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|Lester B. Pearson
diplomat, Prime Minister of Canada, and the only Canadian ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize
Lester Bowles Pearson was born in Toronto, Ontario, on April 23, 1897. From an early age he established himself as an excellent student, as well as a star athlete.
Education and War Service
Pearson entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1913, but his studies were interrupted by outbreak of the First World War. In 1915, he enlisted in the Canadian Army as a private. Too young to serve in combat, he served in the medical corps in the Balkan area until 1917, when he transferred to the British Royal Flying Corps and was commissioned a Flight Lieutenant. Injured in an accident during flight training, he invalided to Canada in 1918, and served out the war as a ground instructor at a Canadian air base.
Pearson resumed his college studies soon after returning to Canada, and graduated with honors in 1919. After studying law for several weeks in Toronto, he took a job stuffing sausages at an Armour and Company plant in Hamilton, Ontario. He subsequently worked as a clerk in Armour's Chicago plant.
In 1921, Pearson won a scholarship from the Massey Foundation which allowed him to study history at Oxford University in England, from which he received his Master's degree in 1924. During his years at Oxford he starred on the school's hockey team, and played on the British Olympic hockey team. From 1924 to 1928, he taught history at the University of Toronto.
Early Diplomatic Career
In 1928, Pearson left the academic world to become First Secretary in the Department of External Affairs, under Liberal Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King. During the administration of Prime Minister Richard B. Bennett (1930-1935), Pearson participated in several international conferences. In recognition of his public service to date, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire by King George V.
After King returned to the Prime Ministership in 1935, Pearson became First Secretary in the Canadian High Commissioner's office in London. In 1941, he was named Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, in which position he served until 1943. During this period of service he also served on the staff of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
In 1943, Pearson headed a United Nations commission on food and agriculture. As chairman of another committee, he helped organize the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA), and represented Canada at UNRRA meetings in 1944, 1945, and 1946. In 1945, Pearson served as the senior adviser to the Canadian delegation to the San Francisco conference that drafted and signed the United Nations Charter. That same year he played a prominent role in establishment of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Most of the Western nations wanted Pearson to become the first Secretary-General of the United Nations, but Russia vetoed the move.
Also in 1945, Pearson was appointed Ambassador to the United States, a position he held until 1946, when he again became Undersecretary of State for External Affairs.
Secretary of State for External Affairs
Pearson was appointed Secretary of State for External Affairs in September 1948, but was unable to take the position until after being elected to the House of Commons in October. Already a well-respected diplomat within Canada, Pearson's new position gained him respect from the international community.
In April 1949, Pearson represented Canada at ceremonies establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance which he had helped organize. In 1951 he was elected to a one-year term as chairman of the North Atlantic Council, the chief policy-making body of NATO.
In 1951, Pearson led the Canadian delegation at a Japanese peace treaty conference in San Francisco. In 1950 and 1951, he served on a UN commission that drew up cease-fire plans that helped lay the groundwork for an eventual armistice in the Korean War.
Pearson's greatest achievement as Secretary of State was accomplished in 1956. That year, Israel and France attacked Egypt in retaliation for that nation seizing control of the Suez Canal. It was Pearson who drafted the United Nations proposal to establish an emergency military force to end the fighting and supervise a cease-fire. For this accomplishment, Pearson became the only Canadian to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace, in 1957.
Liberal Party Leader
Pearson became leader of the Liberals in January 1958, after the government of Prime Minister St. Laurent fell to the Conservatives, led by John G. Diefenbaker. Elections were held in March, in which the Liberals only managed to win 49 of the 265 seats in the House of Commons.
Although Pearson initially appeared to his colleagues to be less than enthusiastic about leading the party, he gradually won their respect and, in June 1962, the Liberals more than doubled their numbers in the House.
In 1963, Diefenbaker's government came under fire when Diefenbaker refused to allow atomic warheads on defensive missiles provided by the United States. Pearson, as well as a great many Canadian voters, believed that Canada should accept the warheads. Diefenbaker's government was overthrown by a no confidence vote in February. In April, the Liberals won 129 seats in the House. Although four seats short of an absolute majority, most of the smaller opposition parties agreed to support Pearson, and he was officially sworn in as Prime Minister on April 22. In May 1963, Pearson personally informed U.S. President John F. Kennedy that Canada would accept the warheads.
The most serious problem Pearson faced as Prime Minister was the French-dominated province of Quebec, many residents of which were lobbying for independence from Canada. One group, the Quebec Liberation Front, did so through a campaign of violence, which included bombings of government buildings. Pearson was able to quell much of the dissension by establishing the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, which led to all government services being offered in both English and French.
To help curb rampant unemployment, Pearson proposed a new government department to promote industrial development. In January 1965, he signed the Canada-United States Automotive Agreement, which created thousands of jobs in southern Ontario.
Other major domestic achievements under Pearson's administration included: introduction of the Canadian Pension Plan; establishment of a national system of universal medical care; establishment of a program of crop insurance; an increase in old age pensions and veterans' allowances; and introduction of a national labor code which established a minimum wage of $1.25 an hour, an eight-hour work day, a forty-hour work week, and a two-week vacation for all workers. Incredibly, he accomplished all of this, and more, without incurring a budget deficit.
One of the most controversial acts of Pearson's administration was his calling for Canada to abandon use of the flag it had been flying since its pre-independence days in favor of a truly Canadian flag. After much debate and controversy, the familiar Maple Leaf Flag was finally adopted in December 1964, and was first flown officially on February 15, 1965.
In April 1968, while still at the height of his popularity, Pearson abruptly announced his resignation as Prime Minister and head of the Liberal Party. He was succeeded in both positions by Pierre E. Trudeau, one of his protégés.
Pearson's retirement from public service would be very short-lived. In August 1968, he became head of a World Bank commission established to assist economic progress of underdeveloped countries.
In 1970, Pearson underwent an operation for cancer that resulted in the removal of an eye, and he was forced to retire for good. He died of cancer at his home in Ottawa on December 27, 1972.
In 1984, the Toronto International Airport was renamed Lester B. Pearson International Airport. In 2003, Pearson was named Best Prime Minister of the Last 50 Years by a suvey of historians, political scientists, journalists, and other noted Canadians.
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This page was last updated on 06/13/2018.