Lester B. Pearson

Photo of Lester B. Pearson
Lester Bowles "Mike" Pearson, PC, CC, OM, OBE, MA, LL.D. (April 23, 1897 – December 27, 1972) was a Canadian statesman, diplomat and politician who was made a Nobel Laureate in 1957. He served as the fourteenth Prime Minister of Canada from April 22, 1963, to April 20, 1968, during which period he led two back-to-back minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.

During his time as Prime Minister, Pearson's minority governments introduced universal health care, student loans, bilingualism, the Canada Pension Plan, and Canada's flag. With these accomplishments together with his groundbreaking work at the United Nations and in international diplomacy, Pearson can safely be regarded as one of the most influential Canadians of the twentieth century.

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 introduced important social programs (including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and Canada Student Loans), and the Maple Leaf Flag. Pearson's government instituted many of the social programs that Canadians hold dear. 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 actions included instituting the 40-hour work week, 2 weeks vacation time, and a new minimum wage.

Pearson signed the Canada-United States Automotive Agreement (or Auto Pact) in January of 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 strongly berated Pearson. According to Canadian legend, Johnson grabbed Pearson by the lapels, shook him, and shouted "Dammit, Les, 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 Ministeral candidates after Pearson left office.

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, Canadian Press, named him "Newsmaker of the Year" that year, citing his leadership during the centennial celebrations, which brought the Centennial Flame on 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 World War II. President de Gaulle also gave his now infamous "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 welcomed in Canada. The French President returned to his home country, and would never visit Canada again.