Lester B. Pearson:
A self-written biography with general information
Lester Bowles Pearson was born on the twenty-third of April 1897, in Newton Brook, Ontario. Of Irish stock from both sides of his family, he received a balanced position in politics, as he learned the conservative position from his father, a Methodist minister, and the liberal from his mother. He entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1913 when sixteen. As he was too young to serve as private when Britain declared war in 1914, he volunteered to be part of a hospital unit sponsored by the university. After spending a hectic two years in England, Egypt and Greece, he was commissioned. Eventually transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, he lived through two accidents, one of which was a crash. He emerged unscathed from the crash, only to[ be hit by a bus in London during a blackout! His injuries in the latter caused him to be invalidated, and sent home. He served as instructor for the remaining duration of the war, while continuing his studies at the University.
He received his degree in 1919 and then worked at Armour and Company, a meat processing and packing firm, and then a fertilizer company. Years later, Pearson, during some of the pleasantries he was renowned for, quipped that the Russians were then claiming he had worked for a weapons manufacturer during the war.
Pearson then returned to academic life, and won a two-year fellowship and enrolled at Oxford. There, he revelled in not only his field of history, where he earned both the bachelor and master]s' degrees, but in lacrosse and ice hockey, where he won his blues. Pearson even played on the British hockey team in the 1922 Olympics.
In 1924, Pearson joined the History Department of the University, but left it in 1928 to join the Canadian Department of External Affairs. He came first in his departmental exams, and was appointed first secretary. Until leaving the post in 1935, Pearson educated himself in domestic economic affairs (as secretary to a commission on wheat futures in 1931, and one investing commodity pricing in Canada during 1934-35) and international diplomacy. He participated in the Hague Conference (on Codification of International Law) in 1930, the London Naval Conference of 1930, the famous Geneva Conference (towards global disarmament), another London Naval Conference (1935), and in sessions of the League of Nations through the remainder of 1935.
Pearson then rose rapidly through the ranks of Canadian government. From 1935, after his resignation from the department of E.A., he took over the office of High Commissioner for Canada in London for six years, before he was appointed assistant undersecretary of state for External Affairs in Ottawa in May 1941, a marked increase in power. In June 1942, he became minister-counsellor to the Canadian Legation in Washington, and in July '44 promoted to the rank of 'minister plenipotentiary (finally gaining the right to represent the Canadian government independently, and acting as diplomatic troubleshooter)'. In January 1945, Pearson became official ambassador to the United States.
During his stay in Washington, Pearson took a fairly large role in the creation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1943 and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) through 1943 to 1945. He also took part in the Dumbarton Oaks Conference dealing with preliminary discussion of the creation of a formal organisation of United Nations, and in the San Francisco Conference on the establishment of the UN in 1945.
Pearson took over the post of undersecretary of state for External Affairs in the fall of 1946, but gave it up two years later, so that he might expand his sphere of influence. In that year, Louis St. Laurent, then secretary of state, replaced Mackenzie King as PM of the Liberal government. Pearson, having successfully used the Algoma East riding in Ontario to find a seat in the House of Commons, was given the External Affairs portfolio in short order, holding it for nine years until the rise of Diefenbaker's Conservative government.
Pearson drafted St. Laurent's speech proposing the establishment of NATO, signed the enabling treaty for its creation in 1949, headed the Canadian delegation to NATO until 1957, and functioned as chair of the NATO council from 1951-52. Pearson also headed the Canadian delegation to the UN from 1946-1956, being elected to the presidency of the Seventh Session of the General Assembly (1952-53). While chair of the General Assembly's Special Committee on Palestine, he laid the foundations for the creation of the Israeli State in 1947. During the Suez crisis, when the UK, France and Israel invaded Egyptian territory, Pearson proposed and actively sponsored the resolution that created the UN Emergency Force to 'police' the area, allowing the invaders to withdraw without losing much face. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1957.
When the Liberals were defeated in the elections of '57, Pearson had to relinquish his Cabinet post, but accepting that of leader of the Opposition quickly set out to rebuild the party.
Six years later, the Conservative government lost the support of the constituency. This was especially on the issues raised by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Pearson's review of his sometimes quite philosophical views on national defence- Pearson announcing his willingness to accept nuclear weapons from the United States.
Soon after, the electorate voted the Liberal Party into federal office, with Lester Pearson as PM.
During the span of his five years as Prime Minister, Pearson instituted a bipartisan foreign policy, constantly keeping his adopted policy of internationalism in mind. In domestic matters, he, like many great leaders, he implemented many programs that had been discussed, but never adopted in the past. Among these include many in the field of social legislation, including provisions for old age pensions, Medicare, and a "war on poverty" that kept him in the public's good graces. In educational matters, he spearheaded government assistance for higher education and technical and vocational education. Pearson also reformed government operations by redistributing electoral districts and streamlining certain legislative procedures.
The most intense debate of his quintet was that surrounding the nature of a new Canadian flag. This issue became a battlefield as the Conservatives, serving history well, wanted most of the design to recognise the traditions of the past, while the Liberals set out to eliminate historical symbols in order to encourage forward-thinking about Canada's future. The Liberals won, and the new flag was first raised on February 15, 1965.
Pearson retired from the leadership of the Liberals in the spring of 1968, at the age of seventy-one. He returned to the academic world and lectured on Canadian foreign relations at Carleton University, while writing his memoirs. Pearson died in 1972, but his dynasty (three future PMs were part of his Cabinet) lives on through Jean Chrétien.
LESTER PEARSON AND CANADA
For better or worse, Lester Pearson was afflicted with an idealism which he had to temper with practicality throughout the political process. He always approached a problem cautiously, gathering as much background information as he could, giving many a civil servant a hard day's work. After this, he acted decisively, but unfortunately was not a campaigner, and sometimes lacked the ruthlessness required today for political leadership. Nonetheless, Pearson's knack for solving diplomatic problems was formidable, and his relaxed manner and disarming sense of humour contributed to this greatly. His experience in solving diplomatic problems was what propelled him to the hotseat of Prime Minister of Canada.
Pearson recognised that any successful compromise would have to spare all parties from as much humiliation as possible; this was his secret to effective diplomacy, and one that Laurier, the great compromiser, would have done well to have learnt. He was to use this many a time to deal with separatist organisations in Quebec, and an immature FLQ. Despite the fact that his accommodating approach did not always translate to politics, and was sometimes interpreted as poor leadership and lack of direction, Pearson's legacy was impressive. It includes the (then) new flag, the Canadian Pension Plan, universal medicare, a new immigration act, a fund for rural economic development (as a result of his work with FAO, and as secretary to the Wheat Futures Commission), and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism which led to the foundation of a truly bilingual civil service.
Lester Pearson was also given the task of reconciling the United States to Canada, who had shown strong anti-American sentiment in the Canadian elections. He was better suited to this task than many, given his years of diplomatic experience and his natural charm.
Just before becoming Prime Minister in 1963, Pearson went to the US for talks with President John F. Kennedy. In their talks, the two statesmen bridged the then growing rift between Canada and America. Soon, the US business boom spread to Canada, and US investments once more flowed into the iron, oil and basic metals industries that were issuing out into Canada's northland.
Much of Pearson's time as PM was spent ensuring good relations with the US, but he frequently, frankly commented on the "overwhelming influence of theAmerican way of life on Canada." In a speech to the Canadian Society of New York: "the pressures against our own thoughts, our own ideas, and our own diversions are a greater danger to national identity, to our cherished separateness than anything that could arise from financial control and economic imperialism." This belief led Pearson to open Canada's gates to American business, and urge on economic boom in the North, while still preserving Canadian culture. This was all part of Pearson's goal to reduce the tremendous annual deficit, and his hopes laid with the exploitation of Canada's great unqualified resources of the north.
Pearson also played a large part in promoting a view of Canada asinternationalist, abroad. In 1957, when he was the first Canadian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the presentation declared that was because of his efforts to restore peace where unrest may have led to worldwide involvement. In his acceptance speech, available online, he expressed his view that humankind's moral and social development had in many cases lagged behind material gain, and that the former's advancement is an important need in today's global village. He stated: "man must renounce predatory nationalism and look to the primacy of world concerns to bring about peace and security to all." This certainly played a part in the way he handled the separatist movement, while his diplomat's nature, coupled with federalism pioneered the ideal of conciliatory negotiations with Quebec that led to bilingualism in Canada in the future.
His flair for diplomacy also sharply affected the way Canada was viewed in the world, and this was mainly through his involvement in the United Nations and NATO. Pearson was the head of the permanent Canadian mission to the UN, and through becoming president of theGeneral Assembly set a good example of an internationalist Canadian, and involved Canada in many an international peacekeeping effort. The Cyprus affair is an example of such. Pearson's meeting with Khrushchev allowed him to show Canada as full political participant in the Cold War, through an extensive review of many Cold War issues. Pearson was also the first to devote a national battalion to international Peacekeeping duty, a practice that was quickly followed by most middle powers during the Suez crisis.
While Pearson's contributions to Canada in the realm of international diplomacy were certainly many, and paralleled by his successes as a civil servant, one must be reminded of his success as Prime Minister. His Liberal minority government was in trouble as soon as it came into office. Walter Gordon, the new finance minister (and a close friend of Pearson's) could not consult the PM as to his new budget, including a high tax on foreign 'securities' and raised tariffs, discouraging trade. It raised almost immediate political uproar and was quickly nullified. A later economic crisis was averted by expedient wheat sales to the USSR and other countries, helping farmers as much as Gordon's ill-fated budget would have. After negotiations with the Americans covered before, the Canadian economy continued to proper, and national unemployment reached its lowest levels in eight years. Pearson the devoted the rest of his term a significant period to the advancement of several long-term objectives formed mostly of his original design, and broadcasted these intentions to the public with pleasure.
These included the promotion of global peace and collective security (he was ever the diplomat, and some say more so than PM), the unity of all Canadian people, national economic improvement and an expansion of welfare legislation. These were all achieved in the span of his term, and with as much straightforwardness as possible (Cdn. International involvement, the flag issue, new export licensing, revamping of the pension system, etc.).
Pearson laid a strong foundation for the internationalist part of Canada's multifaceted self-image, meanwhile strengthening the Canadian national identity through the creation of theflag (perhaps his final hurrah) and stabilising the Canadian economy. However much he may have occasionally faltered in his later years, due to more pressing concerns, he was nonetheless a good PM, in that he succeeded in all criteria of the calling. Domestic, international, and cultural issues were handled with a spirit of hard working, perseverance and gentle charm that has not yet been rivalled.
If you'd like more in depth information, I'd recommend you check out official biographies of Pearson for yourself, since I've omitted a few less-than-noteworthy details and anecdotes, and added a bit of commentary.