What would Lester B. Pearson think of Canada today, 50 years after his death?
Fifty years after his death, Lester Bowles Pearson is only vaguely known to Canadians. They see his name on an airport, international college, and public schools, or hear him attached to an award, trophy, or organization.
But in our oblivious country, how many recognize – let alone remember – our greatest diplomat of the mid-twentieth century, considered the most well-known Canadian of his time? Who received the Nobel Peace Prize for “saving the world” during the Suez crisis in 1956?
Do they know that he led the Liberal Party to its worst defeat in 1958 – then, with dogged determination, entrenched, rebuilt and returned it to power in 1963, its greatest unsung political achievement?
Or, more importantly, do they know him as the 14th Prime Minister of Canada for five busy, consecutive years? A generation ago, he and his circle of reformers created the pillars of modern Canada: official bilingualism, health insurance, old age pensions, student loans, more open immigration. He embraced flexible federalism and introduced the Order of Canada and a controversial new flag, the maple leaf. Deprived of a majority in four elections, he did all this at the head of a minority government, the most productive in our history.
“I have been lucky in all my lives,” he writes. « I’ve had as many as a cat. » On December 27, 1972, those lives ran out. But, oh, what a feverish passage of 75 years, beginning in a starched, lily-white Ontario parsonage in Victorian Canada and taking it into the folds of the world map.
He was a sausage stuffer in Chicago and a stretcher bearer in Europe during World War I. He studied at Oxford and at the University of Toronto, where he taught history. He played semi-professional hockey and baseball.
He was a diplomat at Canada House in London, ambassador in Washington and under-secretary of state for external affairs in Ottawa. He was the architect of NATO and shaped the new United Nations agencies, of which he later served as President of the General Assembly. Twice he was vetoed by the Soviets to become general secretary.
Pearson was self-effacing, funny and modest, more comfortable with the compromises of diplomacy than with the war of politics. He would hate today’s partisanship. He hoped to be judged on his “record, not a recording”; it wasn’t made for TV, let alone Twitter or TikTok.
What would he think of Canada today?
He would no doubt applaud our prosperous and sophisticated country, which over the past half-century has welcomed millions, expanded social protection, built a modern economy, and created a diverse and tolerant state.
Pearson would also be delighted to see a less colonial country; just as he loved Britain, he would encourage the patriation of the British North America Act with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the debate on Canada and the Crown, he would be more republican than monarchist. At his core, he was a nationalist – more civic than economic – who had vision, ambition and, above all, the confidence that Canadians were a mature, independent people.
But Pearson would lament Canada’s decline in the world. His generation championed liberal internationalism. He would mourn our weak military, our miserly development aid (significantly, he chaired a commission in 1969 that called on rich countries to spend 0.7% of their gross domestic income each year on foreign aid, which Canada has never done) and, above all, our lukewarm diplomacy.
Yes, he would love to see the imaginative Bob Rae as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, a seat his father (and Pearson colleague) Saul Rae once held. But Pearson would be appalled that Canada had twice been denied membership of the Security Council this century and that we had given up on peacekeeping. Canada has become the world’s gentle giant of gesture.
Pearson’s government was singularly transformative and surprisingly experimental. In its laws, practices and institutions, the Canada of today is Pearson’s Canada — pragmatic, progressive, moderate and still unfinished.