Lester B. Pearson (Extraordinary Canadians)
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In his 2 terms as prime minister, from 1963–1968, Lester B. Pearson oversaw the revamping of Canada through the introduction of Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, the Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the Auto Pact, and the new Maple Leaf flag. Pearson came to power after an impressive career as a diplomat, where he played a vital role in the creation of NATO and the United Nations, later serving as president of its General Assembly. He put Canada on the world stage when he won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his handling of the Suez Crisis, during which he brokered the formation of a UN peacekeeping force. Author Andrew Cohen, whose books have focused on Canada’s place in the world, is the perfect author to assess Pearson’s legacy.
There was timidity. But the argument is so deliciously Canadian, consistent with the narrowing horizons of a country that has allowed the arms of its internationalism—diplomacy, development, and defence—to erode calamitously in the last generation. The argument is that we really didn’t do great things in the past—at least not as much as we said—and therefore we need not hold ourselves to a higher standard today. It is neo-colonial: think small. Pearson never thought small. He ridiculed King’s timidity and refused to serve in his cabinet.
He was hit and knocked cold. Bystanders thought this teetotaller laid out on the sidewalk was a drunk, which amused Pearson, who called himself “probably the purest soldier in all the allied or enemy forces! ” He ended up in hospital, then stayed with American friends in London and awaited new orders. That was that. His season as soldier had come to an unceremonious end. Here, though, in the last theatre of Pearson’s war, the story becomes deeply affecting. It is also mysterious. As he recovered in hospital from the leg and head wounds he suffered in the bus accident, Pearson had six weeks to reflect on what was happening in France and Belgium, on the meaning of this ghastly enterprise that had drawn a fresh-faced innocent across the ocean and offered him up to the machinery of death.
Pearson won a prize for throwing a cricket ball and breaking a record, a feat that earned him a mention in The Times (London). He was dispatched to the 4th Canadian Reserve Battalion, where Duke had also been reassigned. They trained for three months as infantry officers. Years later, Pearson recalled an address to the troops by Sir Arthur Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps. Currie warned two or three times that “some of you will not come back,” and young Pearson, so green in khaki, was certain that Currie was staring at him when he said it.
Scholarship didn’t move him. While he did publish occasional articles in newspapers and magazines and gave numerous speeches in his half-decade at the university, he never produced a scholarly article or book. Encouraged by his department head to write a history of the United Empire Loyalists, which might form the basis of a doctoral thesis, he went to Ottawa in the summer of 1926 to do research in the National Archives. But he was more interested in going to the House of Commons to watch the drama over Mackenzie King’s government.
In doing so—prodding, pushing, petitioning—he became the image of Canada as broker and fixer. Pearson’s stature was rising. Saturday Night called him “the most widely known Canadian who has ever existed. ” In 1954, in Geneva, he worked for peace in Indochina after Canada had joined the International Control Commission organized to supervise the settlement. In 1955, he met the animated Nikita Khrushchev in the Crimea, the first western foreign minister to visit the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death. After a night of nineteen toasts of vodka, he gamely said that he had endured “conviviality beyond the line of duty.