There was something about the man they called “Mike” that made him a curiosity among international statesmen. It might have been his own personal motto (‘Not to seek success, but to deserve it‘), or it might have been what the writer Will Ferguson described as “a sort of reverse evolution” (he ‘had started as a statesman and worked his way down to politician‘). Whatever it was, Lester Bowles Pearson managed to use his curiosity to good advantage, and have a huge impact both on his country and the world at large.
It was in the field of international relations that Canada’s 14th Prime Minister first made his mark. After rising up the ranks in his country’s Department of External Affairs, this former history professor became president of the UN’s General Assembly in 1952, and four years later came up with an apparently ingenious idea to stop a Middle East war. In the height of the Suez War (previously mentioned on Harold Rex, here and here) he suggested that a neutral peacekeeping force under the United Nations’ aegis be sent to the Sinai Peninsula, to separate the warring Israeli and Egyptian forces. The plan worked, and the Israeli forces duly evacuated the Peninsula. This was, in fact, the UN’s first-ever peacekeeping operation, and the Nobel Committee were sufficiently impressed by Pearson’s brainchild that they awarded him that year’s Peace Prize, actually saying of Pearson (and this is true) that he had “saved the world” (and there are precious few people of whom that has ever been said).
With such an honour and international plaudits raining on him, it was probably not all that surprising that Canada’s Liberal Party elected Pearson as its leader soon after his big Nobel success. It took him, however, another six years to become his country’s Prime Minister, and he had to experience two federal election defeats (the first of which in 1958 resulted in his Conservative opponent J G Diefenbaker winning a record parliamentary majority) before finally succeeding.
Pearson served as PM for just under five years. Given how fractious his cabinet meetings could be (and his ministers included future PMs Jean Chretien, John Turner and Pierre Elliot Trudeau) and how opportunistic the Opposition could be, it’s perhaps remarkable how much was achieved during his term. As well as speeding up moves towards Canada becoming an officially bilingual nation, abolishing the death penalty and introducing universal medical care, Pearson’s government also brought in a new national flag. Previously, it had been a modification of the Red Ensign (a red flag with the Union Jack in the top-left corner); from 15 February 1965 it would consist of a red-white-red tricolour with a red maple leaf in the centre. The symbolism of the move chimed in with his personal vision for Canada’s future: rather than being just another ex-British colony with visible reminders of its colonial past Canada would henceforth be a modern, self-confident nation, striking out alone and reaching out to the wider world as a whole.
Lester Pearson stepped down as Canada’s Prime Minister shortly before his 71st birthday in April 1968, but not before taking time to rebuke France’s then president, Charles De Gaulle, who on an earlier visit to Montreal had shouted out ‘Vive le Québec Libre!‘ to an audience of cheering Québecois nationalists. Pearson rightly reminded De Gaulle that Canadian soldiers had partaken in France’s liberation from the Nazis only a generation before, stating ‘Canadians do not need to be liberated.’ It was one of the very few instances where his default demeanour of calm self-deprecation slipped, though it was an understandable one. As Ferguson rightly notes, it could be that he was just too nice to have been in politics. His reported response on being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and praised for having ‘saved the world’? ‘Gee, thanks!‘