Lester Bowles "Mike" Pearson, prime minister 1963–68, statesman, politician, public servant, professor (born 23 April 1897 in Newtonbrook, ON; died 27 December 1972 in Ottawa, ON). Pearson was Canada's foremost diplomat of the 1950s and 1960s, and formulated its basic post-WWII foreign policy. A skilled politician, he rebuilt the Liberal Party and as prime minister strove to maintain Canada's national unity. Under his leadership, the government implemented a Canada Pension Plan, a universal medicare system, a unified armed force, and a new flag. In 1957, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts in facilitating Britain and France’s departure from Egypt during the Suez Crisis.
Early Life and Career
Son of a Methodist parson, Pearson spent his childhood moving from one parsonage to another before enrolling in history at the University of Toronto. With the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps and in 1915 was shipped to Greece to join the Allied armies fighting the Bulgarians. After two years of stretcher-bearing, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in England. His military career came to a sudden end when he was run over by a London bus and invalided home.
After earning his BA at the University of Toronto in 1919, Pearson was undecided on a career. He tried law and business, won a fellowship to Oxford, and was hired by the University of Toronto to teach history, which he combined with tennis and coaching football. Pearson also married and soon had children. Finding a professor's salary insufficient, he joined the Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development). By 1928 he had trained himself as a perceptive observer and an able writer, both useful qualities in his work. Pearson quickly attracted the attention of his deputy minister, O.D. Skelton.
Representing Canada Abroad
In 1935 he was sent to London as first secretary in the Canadian High Commission, giving him a front-row seat as Europe drifted towards the Second World War. He was profoundly influenced by what he saw and thereafter attached great importance to collective defence in the face of dictatorships and aggression. In 1941 Pearson returned to Canada. He was sent to Washington as second-in-command at the Canadian Legation in 1942, where his easygoing personality and personal charm made him a great success, particularly with the press. In 1945, he was named Canadian ambassador to the United States and attended the founding conference of the United Nations (UN) at San Francisco.
Deputy Minister of External Affairs
In September 1946, Pearson was summoned home by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to become deputy minister (or undersecretary) of external affairs. He continued to take a strong interest in the UN but also promoted a closer political and economic relationship between Canada and its principal allies, the US and the United Kingdom. Pearson's work culminated in Canada's joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. He strongly supported a Western self-defence organization, although he hoped that its existence would persuade the Soviet Union (what is now largely Russia) that aggression would be futile.
Minister of External Affairs
By the time NATO was in place, Pearson had left the civil service for politics. In September 1948, he became minister of external affairs and subsequently represented Algoma East, Ontario, in the House of Commons. As minister, he helped lead Canada into the Korean War as a contributor to the UN army and, in 1952, served as president of the UN General Assembly, where he tried to find a solution to the conflict. His efforts displeased the Americans, who considered him too inclined to compromise on difficult points of principle. His greatest diplomatic achievement came in 1956, when he proposed a UN peacekeeping force as means for easing the British and French out of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. His plan was implemented, and as a reward he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
Leader of the Liberal Party
By then Pearson was no longer in office. He and the St-Laurent government were widely blamed for not standing by Britain in 1956. The Liberals were defeated, St-Laurent resigned as leader, and at a convention in January 1958 Pearson defeated Paul Martin, Sr. to become party leader. The Liberals faced a minority Conservative government under John Diefenbaker, and in his first act as leader of the opposition Pearson challenged Diefenbaker to resign and turn the government over to him. Diefenbaker ridiculed the idea and in the subsequent general election the Liberals were reduced to 49 of the 265 seats in the Commons. Pearson began the slow task of rebuilding the party. With the assistance of parliamentary debaters such as Paul Martin and J.W. Pickersgill, and party workers such as Walter Gordon, Mitchell Sharp and Maurice Lamontagne, he re-established the Liberals as a national party. In the 1962 general election, Pearson raised the party's total to 100 seats. In 1963, the Diefenbaker government collapsed over the issue of nuclear weapons and in the subsequent election the Liberals won 128 seats to form a minority government.
Prime Minister 1963–68
Pearson took office on 22 April 1963. His government was expected to be more businesslike than Diefenbaker's but proved instead to be accident-prone, effectively aborting its first budget. Much of Parliament's time was spent in bitter partisan and personal wrangling, culminating in the interminable flag debate of 1964. In 1965, Pearson called a general election but again failed to secure a majority. In the next year, the Munsinger scandal erupted with even more partisan bitterness.
The year 1965 marked a dividing line in his administration, as Finance Minister Walter Gordon departed, and Jean Marchand and Pierre Trudeau from Québec became prominent in the Cabinet. Pearson's attempts in his first term to conciliate Québec and the other provinces with "co-operative federalism" and "bilingualism and biculturalism" were superseded in his second term by a firm federal response to provincial demands and by the Québec government's attempts to usurp federal roles in international relations. When, during his centennial visit, French president Charles de Gaulle uttered the separatist slogan "Vive le Québec libre" to a crowd in Montréal, Pearson issued an official rebuke and de Gaulle promptly went home. In December 1967, Pearson announced his intention to retire and in April 1968 a Liberal convention picked Pierre Trudeau as his successor.
For all its superficial chaos, the Pearson government left behind a notable legacy of legislation: a Canada Pension Plan, a universal medicare system, a unified armed force, and a new flag. However, its approach to the problem of Canada's economically disadvantaged regions was less successful and its legacy, which included the Glace Bay heavy-water plant, was decidedly mixed. Not all of these initiatives proved fruitful and some were costly, but they represented the high point of the Canadian welfare state that generations of social thinkers had dreamed about. In retirement, Pearson worked on his memoirs and on a study of international aid for the World Bank.