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Biography

1882 - 1973

"Our nation was planned as a political partnership of two great races. It was planned by men of vision, of tolerance, as a partnership in which both of the partners would retain their essential characteristics, their religion, their culture." -- Louis St. Laurent, August 6, 1948

Like Sir Wilfrid Laurier, national unity was Louis St. Laurent's primary concern as prime minister. St. Laurent was descended from French and British ancestry, and like his predecessor, fluently bilingual, commanding the admiration and support of Canadians of both cultures.

Louis Stephen St. Laurent was born in Compton, Quebec in 1882. His father, a store owner, was Quebecois and his mother was Irish. He grew up speaking French to his father and English to his mother, and was a teenager before he realized that this was not a customary practice in every family!

After completing six years of study at the Collège classique in Sherbrooke, St. Laurent attended Laval University where he earned his degree in law. Upon graduation in 1905, he was offered a Rhodes Scholarship, but turned it down in order to get started in the legal profession. He joined a Quebec law firm and began a legal career that lasted twenty-five years. St. Laurent's bilingualism was an asset and he found himself representing Quebec clients in Ottawa, Great Britain and the U.S. He excelled in both corporate and constitutional law. St. Laurent had been involved with the Liberal party since childhood. His father had run as a Liberal candidate in provincial elections and it was through him that young Louis met and shook hands with the campaigning Wilfrid Laurier in 1896. But although St. Laurent was supportive of the party and its candidates, many of whom were his friends, he had no interest in being a politician himself.

In 1941, St. Laurent was fifty-nine years old; he had a distinguished and lucrative legal career and was at the age when he could contemplate retirement. Fate, however, had other things in mind for him. Ernest Lapointe, Minister of Justice and Prime Minister Mackenzie King's Quebec lieutenant, had just died and King was anxious to replace him with a man of equal calibre. For a variety of reasons, his choices within the caucus or the party were unable to take over the position, but all of them recommended Louis St. Laurent. Despite his initial protests of political inexperience, St. Laurent soon realized the importance of the role being offered him. He accepted on the grounds of patriotic duty and with the stipulation that he would retire as soon as the war was over. He won a by-election in 1942 and took his seat in the House and Cabinet.

St. Laurent's calm demeanour and rational logic, his knowledge of law and his dislike of political gamesmanship won him the respect of King, his Cabinet colleagues, even the Opposition. In the Conscription Crisis of 1944, St. Laurent's staunch support prevented the collapse of the government and the war effort. In the immediate aftermath of victory, he became involved in the establishment of the United Nations. Not only did he see a role for Canada independent of Britain and the Commonwealth, he felt that as a middle power, Canada should take an active role as an intermediary in international affairs.

By 1948, St. Laurent's political retirement was long overdue and he contemplated resigning. However, King and the Liberal party felt there was no man better qualified to succeed as prime minister. St. Laurent was persuaded to stand as a candidate at the leadership convention in August 1948, which he won.

In his first election as prime minister, the party was worried about his public image. While his quiet reserve and dignified manner enhanced the House of Commons, would they appeal to the average Canadian? But St. Laurent surprised everyone with his "common touch" and ability to connect with people. His rapport with children proved particularly appealing and he was dubbed "Uncle Louis."

As prime minister, St. Laurent oversaw the joining of Newfoundland in Confederation as Canada's tenth province in 1949. Despite considerable initial opposition, he managed to establish equalization payments to the provinces. The Liberals continued their program of social reform with improvements in pensions and health insurance. Canada played an important role in resolving the Suez Crisis in 1956, and contributed to the UN force in the Korean War. Under St. Laurent's ministry, wartime debts were paid off and Canada enjoyed economic prosperity. The pipeline debate proved the Liberals' undoing. Their attempt to pass legislation to build a natural gas pipeline from Alberta to central Canada met with fierce disagreement in the House. The introduction of closure further infuriated the Opposition and the Liberals were discredited in the eyes of the public.

After almost twenty-two years in power, the Liberals lost the 1957 election. St. Laurent was content to finally retire from politics and resigned his leadership in 1958. His retirement was a quiet one, spent with his family, enjoying his many grandchildren. He died in 1973, at the age of ninety-one.


Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

St. Laurent: main page



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