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He led Canada through the bulk of the 1960s, with two minority governments. During that time, he brought immense changes to Canada and helped the country gain more prominence on the world stage. Today, I am looking at the life and career of my favourite prime minister, Lester B. Pearson.
In the 1820s and the 1840s, the ancestors of Lester B. Pearson would arrive in Canada, with his paternal grandfather, Marmaduke Louis, becoming a notable Methodist minister. His mother’s cousin, Reverend Richard Pinch Bowles, would become the chancellor of Victoria University and officiated the wedding of Pearson’s parents.
Born on April 23, 1897 to a Methodist minister in Newtonbrook, Ontario to Annie and Edwin Pearson. Edwin was a Methodist minister and Lester B. Pearson would move with his family from one town to another as his father worked for various churches in the province. The bulk of his youth would be spent in Aurora, Ontario. Pearson would spend his first Christmas in the community in the parsonage on Catherine Avenue. Within the household, alcohol was forbidden, education was highly sought after, and Sundays were always considered a holy day. His father Edwin was devoted to the British Empire and would keep scrapbooks with clippings of the Royal Family. He would also instill in his sons a love of sports.
In 1913 at the age of 16, he graduated from the Hamilton Collegiate, and then went to Australia to spend three months on his uncle’s emu farm. When he returned, he enrolled at the University of Toronto.
It was at the University of Toronto that Pearson would showcase himself as a highly gifted athlete, especially when it came to hockey, rugby, and basketball. He also showed skill in baseball and lacrosse, enough so that he played semi-professional baseball for the Guelph Maple Leafs of the Ontario Intercounty Baseball League. Pearson would say later in his life that if not for enlisting in the First World War, he likely could have made it into Major League Baseball.
Pearson was described at the time as a polite young man whose enthusiasm for sports exceeded his interests in his courses.
When the First World War erupted, Pearson would join up with the Canadian Army Medical Corp, enlisting on April 23, 1915. Both of his brother’s, Marmaduke, and Vaughan, would also serve overseas. In 1915, he was sent to Greece to join the fight against the Bulgarians, working as a stretcher-bearer and medical orderly. Soon after his arrival, he was promoted from private to corporal, and spent two years in Southern Europe.
According to Pearson later in his life, he saw the war as a decisive moment in his life, but he was typically conventional in his attitudes about it during the war. He also supported conscription in 1917.
While Pearson was serving in Greece, which was neutral, he sought transfer to the Western Front, possibly looking to achieve some sort of heroism that was been described in dispatches. He would get his wish and was sent to England to train, but while there he and his brother Duke decided they wanted to become aviators, not infantry officers.
Two years later, after spending most of his time as a stretcher-bearer, he would switch to the Royal Flying Corps, serving as a flying officer and earning the rank of lieutenant. He would learn to fly at Hendon, England, and survived a crash on his first flight. It was in the Flying Corp he earned the name “Mike” after an instructor gave him the nickname believing that Lester was too mild a name for an airman. From this point on, he would use Lester on official documents and in public life, but with friends and family he was always Mike.
In December of 1917, during a citywide blackout in London, Pearson was hit by a bus and was sent home to Canada and then discharged. He was not disabled by the incident, but his recuperation took several months, and he would return to Canada on April 6, 1918.
After the war, Pearson had developed a resentment for persons of authority, especially British officers, and with his emotional breakdown following his injury and recuperation, he began to keep his feelings private.
Despite this, Pearson would attempt to return to the war but was denied his request. At the time, he had constant headaches, tremors and could not sleep.
In 1919, he would earn his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, but he did not know what he wanted to do for his career. He considered both business and law and received a scholarship to study at Oxford from 1921 to 1923. While there, he would play for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club, helping the team win the first Spengler Cup in 1923. While playing in Switzerland, he gained the nickname from the Swiss Herr Zigzag for his play on the ice. That same year, he toured North America with the Oxford and Cambridge lacrosse team.
In 1920, with his brother Duke, he joined the Armour and Company, a meat company in Chicago where his uncle was president. He would go to Chicago to work the company in 1920, working as a clerk in the fertilizer division. He would decide that he did not want to stay there, and he left to attend Oxford.
In 1925, he married Maryon Moody, who had been a student at the University of Toronto. Together, the couple would have two children, Geoffrey, and Patricia. Through his life, Maryon was supportive of her husband in his political endeavors. When Pearson met Maryon, he was immediately attracted to her and within a few weeks he asked her to a party. Five weeks later, they were engaged. Maryon would write to her friend, stating quote:
“Don’t tell a soul because we aren’t telling the public till after term. I am engaged.”
Maryon was a fierce defender of her husband throughout their marriage and could also give some barbed comments to her husband. Later in life, she would say, quote:
“Behind every successful man there is a surprised woman.”
While she despised politics, she would help her husband in the selection of his cabinets and she had a deep wit that many appreciated, but some disliked.
As a professor with a growing family, Pearson found that he was not making enough money, but a new opportunity would open. Pearson would take the Canadian foreign service entry exam, earning the top marks, and would join the Department of External Affairs, and by 1928 was greatly admired for his work, with several politicians taking notice.
Working with Pearson, Hugh Keenleyside would state he was, quote:
In 1930, Pearson would attend the London Naval Conference, meetings of the League of Nations and the first World Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1932.
Prime Minister R.B. Bennett would notice Pearson and it was Bennett who appointed Pearson to two major government inquiries, the 1931 Royal Commission on Grain Futures, and the 1934 Royal Commission on Price Spreads. Due to his work on those commission, Bennett saw to it that Pearson was recognized with the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award, and given a bonus of $1,800, or $32,000 today.
In 1935, he was sent to London as first secretary of the Canadian High Commission. While there, he saw that the continent was drifting towards war, and this would influence him later in life to have a strong stance towards collective defence to counter dictatorships.
Things did not get off to a great start for Pearson, who put forward a proposal for sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia in October. King was extremely angry about this proposal, but thankfully, Pearson escaped blame.
While many, including King, would pursue appeasement with Hitler, Pearson felt this was the wrong approach. He would write to a friend at that time, quote:
“If I am tempted to become cynical and isolationist, I think of Hitler screeching into the microphone, Jewish women and children in ditches on the Polish border, Goring the genial ape-man and Goebbels, the evil imp, and then, whatever the British side may represent, the other does indeed stand for savagery and barbarism.”
When war broke out, Pearson would stay in England but Maryon and the kids went to the safety of Canada.
He would serve in the role until 1942, where he coordinated military supply and refugee issues under Vincent Massey, a future Governor General. In his memoirs, Pearson related that he was hired by Sir William Stephenson in 1940, the Canadian Second World War spymaster and the inspiration for James Bond, to serve as a courier taking secret documents to Europe.
When Pearson returned to Canada but soon found himself on the move again, this time as the second-in-command at the Canadian Legation in 1942 in Washington.
Pearson was easy-going with a personal charm many liked, which gained him many friends both in the press and the department. He was also becoming a minor celebrity in the United States. He appeared on a radio quiz program and became close with several major American journalists.
In the United States, Pearson admired the Americans for their energy and creativity, and liked President Roosevelt and his New Deal. He especially enjoyed baseball games and going to Broadway musicals.
In 1945, he was named as the Canadian ambassador to the United States, where he would attend the founding conference of the United Nations.
In September of 1946, Pearson was named the deputy minister of external affairs by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. In this role, he would promote the United Nations, and a close and strong economic and political relationship with the United States and Britain. He was almost chosen as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, but the Soviets vetoed it. A few years later in 1953, he was once again almost chosen as the Secretary-General with 10 out of 11 votes from the Security Council, but the Soviet Union vetoed it once again.
As a rising star, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King attempted to recruit Pearson into the federal government. Pearson, though honoured, declined as he did not like the personal style or political methods of King. He would eventually go into federal politics, but only at the end of the career of King.
Pearson would say later in life, quote:
In 1948, King appointed Pearson as the Secretary of State for External Affairs and Pearson became close with Louis St. Laurent, with both knowing that King would soon be retiring. In his first election, he took 56.4 per cent of the vote in his riding of Algoma East. When St. Laurent became prime minister, he would give Pearson important political support for an innovative foreign policy. For Pearson, this was welcomed as he knew King was always wary of the enthusiasms that Pearson had and the tendency of Pearson to commit Canada to international agreements.
Thanks to the work of Pearson, Canada would join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949. It was his hope that its existence would discourage any sort of aggression from the Soviet Union. Pearson was no fan of Soviet Communism, often equating it with Nazism. He would state quote:
“We did not take very seriously the preposterous statements of the slightly ridiculous author of Mein Kampf. We preferred the friendly remarks of jolly old Goering at his hunting lodge.” Pearson had known that Mein Kampf was the real agenda of Hitler, and he saw Stalin doing the same. He would say that Stalin’s harsh statements, quote:
“form the basic dogma on which the policy of the USSR is inflexibly based.”
While he was not a fan of Communism, he did not succumb to the anti-Communist hysteria of the United States. During the Red Scare in the early 1950s in America, Pearson would gain the anger of several prominent Americans when he supported Egerton Norman, a Canadian diplomat accused of being a Communist agent. He also refused to allow Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko to testify in the United States. He would refuse to fire Norman, which made J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI angry and suspicious of him. Colonel Robert McCormick, a friend of Hoover and owner of the Chicago Tribune, would have his newspaper write that Pearson was, quote:
“The most dangerous man in the Western World.”
When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Pearson told journalists that he did not believe the UN or Americans would intervene. Three days later, the United States decided to get into the war. Pearson was in support of this as he felt that the Americans and the UN would call the bluff of the Communists and strengthen the power of the UN. Originally, Canada was only going to send some ships, but Pearson urged more, and Canada became a major player in the ground war in Korea.
That same year, he pushed Canada to contribute to the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia, the first multilateral international development program. For Pearson, he saw international assistance as a powerful weapon against Communism. Pearson believed that $100 million spent wisely on international economic assistance in the right places did more than spending $100 on weapons or arms defence.
In 1969, he would say quote:
“There is no greater threat to humanity, no greater danger to peace than that from two-thirds of mankind remaining hungry, disillusioned and desperate. Wretchedness and poverty in one part of the world, with the conflict and desperate hopelessness it creates, is bound to affect stability and progress in all other parts.”
In 1952, he served as the president of the UN General Assembly, where he criticized the Americans and their policies in Asia. After General Douglas MacArthur, the UN commander in Korea, spoke about extending the war, Pearson decided that he needed to speak out against that. On April 10, 1951, he spoke in Toronto, stating that the UN could not, quote:
“be the instrument of any one country.”
He also said that others had the right to criticize American policy.
Later that day, Truman fired MacArthur.
Pearson wanted to contain the Communism expansion, but he was not in favour of rolling back Communism by going into countries, and he did not like the excesses on the international stage the Americans were showing.
In October of 1955, Pearson became the first Western foreign minister to visit the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. During that trip, he would spend a night drinking with Nikita Khrushchev, but despite this, he still did not think the Soviet Union would become more benign on the world stage.
In late-1956, Israel invaded Egypt, followed by the United Kingdom and France. This was done to regain control for the Western Powers of the Suez Canal and to remove the Egyptian president who had nationalized the canal. The United States had not been informed of the invasion and the Soviet Union threated to use atomic weapons against the British and French. Thing quickly began to escalate and there was a fear that it would launch the Third World War, which would almost certainly go nuclear. None of the nations wanted to lose face in the matter, and Pearson would propose sending a United Nations Emergency Force to the region to separate the warring parties. Many accused him of betraying Britain and hurting the ties between the United Kingdom and Canada, but others stated that Pearson had literally saved the world. Charlotte Whitton, the mayor of Ottawa, would state, quote:
“It’s too bad Nasser couldn’t help Mike Pearson to cross Elliot Lake when Mr. Pearson did so much to help him along the Suez Canal.”
The Secretary General would state that Pearson was one of the fathers of the modern concept of peacekeeping. The United States Emergency Force was created and would diffuse the situation. For his efforts, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his role in resolving the crisis. To date, he is the only Canadian to have received the honour.
With the Suez Crisis and the Nobel Peace Prize, Pearson saw his fame increase across Canada. In 1957, John Diefenbaker would end 22 years of Liberal dominance in politics. With the loss, Louis St. Laurent decided to resign as leader of the Liberal Party, and Pearson was chosen at the leadership convention of 1958, defeating Paul Martin Sr., to become the leader of the party. Pearson was able to cruise to victory on the first ballot with 77.8 per cent of the vote.
With the Peace Prize and now leader of the Liberal Party, Pearson may have been a bit overconfident, and it would show in his first efforts in the House of Commons.
Up against John Diefenbaker and his Conservatives, Pearson would take on Diefenbaker in the House of Commons, stating that since Diefenbaker had a minority government, he should resign and hand the government over to the Liberals.
Pearson said in that speech, quote:
“I would be prepared, if called upon, to form a government of ending the Tory pause and getting this country back on the Liberal highway of progress from which we have temporarily diverted.”
What followed was a two-hour speech from Diefenbaker that completely obliterated Pearson in Parliament. Pearson would say later that Diefenbaker tore him to shreds and he knew that it was a mistake as soon as he started speaking.
He would add, quote:
“No one has ever started off worse than I did.”
In the 1958 federal election, Diefenbaker led his Conservatives to the biggest majority in Canadian history at the time, picking up 208 seats, leaving the Liberals with only 48. One of the biggest surprises was the voting of Quebec. Since 1917 and the First World War Conscription Crisis, Quebec had typically always voted for the Liberals, especially when Louis St. Laurent was leader. With no prominent Quebecer leading the Liberal Party, the party lost a great deal of support there.
At first, Pearson was thinking about resigning, which his wife encouraged. He was over 60, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and had a stellar career behind him. But he would be encouraged to stay by friends. It was also clear that Diefenbaker was a better campaigner than prime minister, and the economy was starting to take hits after a long boom. With that, Pearson decided to stay on as leader.
From this point Pearson began his work towards rebuilding the Liberal Party. Using seasoned cabinet ministers who had served with William Lyon Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, Pearson grew the party’s base. He would host a Thinkers’ Conference in Kingston in 1960 to develop the ideas that the party would implement when it came back into power.
Before long, Pearson grew more comfortable in the House of Commons. At one point, Diefenbaker tried to interrupt Pearson in the House of Commons, to which Pearson stated, quote:
“Sit down, Mr. Prime Minister, sit down. Be calm sir.”
In the 1962 election, Pearson was able to take the largest majority in Canadian history and reduce it to a minority government thanks to the 100 seats the Liberals took. Pearson, seeing there was now a chance to take on the Conservatives who were weakened. He started to hit at Diefenbaker for his indecision on accepting nuclear warheads on Canadian soil. Pearson was opposed to nuclear weapons in Canada, but he would say that the country had to accept them because it made a commitment to its allies.
He would say about the matter, quote:
Pearson would go on to say to Maclean’s magazine, quote:
“I’ve become a kind of symbol for a lot of the woolly ideas people have about peace and defense.”
Soon after, Diefenbaker would see his Defence Minister Douglas Harkness resign. The day after that happened, Feb. 4, 1963, Diefenbaker’s government lost two nonconfidence motions, forcing an election.
Diefenbaker despite his faults leading, was a genius when it came to campaigning and speaking on the new medium like television. Pearson, for his part, did not come across as well on television. During speeches on the campaign trail, he would often talk too long, and he saw the campaign trail as a job to be done, not an opportunity to be seized.
There is some irony to the fact that Pearson did not come across as well on television, considering he had a great enjoyment of the medium himself.
He would say to a reporter during the campaign, quote:
“To my wife’s disgust, I am also an undiscriminating TV viewer.”
Pearson would say he enjoyed baseball and hockey games, Wayne and Shuster, Dr. Kildare but he had a special affection for Marshall Dillon of Gunsmoke. He would say quote:
“His serene and courageous solution of all the problems of the community encourages me.”
Pearson was described as a man who expected to win and cared more about what his ideas would eventually accomplish than about how many people, he inspired with them. One of his campaign workers would say, quote:
“Pearson is problem oriented. His ideas are not salable.”
Some felt that Pearson, while a highly gifted diplomat, was not a good politician. He would respond, quote:
“I don’t know what that means. It required some ability to rebuild the Liberal Party after what happened to it in 1958. Without being egotistical, I don’t think that the rebuilding would have been done better by someone these people would call a good politician.”
The Liberals won the election with 129 seats, while the Conservatives fell to 95. The party was five seats short of a majority and Diefenbaker stayed on as prime minister until six Social Credit MPs put their support behind Pearson.
On April 22, 1963, Pearson was sworn in as the 14th prime minister of Canada. At his disposal, Pearson had excellent cabinet ministers. Paul Martin Sr. had served in Parliament for 28 years to that point, John Pickersgill was the equal of Diefenbaker for his ability to debate in the House of Commons, while other ministers brought a great deal of business experience.
At first, things were rocky for Pearson as prime minister. The first budget was presented in June of 1963, and many felt that it focused too much on the use of outside advisors and had too much of a focus on nationalism. The response to the budget would lead to the resignation of the finance minister, which Pearson refused.
At the same time, Pearson was dealing with rising Quebec separatism and the FLQ attacks that included bombs being placed around Montreal. This would lead Pearson to start looking at a way to reconcile English and French Canada.
Despite never having a majority government and a rough start, Pearson’s Liberals would bring in immense changes to Canada, including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, a new national flag, a new minimum wage, and the creation of a 40-hour work week in the country.
Along with universal health care, which I did an episode on last year, the legacy of this time is the Canadian flag that Pearson and the Liberals brought in in 1965. I did an episode on the Great Canadian Flag Debate in February, so check that out as it goes into much greater detail. Pearson wanted Canada to have a flag that gave it a unique identity on the world stage, without having anything related the France or the British Empire on it. His original design was three maple leaves on a stem with two blue bars on either side.
To win over some of his harshest critics, he went to the National Legion Convention in Winnipeg and spoke directly to veterans. At the meeting, he would wear his medals from the First World War to show the veterans he was one of them. He could have easily chosen to speak at a Liberal fundraiser, but he chose to speak in the lion’s den, and he would win over many in the crowd to his cause.
The Conservatives under Diefenbaker resisted the creation of a new flag with almost over the top fervor. Eventually, a committee was created and through some great political maneuvering by the Liberals and other parties, the Canadian flag made by George Stanley was chosen. The debate over the flag would go for over 200 days, with Diefenbaker resisting against it every step of the way until one of his own MPs rebelled against the party line and invoked closure on the debate, allowing a vote to happen. The flag would be chosen and has now become an iconic flag that is easily recognizable around the world. As for Diefenbaker, when he died, he had the Canadian flag obscured on his casket by the Red Ensign.
On Jan. 15, 1964, Pearson became the first Canadian prime minister to make an official state visit to France.
In 1965, Pearson was able to improve the Liberals seat count, rising to 131 seats, but still short of a majority. Despite the win, Pearson would offer his resignation to his cabinet, but it was refused.
After the election, Pearson began to put extra emphasis on Quebec. He would also see several prominent Quebec politicians rise in his party, including Pierre Trudeau.
Pearson would meet with President Lyndon Johnson in January of 1965 and sign the Auto Pact, which eliminated the tariff on cars, trucks, parts, and accessories going over the border. This would be hugely beneficial for Canada and would lead to North American economic integration.
Around this time, the Vietnam War was beginning to rage, and President Johnson asked Canada to join the United States in Vietnam. Pearson refused and on April 2, 1965, he spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia, where he reportedly stated that there should be a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam so that a diplomatic solution could be found.
He would say quote:
“Hanoi authorities with an opportunity, if they wish to take it, to inject some flexibility into their policy without appearing to do so as the direct result of military pressure.”
President Johnson was livid with the fact that Pearson said this on American soil, and he was summoned to Camp David to see Johnson. According to legend, Johnson grabbed Pearson by the lapels and screamed, quote:
“Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.”
Pearson would later say that the meeting had started acrimoniously but that it ended cordially.
As prime minister, Pearson also started the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. These commissions would bring in changes to create legal equality for women and make Canada a bilingual nation. Pearson had wanted to be the last unilingual prime minister and today, fluency in both French and English is an unofficial requirement for a prime minister.
Pearson is also credited with creating the world’s first race-free immigration system, but it should be stated that Diefenbaker began the initial steps towards this and should be given some of the credit for it.
Trudeau was also now the Minister of Justice, which would begin to lay the foundations to immense changes in Canadian laws and the decriminalization of homosexuality, which would happen after Pearson had left politics but which the first steps were taken in his last year as prime minister.
In 1966, Pearson would put forward a motion in Parliament for the recognizing of God Save The Queen as the official Royal Anthem and O’ Canada as the national anthem. While this was the start of an official recognizing of O’ Canada, it would not be until 1980 that it was made the official national anthem.
In 1967, Pearson would oversee Canada’s centennial celebrations and he also saw the arrival of Expo 67, both events helped push Canada’s profile on the world stage and fostered immense national pride among Canadians.
Expo 67, which will be an episode of itself, did not start off great when it came to construction and Pearson would worry that the tight construction deadlines would not be reached. Nonetheless, he would be at the opening of Expo 67 on April 27, and would speak to the crowd saying, quote:
“The heading of an article about Expo in a recent issue of an American magazine referred to it as, “the Big Blast Up North.” Certainly, Expo is going to be that and much more. Behind this big Canadian blast are achievements in planning, organization and construction that are little short of miraculous. The men behind these achievements should be proud and happy. We should be grateful to them, as we recall the skeptics who once said Expo 67 was too big a project for Montreal, Quebec, or Canada to accomplish in less than four years. But it was done, and well done.”
He would close out his remarks, speaking on the unity of Canada. Saying quote:
“By the time the gates of Expo are closed, six months from now, its success will have made all Canadians prouder of our own country than ever before and more conscious of the interdependence and brotherhood of all men and all nations.”
Pearson would be proven right. Today, Expo 67 is seen as a landmark moment in Canadian history and its cultural impact would be felt for decades to come. It is also considered one of the most successful World Exhibitions in history.
The Centennial was the big event for the year for all Canadians and Pearson ensured that it would be a moment for all Canadians to celebrate. In 1965, he would appoint Ernest Cote to plan events in Ottawa for 1967, and the creation of the Confederation train, although that was proposed initially by John Diefenbaker in 1961. The Centennial would also see the creation of the Order of Canada. When Pearson proposed it in the House of Commons, and when the release was sent out about it, the Prime Minister’s office incorrectly cited Hebrews 12:16, which said “Lest there be any fornicators, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.” The error caused John Diefenbaker to state that the government could not even quote scripture right.
On New Year’s Eve in 1966, Pearson, dressed in a top hat and gloves, lit the Centennial Fire using a match on a long pole. The Centennial Flame had been built using red Canadian granite and featured a bronze coat of arms for the ten provinces and two territories.
On Jan. 6, 1967, Pearson attended the Centennial World Invitation Tournament, in which Canada defeated the Soviet Union 5-4. Pearson would say later, quote:
“When they ran up that flag, the teams lined up opposite each other and we all sang O’ Canada then I knew what the definition of a Canadian was.”
On Canada Day, Pearson would tell the country, “Ours is a good land.” For the big event, a six-metre-high cake, decorated with the national coat of arms and provincial crests was on display. Queen Elizabeth II then cut the cake using a knife that her father King George VI had used for a similar event.
The centennial also brought several important world leaders to the country, which would lead to a diplomatic incident.
French President Charles de Gaulle had come to Canada and visited Quebec. De Gaulle decided that he wanted to tour the country as the French traders did centuries ago, by boat. He would begin the tour in Quebec.
On July 23, 1967, his ship arrived in Quebec City and on July 24, the same day that Jacques Cartier had arrived in Canada in 1534, he went with Daniel Johnson, the premier of Quebec, towards Montreal. Along the way, 500,000 Quebecers saluted him. He would make speeches at several towns along the way. Once he reached Montreal, he spoke to a crowd of 20,000 in front of city hall where he would utter the words, “Vive le Quebec libre” The crowd went crazy for it, but the federal government and Pearson were left stunned. Pearson was enraged by this, especially given the role of Canada in liberating France during both World Wars. He would speak out against de Gaulle the next day, stating quote:
“Canadians do not need to be liberated. Canada will remain united and will reject any effort to destroy her unity”
He also stated that de Gaulle was no longer welcome in Canada. De Gaulle would leave Canada, not visiting Ottawa.
It was not all roses and sunshine under Pearson though. One of the most controversial moves was the White Paper on Defense, which would lay out a plan to merge the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Canadian Army into the Canadian Forces, as a single force. The unification would take place in 1968, after Pearson left office. The unification caused a severe hit to the morale of soldiers, air crews and sailors at the time and was highly criticized.
On Dec. 14, 1967, Pearson announced that he was retiring from politics. His successor was his justice minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Two other cabinet ministers, Jean Chretien, and John Turner would both go on to serve as prime ministers as well.
Amazingly, upon his resignation, a poll found 70 per cent of Canadians could not think of a single beneficial accomplishment of his government. Marshall McLuhan would state quote:
From 1968 to 1969, Pearson was the chairman of the Commission on International Development, sponsored by the World Bank. With the creation of the Montreal Expos, Pearson became the honorary president and was given a lifetime pass to American and National League baseball games.
He would lecture on history and political science at Carleton University, while writing his memoirs. From 1970 to 1972, he became the first chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Development Research Centre.
In 1970, Pearson lost his right eye after it was removed to remove a tumor that had developed. During this time, he was writing at three volume set of memoirs, and published Volume One in 1972, and was in the process of finishing Volume Two when he was admitted to hospital for treatment. He rapidly began to see his condition worsen throughout the latter part of the year.
On Dec. 27, 1972, the cancer had spread to his liver and Pearson fell into a coma. He would die that day, at 11:40 p.m., in his Ottawa home.
During his life, Pearson was heavily honoured. He was the Canadian Press newsmaker of the year nine times, more than anyone else until Pierre Trudeau surpassed him in 2000. The Pearson Medal of Peace was first awarded in 1979 by the United Nations. In a survey of the top 20 Prime Minister up until Jean Chretien, Pearson placed sixth. In another survey of the best prime ministers since the Second World War, Pearson placed first, apparently by a landslide. Diefenbaker, the longtime rival of Pearson, who finished sixth and received no first-place votes.
Time has only seemed to improve the image of Pearson in the eyes of historians and Canadians. By 2016, he was ranked the fourth greatest prime minister in Canadian history.
In 2004, during a nationwide poll, CBC ranked Pearson as the sixth greatest Canadian in history. Only Tommy Douglas and Pierre Trudeau ranked higher than Pearson among politicians.
Several locations are named for Pearson including the Lester B. Pearson college, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, as well as 12 schools. Mike’s Place, the graduate student pub at Carleton University, was named for him in 1973. The busiest airport in Canada is named for Pearson, called Toronto Pearson International Airport. Several buildings, parks and roads are also named for Pearson. From 1971 to 2010, the best NHL player as voted by the National Hockey League Players’ Association awarded the Lester B. Pearson Award, before the name was changed to the Ted Lindsay Award. Pearson is also a member of the Sports Hall of Fame at the University of Toronto and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
Information comes from Nobelprize.org, Canadian Encyclopedia, Carleton University, Wikipedia, Biographi, Archives Canada, Maclean’s, Virtualmuseum.ca, iPolitics.ca, Wheat Province Diamonds, Aurora Its Beginnings, the Year Canadians Lost Their Minds.
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