose not to outlaw the Communist Party of Canada in 1949 as he saw it as too drastic of a measure.
One of the biggest projects for St. Laurent during his first term in office was the Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1949, which saw construction on the Trans-Canada Highway begin in 1950 and continue until 1962, creating the longest uninterrupted highway in the world upon its total completion in 1971.
One of the biggest challenges for St. Laurent during his term was the Korean War, which Canada entered in June of 1950 as part of the United Nations force. Canada would send 30,000 troops to Korea, along with warships and other forces. During the war, 500 Canadians would die, while 1,200 would be wounded. Overall, Canada submitted the third most troops to the war, all on a voluntary basis without the use of conscription.
The issue of Communism was an important one for St. Laurent and with the early stages of the Cold War beginning in the 1950s, St. Laurent would, in addition to sending a force to Korea, push for a permanent garrison in Europe and $5 billion for a rearmament program. The Department of Defence Production was created in 1951 to implement this new defense program. As a result of this, the size of Canada’s military increased significantly. By the time St. Laurent left office, Canada’s defence expenditures increased by 500 per cent, with the Armed Forces increasing from 38,000 people to 120,000.
As prime minister, St. Laurent also got along well with Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. He would say to an American audience in a speech, quote:
“There is only one nation with the wealth and the energy and the knowledge and the skill to give real leadership and that nation is the United States.”
On one occasion, an American tourist said they liked Canada and would appreciate shaking the hand of Prime Minister St. Laurent. Not only did St. Laurent meet them, but he spent 15 minutes talking to them.
St. Laurent did not just extend that courtesy to tourists. A young Toronto man just out of University said that he intended to spend his life in Canada and wanted to meet the man who ran the country. St. Laurent met with him, spending 45 minutes talking about Canada and the promise of its future.
Relations with Britain remained close and Britain no longer tried to put its imperial mandate over the policies of Canada. St. Laurent was also in favour of Canadian traditionalism when it came to the monarchy. He hosted Princess Elizabeth in the fall of 1951, and he led the Canadian delegation to her coronation as Queen Elizabeth in 1953.
St. Laurent was highly focused on Canadian nationalism, but he also saw the benefit of Canada being part of a commonwealth. To that end, he would draft the London Declaration, which would recognize King George VI, and later Queen Elizabeth II, as the Head of the Commonwealth. This was done to transform the British Commonwealth from a group of white dominions into a multi-racial partnership. With the declaration, India would be able to be part of the organization once it became a republic.
Within Canada, St. Laurent would see a huge expansion of the social programs of the country, including family allowances, old age pensions, the funding of post-secondary education and the creation of Hospital Insurance, which would lay the groundwork for Tommy Douglas to create a universal health care system in Saskatchewan, followed by universal healthcare nationwide by the 1960s.
Through the modernization of social policies, the St. Laurent government would expand old age pensions for all Canadians over the age of 70, while introducing old-age assistance for needy Canadians over the age of 65. Allowances for the blind and the disabled were also introduced, as were changes to the National Housing Act that allowed for the construction of hostels and housing for students, the elderly, disabled and families of low income means.
In 1951, St. Laurent moved into 24 Sussex Drive, becoming the first prime minister to live in the present official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada. Prior to this, he would walk to work but was now too far and had to drive. His morning habits stayed the same. He would wake every morning at 7:30 a.m., read the Montreal Gazette, have orange juice, cereal, bacon, one egg with toast and jam and coffee. He would then be in his office by 9 a.m. that day. He would then go home for lunch at 1:15 p.m. and eat macaroni and cheese for lunch. He would be in his office by 2:30 p.m. again, and usually leaving by 6:15 p.m. He would continue this pattern from Monday to Saturday each week.
If he had to attend a social engagement, as he did once or twice a week, he would arrive always on time, drink one drink, smoke one cigarette, he typically smoked 15 a day, and then left at exactly 30 minutes from when he arrived.
In the evenings with his wife, they would always dine around 7 p.m., and while they had a television, he only watched hockey games on it. At 11:30 p.m. every night, he would go to bed to ensure an eight-hour sleep.
Due to his upbringing as a bilingual man, he would speak French to his wife, but he would pray in English. When he talked to his daughter and her husband, he would speak English.
Within the House of Commons, St. Laurent was often courteous with other members of the government. Margaret Aitkin, a Conservative, was elected to the House of Commons in 1953, and she wrote a book about her political campaign called Hey Ma! I did it! St. Laurent not only read it, but after she took her place in the House of Commons, he crossed to the Conservative side and congratulated her and said he thought it should be required reading among all political candidates.
In 1952, St. Laurent would advise Queen Elizabeth II to appoint Vincent Massey as the first Canadian-born Governor General in history.
Under St. Laurent, Canada radically increased its immigration and focused on places other than Northern Europe and the British Isles. His government would create the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.
While it may seem like St. Laurent only did good as prime minister, that is not totally the case. In 1953, his government undertook the High Arctic Relocation project that moved 92 Inuit from northern Quebec to two communities in the Northwest Territories. This was a forced migration by the government to use the Inuit as human flagpoles to assert the sovereignty of the government over the Far North. As for the Inuit, they were not given sufficient support and dealt with extreme poverty, starvation, and the lack of proper necessities for the first years of the move.
The St. Lawrence Seaway would be opened in 1954, which had a massive impact on Canadian trade for the rest of the century, while construction on the Trans-Canada Pipeline also began, but it proved to be unpopular and would lead to the eventual downfall of the government, as it met significant opposition in the House of Commons, which was the beginning of the end of St. Laurent.
TransCanada Pipelines Ltd. Had been incorporated in 1951 to undertake the construction of a natural gas pipeline across Canada. The St. Laurent government restricted debate in what was described as an aggressive way, to get the construction of the pipeline put through by June of 1956. The government knew that a delay of a month would postpone the whole project for a year. The Liberals would enact a closure on the debate to limit discussion, which was highly unusual. This would create a scandal in Parliament as many felt there was not enough debate regarding the matter. Known as The Great Pipeline Debate, the bill would be passed and construction began in 1956, with 3,500 kilometres of pipeline being installed from 1956 to 1958. While the final weld would be finished on Oct. 10, 1958, and the first Alberta gas would enter Toronto on Oct. 27, the end had come for the St. Laurent government over the project.
By 1954, St. Laurent was beginning to tire, especially after a trip around the world that same year, the first for a Canadian prime minister. At the same time, the Liberals were seeing their popularity begin to decline for the first time since the 1930s.
In 1956, the Suez Crisis erupted between Britain, France, Israel and Egypt and there was the danger that it would escalate into a Third World War that would likely go nuclear. St. Laurent and Lester B. Pearson worked to resolve the crisis through the formation of the United Nations Emergency Force. I will go into more detail about the crisis during my episode on Lester B. Pearson. While Pearson would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, St. Laurent deserves as much credit for helping to create the force.
St. Laurent’s government would introduce equalization payments in 1956, which redistributed tax revenue between provinces to assist poorer provinces in delivering government programs and services.
Before the 1957 election, St. Laurent’s government would take $100 million in death taxes and use it to establish the Canada Council, which supports social sciences, arts, and humanities to this day.
The personality of St. Laurent was beginning to change as well, and he would often sit mute in debates in the House of Commons. At cabinet meetings, instead of his usual role of leading the meeting, he would stare out the window and meetings drifted often without resolutions.
It is likely that in the mid-1950s, St. Laurent was dealing with a form of depression, but it is not known what brought it on. Although there are several theories. At the time, his daughter was unwell, the family’s finances were no strong and there was a real danger that they were spending beyond their means. The law firm he had built was not prospering, and St. Laurent did not seem to know what to do moving forward.
When the 1957 election came along, St. Laurent was appearing old and out of touch at the age of 75. This was the first televised election, which would influence voters heavily. For the most part, St. Laurent did not make an impression over television. Many felt, especially after the 1956 Pipeline Debate, that the Liberals had become arrogant with power, having governed Canada since 1935. Several factions within the party were now looking at removing St. Laurent and he was also dealing with a dynamic new opponent in John Diefenbaker. In the election, held on June 10, 1957, the Liberals had 200,000 more votes than the Progressive Conservatives but most of those came in Quebec where St. Laurent remained immensely popular. The party would lose 64 seats, to fall to 105, while the Progressive Conservatives picked up 61 seats, taking 112 to form the new government. After almost a decade in power, St. Laurent was out as prime minister. The Liberals were also out of power, ending the longest uninterrupted run-in government for a party at the federal level in Canadian history.
As Secretary of State, Jack Pickersgill, would state, quote:
“John Diefenbaker did not win the election of 1957, the Liberal Party lost it.”
In the summer after the election, St. Laurent spent his time at his summer home. Pickersgill would visit and state later, quote:
“He was obviously deeply depressed, could not be drawn into conversation and clearly had no interest in his new role.”
While many still wanted St. Laurent to lead the party, it was clear his heart was not in it, but his sense of loyalty prevented him from resigning. Lionel Chevrier and Lester B. Pearson, at the request of St. Laurent’s family, would come to the summer home and persuaded him that he would not be deserting the party if he resigned. A letter of resignation had been drafted by Pearson and after awhile, St. Laurent gave it his consent. He did so only on the promise from Pearson that he would run to replace him.
For St. Laurent, what had been a temporary career in politics had lasted 17 years and the Liberal Party had a new leader in Pearson.
St. Laurent then returned to his law practice, helping it improve once again. For the most part, he kept out of the public eye in retirement, except on July 6, 1967 when he was awarded one of the first Order of Canada awards. His citation reads, quote:
“Former Prime Minister of Canada. For his service to his country.”
Journalist Bruce Hutchison would say quote:
“No finer human being ever governed Canada, and none has been so thoroughly misunderstood as Louis St. Laurent.”
Many consider Laurent to be one of the best prime ministers of the 20th century and he was greatly admired for his decisiveness, patriotism, and sharp mind. He also had a strong affection for those who worked around him which gained him incredibly loyalty.
On July 25, 1973, St. Laurent would die of heart failure in Quebec City at the age of 91.
The Louis St. Laurent National Historic Site of Canada, which covers the home of his birth, celebrates his life. The Louis St. Laurent Heritage House in Quebec City also celebrates his life and time as the leader of Canada.
In a ranking of the first 20 prime ministers in Canadian history up to Jean Chretien, St. Laurent ranked fourth.
Jack Pickersgill would say that St. Laurent was, quote:
“As fine an intelligence as was ever applied to the problems of government in Canada. He left it a richer, a more generous and more united country than it had been before he became prime minister.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Britannica, Wikipedia, Collections Canada, Biographi, Macdonaldlaurier.ca, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s,