Lester Bowles "Mike" Pearson PC OM CC OBE (23 April 1897 – 27 December 1972) was a Canadian scholar, statesman, soldier, prime minister, and diplomat, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. He was the 14th Prime Minister of Canada from 22 April 1963 to 20 April 1968, as the head of two back-to-back Liberal minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.
During Pearson's time as Prime Minister, his Liberal minority governments introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the Maple Leaf flag. His Liberal government also unified Canada's armed forces. Pearson convened the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and he kept Canada out of the Vietnam War. In 1967, his government passed Bill C-168, which de facto abolished capital punishment in Canada by restricting it to a few capital offences for which it was never used, and which themselves were abolished in 1976. With these accomplishments, together with his groundbreaking work at the United Nations and in international diplomacy, Pearson is generally considered among the most influential Canadians of the 20th century and is ranked among the greatest Canadian Prime Ministers.
Pearson was born in Newtonbrook in the township of York, Ontario (now a part of Toronto), the son of Annie Sarah (née Bowles) and Edwin Arthur Pearson, a Methodist (later United Church of Canada) minister. He was the brother of Vaughan Whitier Pearson and Marmaduke Pearson. "Mike" Pearson's father moved the young family north of Toronto to Aurora where the Rev. Pearson was the minister at the Aurora Methodist Church on Yonge St. Mike grew up in Aurora and attended the public school on Church St. The family lived in the Methodist manse at the corner of Spruce St. and Catherine St. The home still exists but is in private hands. The Methodist church in downtown Aurora became the United Church of Canada. The church was demolished following a devastating fire in 2014. Rev. Pearson was a member of the Aurora Rugby team where young Mike apparently got his inspiration.
Pearson graduated from Hamilton Collegiate Institute in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1913 at the age of 16. Later that same year, he entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where he lived in residence in Gate House and shared a room with his brother Duke. He was later elected to the Pi Gamma Mu social sciences honour society's chapter at the University of Toronto for his outstanding scholastic performance in history and psychology. After Victoria College, Pearson won a scholarship to study at St John's College, Oxford, from 1921 to 1923.
At the University of Toronto, he became a noted athlete, excelling in rugby union, and also playing basketball. He later also played for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club while on a scholarship at the University of Oxford, a team that won the first Spengler Cup in 1923. Pearson also excelled in baseball and lacrosse as a youth. His baseball talents as an infielder were strong enough for a summer of semi-pro play with the Guelph Maple Leafs of the Ontario Intercounty Baseball League. Pearson toured North American with a combined Oxford and Cambridge Universities lacrosse team in 1923. After he joined the University of Toronto History Department as an instructor, he helped to coach the U of T's football and hockey teams. He played golf and tennis to high standards as an adult.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Pearson volunteered for service as a medical orderly with the University of Toronto Hospital Unit. In 1915, he entered overseas service with the Canadian Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer with the rank of private, and was later commissioned as a lieutenant. During this period of service he spent two years in Egypt and in Greece. He also spent time in the Serbian Army as a corporal and a medical orderly. In 1917, Pearson transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, since the Royal Canadian Air Force did not exist at that time, where he served as a flying officer until being sent home with injuries from two accidents. Pearson learned to fly at an air training school in Hendon, England. He survived an aeroplane crash during his first flight.
In 1918, Pearson was hit by a bus in London during a citywide blackout and he was sent home to recuperate, but then he was discharged from the service. It was as a pilot that he received the nickname of "Mike", given to him by a flight instructor who felt that "Lester" was too mild a name for an airman. Thereafter, Pearson would use the name "Lester" on official documents and in public life, but was always addressed as "Mike" by friends and family.
After the war, he returned to school, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto in 1919. He was able to complete his degree after one more term, under a ruling in force at the time, since he had served in the military during the war. He then spent a year working in Hamilton, Ontario and Chicago, in the meat-packing industry, which he did not enjoy.
Upon receiving a scholarship from the Massey Foundation, he studied for two years at St John's College at the University of Oxford, where he received a B.A. degree with Second-Class honours in modern history in 1923, and the M.A. in 1925. After Oxford, he returned to Canada and taught history at the University of Toronto.
In 1927, after scoring the top marks on the Canadian foreign service entry exam, he then embarked on a career in the Department of External Affairs. Prime Minister R. B. Bennett was a noted talent spotter. He took note of, and encouraged, the young Lester Pearson in the early 1930s, and appointed Pearson to significant roles on two major government inquiries: the 1931 Royal Commission on Grain Futures, and the 1934 Royal Commission on Price Spreads. Bennett saw that Pearson was recognized with an OBE after he shone in that work, arranged a bonus of $1,800, and invited him to a London conference. Pearson was assigned to the High Commission of Canada to the United Kingdom in 1935, and he served there during World War II from 1939 through 1942 as the second-in-command at Canada House, where he coordinated military supply and refugee problems, serving under High Commissioner Vincent Massey.
Pearson returned to Ottawa for a few months, where he was an assistant under secretary from 1941 through 1942. In June 1942 he was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., as a ministerial counsellor. He served as second-in-command for nearly two years. Promoted minister plenipotentiary in 1944, he became the second Canadian Ambassador to the United States on 1 January 1945. He remained in this position through September 1946.
Pearson nearly became the first Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1945, but this move was vetoed by the Soviet Union. He was a contender to become the second Secretary-General in 1953, but was also vetoed by the Soviet Union.
The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, tried to recruit Pearson into his government as the war wound down. Pearson felt honoured by King's approach, but he resisted at the time, due to his personal dislike of King's poor personal style and political methods. Pearson did not make the move into politics until a few years later, after King had announced his retirement as the Prime Minister of Canada.
In 1948, before his retirement, Prime Minister King appointed Pearson Secretary of State for External Affairs (foreign minister) in the Liberal government. Shortly afterward, Pearson won a seat in the House of Commons, for the federal riding of Algoma East in northern Ontario. Pearson then served as Secretary of State for External Affairs for Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, until the defeat of the St. Laurent government in 1957.
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In 1957, for his role in resolving the Suez Crisis through the United Nations, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The selection committee argued that Pearson had "saved the world", but critics accused him of betraying the motherland and Canada's ties with the UK. Pearson and UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld are considered the fathers of the modern concept of peacekeeping. Together, they were able to organize the United Nations Emergency Force by way of a five-day fly-around in early November 1956. His Nobel medal is on permanent display in the front lobby of the Lester B. Pearson Building, the headquarters of Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa.
St. Laurent was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker in the election of 1957. After just a few months as Leader of the Opposition, St. Laurent retired, and he endorsed Pearson as his successor. Pearson was elected leader of the Liberal Party at its leadership convention of 1958, defeating his chief rival, former cabinet minister Paul Martin, Sr.
At his first parliamentary session as Opposition Leader, Pearson asked Diefenbaker to give power back to the Liberals without an election, because of a recent economic downturn. This strategy backfired when Diefenbaker showed a classified Liberal document saying that the economy would face a downturn in that year. This contrasted heavily with the Liberals' campaign promises of 1957.
Consequently, Pearson's party was routed in the federal election of 1958, losing over half their seats, while Diefenbaker's Conservatives won the largest majority ever seen in Canada to that point (208 of 265 seats). The election also cost the Liberals their stronghold in Quebec. This province had voted largely Liberal in federal elections since the Conscription Crisis of 1917, but Quebec had no favourite son leader, as it had had since 1948.
In the federal election of 1962, the Liberals, led by Pearson, and the surprise election of 30 Social Credit MP's, helped to deprive the Tories of their majority, so that Diefenbaker's Conservatives formed a minority government.
Not long after the election, Pearson capitalized on the Conservatives' indecision on accepting American nuclear warheads on Canadian BOMARC missiles. Defence Minister Douglas Harkness resigned from Cabinet on 4 February 1963, because of Diefenbaker's opposition to accepting the warheads. On the next day, the government lost two nonconfidence motions on the issue, forcing a national election. In that election, the Liberals took 129 seats to the Tories' 95. Despite winning 41 percent of the vote, the Liberals came up five seats short of a majority largely because of winning just three seats on the Prairies. With the support of six Social Credit MPs from Quebec, Pearson was able to guarantee stable government to the Governor General, and Diefenbaker resigned, allowing Pearson to form a minority government. He was sworn in as the Prime Minister on 22 April 1963. Even though the support the Social Credit MPs was soon withdrawn, Pearson was able to maintain government with the support of the New Democratic Party.
Pearson campaigned during the election promising "60 Days of Decision" and supported the Bomarc surface-to-air missile program. Pearson never had a majority in the House of Commons, but he brought in many of Canada's major updated social programs, including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and Canada Student Loans, and he instituted a new national flag, the Maple Leaf flag. He also instituted the 40-hour work week, two weeks vacation time, and a new minimum wage.
Pearson signed the Canada–United States Automotive Agreement (or Auto Pact) in January 1965, and unemployment fell to its lowest rate in over a decade. While in office, Pearson declined U.S. requests to send Canadian combat troops into the Vietnam War. Pearson spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia on 2 April 1965, while visiting the United States and voiced his support for a pause in the American bombing of North Vietnam, so that a diplomatic solution to the crisis may unfold. To President Lyndon B. Johnson, this criticism of American foreign policy on American soil was an intolerable sin. Before Pearson had finished his speech, he was summoned to Camp David, Maryland, to meet with Johnson the next day. Johnson, who was notorious for his personal touch in politics, reportedly grabbed Pearson by the lapels and shouted, "Don't you come into my living room and piss on my rug."
Pearson later recounted that the meeting was acrimonious, but insisted the two parted cordially. After this incident, L.B.J. and Pearson did have further contacts, including two more meetings together, both times in Canada as the United States relied on Canada's raw materials and resources to fuel and sustain its efforts in the Vietnam War.
Pearson also started a number of Royal Commissions, including the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. These suggested changes that helped create legal equality for women, and brought official bilingualism into being. After Pearson's term in office, French was made an official language, and the Canadian government provided services in both English and French. Pearson himself had hoped that he would be the last unilingual Prime Minister of Canada and fluency in both English and French became an unofficial requirement for candidates for Prime Minister after Pearson left office.
Pearson's government endured significant controversy in Canada's military services throughout the mid-1960s, following the tabling of the White Paper on Defence in March 1964. This document laid out a plan to merge the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Canadian Army to form a single service called the Canadian Forces. Military unification took effect on 1 February 1968, when The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act received Royal Assent.
Pearson has been credited with instituting the world's first race-free immigration system. Credit for who created the policy, however, is disputed, and likely should be shared with John Diefenbaker. Diefenbaker's government in 1962 introduced a new race-free policy; however, under the 1962 policy, Americans were still given an advantage. It was in 1967 that Pearson introduced a discrimination-free points-based system which encouraged immigration to Canada, a forerunner of the system still in place today.
Pearson also oversaw Canada's centennial celebrations in 1967 before retiring. The Canadian news agency, The Canadian Press, named him "Newsmaker of the Year" that year, citing his leadership during the centennial celebrations, which brought the Centennial Flame to Parliament Hill.
Also in 1967, the President of France, Charles de Gaulle, made a visit to Quebec. During that visit, de Gaulle was a staunch advocate of Quebec separatism, even going so far as to say that his procession in Montreal reminded him of his return to Paris after it was freed from the Nazis during the Second World War. President de Gaulle also gave his "Vive le Québec libre" speech during the visit. Given Canada's efforts in aiding France during both world wars, Pearson was enraged. He rebuked de Gaulle in a speech the following day, remarking that "Canadians do not need to be liberated" and made it clear that de Gaulle was no longer welcome in Canada.
After his 14 December 1967 announcement that he was retiring from politics, a leadership convention was held. Pearson's successor was Pierre Trudeau, whom Pearson had recruited and made justice minister in his cabinet. Two other cabinet ministers Pearson had recruited, John Turner and Jean Chrétien, served as prime ministers following Trudeau's retirement.
From 1968 to 1969, Pearson served as chairman of the Commission on International Development (the Pearson Commission), which was sponsored by the World Bank. Immediately following his retirement, he lectured in history and political science at Carleton University while writing his memoirs. From 1970 to 1972, he was the first chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Development Research Centre. From 1969 until his death in 1972, he was chancellor of Carleton University in Ottawa.
In 1970, Pearson underwent a surgery to have his right eye removed in order to remove a tumor in that area.
Pearson had planned at the time to write a three-volume set of memoirs, and had published Volume One by 1972. He had finished but a few chapters of Volume Two when, in November 1972, it was reported that he was admitted to the hospital for further unspecified treatment, but the prognosis was poor. He tried to write at this juncture the story of his prime ministerial career, but his condition, which was already precarious, deteriorated rapidly by Christmas Eve.
|Order of Merit (OM)||
|Companion of the Order of Canada (CC)||
|Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)||
|British War Medal||
|Victory Medal (United Kingdom)||
|Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal|
|Centennial Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal|
Former Prime Minister of Canada. For his services to Canada at home and abroad.
Lester B. Pearson received Honorary Degrees from 48 Universities, including:
Strong exports to the United States resulting from the mounting demands of the war in Vietnam, combined with a booming domestic market, made 1966 a year of impressive economic growth for Canada.Also OCLC 19056858.
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