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Introduction
Alone at the Top
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Lester Bowles Pearson.

Biography

1897 - 1972

"I have done it by hard work and long hours, by making it evident that I was available for whatever was to be done; by welcoming every opportunity for new and more responsible duties; and by accumulating all the experience possible in all the varied aspects of my profession." -- Lester Pearson, in his memoirs, 1972

Such a philosophy led our fourteenth prime minister from playing semi-pro baseball for the Guelph Maple Leafs, to the highest position in Canada and to the presidency of the United Nations. Yet he never lost the easy-going, friendly aspect of a rural Ontario boy; indeed, it was exactly this manner that won him the trust of so many nations and led him to win one of the world's highest honours.

Lester Bowles Pearson was born in Newton Brook, Ontario in 1897. His father was a Methodist minister who moved frequently, so Pearson and his brothers were schooled in Peterborough, Aurora, Hamilton and other small Ontario towns. In 1913, he went to the University of Toronto to study for a general B.A. Two years later, in the midst of his studies, he enlisted. Pearson served two years as a medical orderly in a military hospital in Salonika. In 1917, he requested a transfer to the RAF and went to air training school in Hendon, England. He survived an airplane crash during his first flight, only to be hit by a bus in London during a blackout! Pearson was invalided home in 1918.

He returned to the University of Toronto and graduated in 1919. After a year in Chicago at a meat packing plant and then a fertilizer company, he was offered a scholarship at Oxford University. There, Pearson distinguished himself on the Oxford hockey team. He returned to Canada in 1925 and taught history at the University of Toronto.

While doing research at the Public Archives in 1927, Pearson was invited to join the Department of External Affairs. He came first in the departmental exams and was appointed first secretary. During his twenty-year career in External Affairs, Pearson proved himself a natural diplomat. He was hard-working, quick to comprehend complex issues and his congenial charm quickly disarmed potentially hostile negotiators. Recognizing that any successful compromise must spare all parties from humiliation was his secret to effective diplomacy. Pearson served as first secretary at the Canadian High Commission in Britain from 1935 to 1941, and then moved to the Canadian Embassy in Washington in 1942. Three years later he served as Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., attending the conference which founded the United Nations in 1945.

The following year, Pearson was made Deputy Minister of External Affairs, where he played a key role in Canada's joining NATO. The only position left in his progress was Minister of External Affairs and to do this he had to enter politics. He gained the Commons seat for Algoma East and served in Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent's Cabinet. In 1952, Pearson was president of the UN General Assembly, where he attempted to resolve the Korean conflict. The Suez Crisis occurred in 1956; hostilities pitting the British and French against the Egyptians threatened to plunge the world into war again. Pearson met with the United Nations and suggested an international peace-keeping force to supervise the withdrawal of the combatants. The proposal was agreed to by the UN; the peace-keeping force included and was led by Canadian troops. For his efforts, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

The following year, the Liberals lost the election and St. Laurent retired as prime minister. Pearson was elected Liberal leader and served in the Opposition during the Diefenbaker years. In 1963, the Liberals won a minority government. An attempt to win a majority in 1965 was not successful and the Liberals continued with the support of the Social Credit and New Democratic party.

Governing under such circumstances is never easy, and Pearson's party endured scandals, bungled budgets and the contentious flag debate. His conciliatory approach which had proved so successful in diplomacy did not always translate to politics. Pearson's efforts to accommodate all views were often interpreted as poor leadership and a lack of direction. Nevertheless, his five-year legacy is very impressive: a new flag, the Canada Pension Plan, universal medicare, a new immigration act, a fund for rural economic development, and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism which led to the foundation of a bilingual civil service. The Centennial celebrations of 1967 awoke Canadians to their great heritage and reflected the optimism that signified the latter years of Pearson's government. One of his great talents was recognizing ability in his colleagues: three future prime ministers were all members of his 1965 cabinet.

In 1968, at the age of seventy-one, Pearson announced his retirement from politics. 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 "Liberal dynasty" lived on in his former Cabinet minister, Jean Chrétien,�Canada's 20th prime minister.


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

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