Lester Bowles "Mike" Pearson PC OM CC OBE (23 April, 1897 – 27 December, 1972) was a Canadian statesman, diplomat and politician who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. He was also the fourteenth Prime Minister of Canada from April 22, 1963, until April 20, 1968, as the head of two back-to-back minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.
During his time as Prime Minister, Pearson's minority government introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the current Canadian flag. During his tenure, Prime Minister Pearson also convened the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. 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.
Pearson was born in Newtonbrook
, the son of Edwin Arthur Pearson, a Methodist
(later United Church of Canada
) minister and Anne Sarah Bowles. He entered Victoria College
at the University of Toronto
in 1914, where he lived in residence in Gate House
and shared a room with his brother Duke (Marmaduke). While at the University of Toronto, he joined the Delta Upsilon
Fraternity. He was subsequently elected to the Pi Gamma Mu
social science honor society's chapter at the University of Toronto for his outstanding scholastic performance in history and sociology. At the university, he became a noted athlete, excelling in rugby union
and playing for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club
. Pearson also starred in baseball
as a youth, frequently played golf
as an adult, and so had the most intense and wideranging competitive sporting interests of any Canadian prime minister.
First World War
When the First World War
broke out in 1914, he volunteered for service as a Medical Orderly with the University of Toronto Hospital Unit. In 1915, he undertook overseas service with the Canadian Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer with the rank of Private and had a subsequent commissioning to the rank of Lieutenant. During this period of service he spent two years in Egypt
. In 1917, Pearson transferred to the Royal Flying Corps
(as 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; while training as a pilot at an air training school in Hendon, England, Pearson survived an airplane crash during his first flight. Unfortunately, in 1918, he was hit by a London bus during a blackout and was sent home as an invalid to recuperate and then 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 BA
from the University of Toronto in 1919. Upon receiving a scholarship, he studied at St John's College
, the (University of Oxford
), where he received a Second-Class BA in modern history in 1923 and the MA
in 1925. After Oxford, he returned to Canada and taught history at the University of Toronto, where he also coached
the Varsity Blues Canadian football
team, and the Varsity Blues men's ice hockey team
. In 1925, he married Maryon Moody
(1901-1989), who was one of his students at the University of Toronto. Together, they had one daughter, Patricia, and one son, Geoffrey
After scoring the top marks on the Canadian foreign service entry exam, he then embarked on a career in the Department of External Affairs
. Pearson was posted to London
in the late 1930s, and served there as World War II
began in 1939, until 1942 as the second-in-command at Canada House, where he coordinated military supply and refugee issues, serving under High Commissioner Vincent Massey
. Pearson returned to Ottawa
for a few months. He was then posted to Washington, D.C.
, where he served as second-in-command for nearly two years, and then became Canada's ambassador to the United States on January 1, 1945. He had an important part in founding both the United Nations
. During the Second World War
, he once served as a courier with the codename "Mike." He went on to become the first director of Signal Intelligence.
Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King tried to recruit Pearson into his government as the war wound down. Pearson felt honoured by King's approach, but resisted at the time, due to his personal dislike of King's interpersonal style and political methods. Pearson would not make the move into politics until a few years later, after King had announced his retirement as prime minister.
In 1948, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent appointed Pearson Minister of External Affairs in the Liberal government. Shortly afterward, he won a seat in the Canadian House of Commons, for the federal riding of Algoma East. In 1957, for his role in defusing the Suez Crisis through the United Nations, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The selection committee claimed that Pearson had "saved the world." The United Nations Emergency Force was Pearson's creation, and he is considered the father of the modern concept of peacekeeping. His Nobel medal is on permanent display in the front lobby of the Lester B. Pearson Building, the headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa.
He was elected leader of the Liberal Party at its 1958 leadership convention, defeating his chief rival, cabinet minister Paul Joseph James Martin.
As the newly-elected leader of the Liberals, Mr. Pearson had given an ill-advised speech in the House of Commons that asked Prime Minister Diefenbaker to give power back to the Liberals without an election, because of a recent economic downturn. This strategy backfired when Diefenbaker seized on the error by showing a classified Liberal document saying that the economy would face a downturn in that year. This contrasted heavily with the Liberal's 1957 campaign promises, and would make sure the "arrogant" label would remain attached to the Liberal party.
Consequently, Pearson's party was badly routed in the election of that year, losing over half their seats, while Diefenbaker's Conservatives won one of the largest majorities. The election also cost the Liberals their Quebec stronghold; the province had voted largely Liberal in federal elections since the Conscription Crisis of 1917, but upon the resignation of former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, the province had no favourite son leader, as they had since 1948.
Pearson convened a significant 'Thinkers' Conference' at Kingston, Ontario in 1960, which developed many of the ideas later implemented when he became prime minister.
In the 1962 election, his party reduced the Progressive Conservative Party of John Diefenbaker to a minority government.
Not long after the election, Pearson capitalized on the Conservatives' indecision on installing nuclear warheads on Bomarc missiles. Minister of National Defence Douglas Harkness resigned from Cabinet on February 4, 1963 because of Diefenbaker's opposition to accepting the missiles. The next day, the government lost two non-confidence motions on the issue, prompting the election.
Pearson led the Liberals to a minority government
in the 1963 general election
, and became prime minister. He had campaigned during the election promising "60 Days of Decision" and support for the Bomarc missile program
Pearson never had a majority in the Canadian House of Commons, but he nevertheless managed to bring in many of Canada's major social programs, including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan and Canada Student Loans, and established a new national flag, the Maple Leaf. This was due in part to support for his minority government in the House of Commons from the New Democratic Party, led by Tommy Douglas. His legislation included instituting 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 resisted U.S. pressure to enter the Vietnam War. Pearson spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia on April 2, 1965, while visiting the United States, and voiced his support for a negotiated settlement to the Vietnam War. When he visited U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson the next day, Johnson (supposedly) grabbed Pearson by the lapels and shouted, "You pissed on my rug. Pearson later recounted that the meeting was acrimonious, but insisted the two parted cordially. After this incident, LBJ and Pearson did have further contacts, including two further meetings together, both times in Canada. (Canadians most remember the Pearson years as a time Canada-U.S. relations greatly improved.)
Pearson also started a number of Royal Commissions, including one on the status of women and another on bilingualism. They instituted changes that helped create legal equality for women, and brought official bilingualism into being. After Pearson, French was made an official language, and the Canadian government would provide services in both. Pearson himself had hoped that he would be the last unilingual Prime Minister of Canada and, indeed, fluency in both English and French became an unofficial requirement for Prime Ministerial candidates after Pearson left office.
His 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 Armed Forces. Military unification took effect on 1 February 1968 when The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act received Royal Assent.
Pearson was also remarkable for instituting the world's first race-free immigration system, throwing out previous ones that had discriminated against certain people, such as Jews and the Chinese. His points-based system encouraged immigration to Canada, and a similar system is 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 aid of 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 making it clear that de Gaulle was no longer welcome in Canada. The French President returned to his home country and would never visit Canada again.
Supreme Court appointments
Pearson chose the following jurists to be appointed as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada
by the Governor General
- Robert Taschereau (as Chief Justice, April 22, 1963 – September 1, 1967; appointed a Puisne Justice under Prime Minister King, February 9, 1940)
- Wishart Flett Spence (May 30, 1963 – December 29, 1978)
- John Robert Cartwright (as Chief Justice, September 1, 1967 – March 23, 1970; appointed a Puisne Justice under Prime Minister St. Laurent, December 22, 1949)
- Louis-Philippe Pigeon (September 21, 1967 – February 8, 1980)
After his announcement on December 14, 1967, that he was retiring from politics, a leadership convention was held. Pearson's successor was Pierre Trudeau, a man who Pearson had recruited and made Minister of Justice in his cabinet. Trudeau later became Prime Minister, and two other cabinet ministers Pearson recruited, John Turner and Jean Chrétien, served as prime ministers in the years following Trudeau's retirement. Paul Martin Jr., the son of Pearson's minister of external affairs, Paul Martin Sr., also went on to become prime minister.
Pearson served as Chancellor of Carleton University in Ottawa from 1969 until his death in 1972. Pearson is buried just north of Gatineau, in Wakefield, QC in Maclaren Cemetery, next to his close External Affairs colleagues H. H. Wrong and Norman Robertson.
Honours and awards
- The Canadian Press named Pearson "Newsmaker of the Year" nine times, a record he held until his successor, Pierre Trudeau, surpassed it in 2000. He was also only one of two prime ministers to have received the honour, both before and when prime minister (the other being Brian Mulroney).
- The Lester B. Pearson Award is awarded annually to the National Hockey League's outstanding player in the regular season, as judged by members of the NHL Players Association (NHLPA). It was first awarded in 1971 to Phil Esposito, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
- Pearson was inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame at the University of Toronto.
- Pearson was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
- The Lester B. Pearson Building, completed in 1973, is the headquarters for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, a tribute to his service as external affairs minister.
- Lester B. Pearson College, opened in 1974, is a United World College near Victoria, British Columbia.
- The Pearson Medal of Peace, first awarded in 1979, is an award given out annually by the United Nations Association in Canada to recognize an individual Canadian's "contribution to international service."
- Toronto Pearson International Airport, first opened in 1939 and re-christened with its current name in 1984, is Canada's busiest airport.
- The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, established in 1994, is an independent not-for-profit institution providing research and training on all aspects of peace operations.
- The Lester B. Pearson School Board is the largest English-language school board in Quebec. The majority of the schools of the Lester B. Pearson School Board are located on the western half of the island of Montreal, with a few of its schools located off the island as well.
- Lester B. Pearson High School lists five so-named schools, in Calgary, Toronto, Burlington, Ottawa, and Montreal. There are also elementary schools in Ajax, Ontario; Aurora, Ontario; Brampton, Ontario; London, Ontario; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; Waterloo, Ontario and Wesleyville, Newfoundland.
- Pearson Avenue is located near Highway 407 and Yonge Street in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada; less than five miles from his place of birth.
- Pearson Way is an arterial access road located in a new subdivision in Milton, Ontario; many ex-Prime Ministers are being honoured in this growing community, including Prime Ministers Trudeau and Laurier.
- Lester B. Pearson Place completed in 2006, is a four storey affordable housing building in Newtonbrook, Ontario, mere steps from his place of birth.
- Lester B. Pearson Civic Centre, is in Elliot Lake, Ontario
- A plaque at the north end of the North American Life building in North York commemorates his place of birth. The manse where Pearson was born is gone, but a plaque is located at his birth site.
- The Pearson Cup was a baseball competition between the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos.
Lester B. Pearson received Honorary Degrees from 48 Universities, including:
- Beal, John Robinson. Pearson of Canada. 1964.
- Beal, John Robinson and Poliquin, Jean-Marc. Les trois vies de Pearson of Canada. 1968.
- Bliss, Michael. Right Honourable Men: the descent of Canadian politics from Macdonald to Mulroney, 1994.
- Bothwell, Robert. Pearson, His Life and World. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1978. ISBN 0-07-082305-7.
- Bowering, George. Egotists and Autocrats: The Prime Ministers of Canada, 1997.
- Champion, C.P. "A Very British Coup: Canadianism, Quebec and Ethnicity in the Flag Debate, 1964-1965." Journal of Canadian Studies 40.3 (2006), p. 68-99. Journal of Canadian Studies 40.3
- Champion, C.P. "Mike Pearson at Oxford: War, Varsity, and Canadianism," Canadian Historical Review, 88, 2, June 2007, 263-90.
- Donaldson, Gordon. The Prime Ministers of Canada, 1999.
- English, John. Shadow of Heaven: The Life of Lester Pearson, Volume I, 1897-1948. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989. ISBN 0-88619-169-6.
- English, John. The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson, Volume II, 1949-1972. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1992. ISBN 0-394-22729-8.
- Ferguson, Will. Bastards and Boneheads: Canada's Glorious Leaders, Past and Present, 1997.
- Fry, Michael G. Freedom and Change: Essays in Honour of Lester B. Pearson. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975. ISBN 0-7710-3187-
- Hillmer, Norman and J.L. Granatstein, Prime Ministers: Rating Canada's Leaders, 2001.
- Hutchison, Bruce. Mr. Prime Minister 1867-1964, Toronto: Longmans Canada, 1964.
- Stursberg, Peter. Lester Pearson and the Dream of Unity. Toronto: Doubleday, 1978. ISBN 0-385-13478-9.
- Thordarson, Bruce. Lester Pearson: Diplomat and Politician. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974. ISBN 0-19-540225-1.
- Pearson, Lester B. Canada: Nation on the March. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1953.
- Pearson, Lester B. The Crisis of Development. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.
- Pearson, Lester B. Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1959.
- Pearson, Lester B. The Four Faces of Peace and the International Outlook. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.
- Pearson, Lester B. Mike : The Memoirs of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972. ISBN 0-575-01709-0 .
- Pearson, Lester B. Peace in the Family of Man. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. ISBN 0-563-08449-9.
- Pearson, Lester B. Words and Occasions: An Anthology of Speeches and Articles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970. ISBN 0-674-95611-7.