After taking his BA at University of Toronto in 1919, Pearson was undecided on a career. He tried law and business, won a fellowship to Oxford, and was hired by University of Toronto to teach history, which he combined with tennis and coaching football. Pearson also married and soon had children. Finding a professor's salary insufficient, he joined the Department of External Affairs (now FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND INTERNATIONAL TRADE). By 1928 he had trained himself as a perceptive observer and an able writer, both useful qualities in his work. Pearson quickly attracted the attention of his deputy minister, O.D. SKELTON.
In 1935 he was sent to London as first secretary in the Canadian High Commission, giving him a front-row seat as Europe drifted towards WWII. He was profoundly influenced by what he saw and thereafter attached great importance to collective defence in the face of dictatorships and aggression. In 1941 Pearson returned to Canada. He was sent to Washington as second-in-command at the Canadian Legation in 1942, where his easygoing personality and personal charm made him a great success, particularly with the press. In 1945 he was named Canadian ambassador to the US and attended the founding conference of the UNITED NATIONS at San Francisco.
In September 1946 Pearson was summoned home by PM KING to become deputy minister (or undersecretary) of external affairs. He continued to take a strong interest in the UN but also promoted a closer political and economic relationship between Canada and its principal allies, the US and the UK. Pearson's work culminated in Canada's joining NATO in 1949. He strongly supported a Western self-defence organization, although he hoped that its existence would persuade the USSR that aggression would be futile.
By the time NATO was in place, Pearson had left the civil service for politics. In September 1948 he became minister of external affairs and subsequently represented Algoma East, Ontario, in the House of Commons. As minister, he helped lead Canada into the Korean War as a contributor to the UN army and, in 1952, served as president of the UN General Assembly, where he tried to find a solution to the conflict. His efforts displeased the Americans, who considered him too inclined to compromise on difficult points of principle. His greatest diplomatic achievement came in 1956, when he proposed a UN PEACEKEEPING force as means for easing the British and French out of Egypt. His plan was implemented, and as a reward he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
By then Pearson was no longer in office. He and the ST-LAURENT government were widely blamed for not standing by Britain in 1956. The Liberals were defeated, St-Laurent resigned as leader, and at a convention in January 1958 Pearson defeated Paul MARTIN to become leader. The Liberals faced a minority Conservative government under John DIEFENBAKER, and in his first act as leader Pearson challenged Diefenbaker to resign and turn the government over to him. Diefenbaker ridiculed the idea and in the subsequent general election the Liberals were reduced to 49 of the 265 seats in the Commons. Pearson began the slow task of rebuilding the party. With the assistance of parliamentary debaters such as Paul Martin and J.W. PICKERSGILL and party workers such as Walter GORDON, Mitchell SHARP, and Maurice LAMONTAGNE, he re-established the Liberals as a national party and in the 1962 general election raised the party's total to 100 seats. In 1963 the Diefenbaker government collapsed over the issue of nuclear weapons and in the subsequent election the Liberals won 128 seats to form a minority government.
Pearson took office 22 April 1963. His government was expected to be more businesslike than Diefenbaker's but proved instead to be accident-prone in aborting its first budget. Much of Parliament's time was spent in bitter partisan and personal wrangling, culminating in an interminable FLAG DEBATE of 1964. In 1965 Pearson called a general election but again failed to secure a majority. In the next year the MUNSINGER scandal erupted with even more partisan bitterness. The year 1965 marks a dividing line in his administration, as Finance Minister Walter Gordon departed and Jean MARCHAND and Pierre TRUDEAU from Québec became prominent in the Cabinet. Pearson's attempts in his first term to conciliate Québec and the other provinces with "co-operative federalism" and "bilingualism and biculturalism" were superseded by a firm federal response to provincial demands and by the Québec government's attempts to usurp federal roles in international relations. When, during his centennial visit, French President Charles de Gaulle uttered the separatist slogan "Vive le Québec libre" to a crowd in Montréal, Pearson issued an official rebuke and de Gaulle promptly went home. In December 1967 Pearson announced his intention to retire and in April 1968 a Liberal convention picked Pierre Trudeau as his successor.
For all its superficial chaos, the Pearson government left behind a notable legacy of legislation: a Canada Pension Plan, a universal medicare system, a unified armed force, a new flag and a revised transport Act. Its approach to the problem of Canada's disadvantaged regions was less thorough and its legacy, such as the Glace Bay heavy-water plant, decidedly mixed. Not all of these initiatives proved fruitful and some were costly, but they represented the high point of the Canadian WELFARE STATE that generations of social thinkers had dreamed about. In retirement Pearson worked on a study of international aid for the World Bank and on his memoirs.
Author ROBERT BOTHWELL
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Lester Bowles Pearson
This site is dedicated to Lester Pearson, winner of the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize. Includes biography and texts of speeches. The official website of the Nobel Foundation.
First Among Equals
Learn about the private lives and political careers of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Includes biographies, speeches, and other historical documents. A Library and Archives Canada website.
Watch the Heritage Minute about the Canadian flag from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers
Check this site for photos and information about specific grave sites of former Prime Ministers of Canada. From the website for the National Program for the Grave Sites of Canadian Prime Ministers.
Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech
This website features the text of the Honourable Lester Bowles Pearson’s acceptance speech upon presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. Produced by The United Nations Association in Canada.
Top 10 Things Canadians Should Know About Canada
Click on the 101things.ca link to discover the top 10 things people should know about Canada, a list developed from a national survey of what Canadians felt were the 101 people, places, symbols, events and innovations that most define our nation. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Expo 67: Montréal Welcomes the World
Check out a selection of radio and television clips about Expo 67 from the CBC Digital Archives.
The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre
The "Pearson Peacekeeping Centre" website offers information about the Centre’s internships, courses, and research programs. Also features the latest news about world hotspots.
Click on the brief profiles of "extraordinary Canadians" and the authors who wrote about them in this Penguin Group (Canada) series. Also includes bios of artists who created the cover art for each book.
Order of Merit
A description of the "Order of Merit," a special honour awarded to individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature, and science. From the official website of the British Monarchy.
Lester Bowles Pearson
A biography of Lester Bowles Pearson. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
View brief videos from a television series profiling some of Canada's most distinguished Canadians. Click on "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page to see additional videos.