Lester B. Pearson

Lester Bowles "Mike" Pearson PC OM CC OBE (23 April 1897 – 27 December 1972) was a Canadian scholar, statesman, soldier, prime minister, and diplomat, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis. He was the 14th prime minister of Canada from 1963 to 1968, as the head of two back-to-back Liberal minority governments following elections in 1963 and 1965.

Lester B. Pearson

Pearson in 1957
14th Prime Minister of Canada
In office
22 April 1963 (1963-04-22)  20 April 1968 (1968-04-20)
MonarchElizabeth II
Governor GeneralGeorges Vanier
Roland Michener
Preceded byJohn Diefenbaker
Succeeded byPierre Trudeau
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
16 January 1958 (1958-01-16)  6 April 1968 (1968-04-06)
Preceded byLouis St. Laurent
Succeeded byPierre Trudeau
Leader of the Opposition
In office
16 January 1958 (1958-01-16)  22 April 1963 (1963-04-22)
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterJohn Diefenbaker
Preceded byLouis St. Laurent
Succeeded byJohn Diefenbaker
8th Secretary of State for External Affairs
In office
10 September 1948 (1948-09-10)  20 June 1957 (1957-06-20)
Prime MinisterW. L. Mackenzie King
Louis St. Laurent
Preceded byLouis St. Laurent
Succeeded byJohn Diefenbaker
2nd Canadian Ambassador to the United States
In office
Prime MinisterW. L. Mackenzie King
Preceded byLeighton McCarthy
Succeeded byH. H. Wrong
8th President of the United Nations General Assembly
In office
Preceded byLuis Padilla Nervo
Succeeded byVijaya Lakshmi Pandit
Member of the Canadian Parliament
for Algoma East
In office
25 October 1948 (1948-10-25)  23 April 1968 (1968-04-23)
Preceded byThomas Farquhar
Succeeded byNone (district abolished)
Personal details
Lester Bowles Pearson

(1897-04-23)23 April 1897
Newtonbrook, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Died27 December 1972(1972-12-27) (aged 75)
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Resting placeMacLaren Cemetery, Wakefield, Quebec
Political partyLiberal
Maryon Moody (m. 1925)
Children2, including Geoffrey Pearson
ProfessionDiplomat, historian, soldier
AwardsNobel Prize for Peace (1957)
Military service
Allegiance Canada
Years of service1915–18
Battles/warsWorld War I

During Pearson's time as prime minister, his Liberal minority governments introduced universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the Maple Leaf flag. His Liberal government also unified Canada's armed forces.[1] Pearson convened the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and he kept Canada out of the Vietnam War. In 1967, his government passed Bill C-168, which de facto abolished capital punishment in Canada by restricting it to a few capital offences for which it was never used, and which themselves were abolished in 1976. 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 and is ranked among the greatest Canadian Prime Ministers.[2][3]

Early life, family, and education

Pearson was born in Newtonbrook in the township of York, Ontario (now a part of Toronto), the son of Annie Sarah (née Bowles) and Edwin Arthur Pearson, a Methodist (later United Church of Canada) minister. He was the brother of Vaughan Whitier Pearson and Marmaduke Pearson.[4] Lester Pearson's father moved the young family north of Toronto to Aurora, Ontario, where he was the minister at Aurora Methodist Church on Yonge Street. Lester grew up in Aurora and attended the public school on Church Street. The family lived in the Methodist manse at the corner of Spruce and Catherine Streets. The home still exists but is in private hands. Pearson was a member of the Aurora Rugby team.

Pearson graduated from Hamilton Collegiate Institute in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1913 at the age of 16. Later that same year, he entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto,[4] where he lived in residence in Gate House and shared a room with his brother Duke. He was later elected to the Pi Gamma Mu social sciences honour society's chapter at the University of Toronto for his outstanding scholastic performance in history and psychology. Just as Northrop Frye and his storied student Margaret Atwood would, along with other luminaries such as Norman Jewison and E. J. Pratt Pearson participated in the sophomore theatrical tradition of The Bob Comedy Revue.[5] After Victoria College, Pearson won a scholarship to study at St John's College, Oxford, from 1921 to 1923.

Sporting interests

At the University of Toronto, Pearson became a noted athlete, excelling in rugby union and also playing basketball. He later also played for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club while on a scholarship at the University of Oxford, a team that won the first Spengler Cup in 1923. Pearson also excelled in baseball and lacrosse as a youth. His baseball talents as an infielder were strong enough for a summer of semi-pro play with the Guelph Maple Leafs of the Ontario Intercounty Baseball League. Pearson toured North America with a combined Oxford and Cambridge Universities lacrosse team in 1923. After he joined the University of Toronto History Department as an instructor, he helped to coach the U of T's football and hockey teams. He played golf and tennis to high standards as an adult.[6]

First World War

During World War I, Pearson volunteered for service as a medical orderly with the University of Toronto Hospital Unit. In 1915, he entered overseas service with the Canadian Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer with the rank of private, and was commissioned as a lieutenant later in the war. During this period of service he spent nearly two years in Southern Europe, being shipped to Egypt and thereafter served on the Salonika Front. He also served alongside the Serbian Army as a corporal and a medical orderly.[7] In 1917, Pearson transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, since 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. Pearson learned to fly at an air training school in Hendon, England. He survived an aeroplane crash during his first flight.[8][9][10]

In 1918, Pearson was hit by a bus in London during a citywide blackout and he was sent home to recuperate, but then he was 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.[11]

Immediate post-war years

After the war, he returned to school, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto in 1919. He was able to complete his degree after one more term, under a ruling in force at the time, since he had served in the military during the war. He then spent a year working in Hamilton, Ontario and Chicago, in the meat-packing industry, which he did not enjoy.


Upon receiving a scholarship from the Massey Foundation, he studied for two years at St John's College at the University of Oxford, where he received a B.A. degree with Second-Class honours in modern history in 1923, and the M.A. in 1925. After Oxford, he returned to Canada and taught history at the University of Toronto.

Marriage, family

In 1925, he married Maryon Moody, from Winnipeg, who had been one of his students at the University of Toronto. Together, they had one son, Geoffrey, and one daughter, Patricia.[6] Although Maryon was initially a highly critical woman with an occasionally short temper during the first two decades of marriage, she supported her husband in all his political endeavors.[12]

Diplomat, public servant

In 1927, after scoring the top marks on the Canadian foreign service entry exam, he then embarked on a career in the Department of External Affairs.[6] Prime Minister R. B. Bennett was a noted talent spotter. He took note of, and encouraged, the young Lester Pearson in the early 1930s, and appointed Pearson to significant roles on two major government inquiries: the 1931 Royal Commission on Grain Futures, and the 1934 Royal Commission on Price Spreads. Bennett saw that Pearson was recognized with an OBE after he shone in that work, arranged a bonus of $1,800, and invited him to a London conference. Pearson was assigned to the High Commission of Canada to the United Kingdom in 1935, and he served there during World War II from 1939 through 1942 as the second-in-command at Canada House, where he coordinated military supply and refugee problems, serving under High Commissioner Vincent Massey.[6] In his book (published as "Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson, Volume One: 1897-1948"), Pearson reveals that during 1940 he was hired by Sir William Stephenson—the enigmatic WWII spymaster known as "Intrepid"—to serve as a "King's Messenger" or courier conveying secret documents to Europe. (Ref. A Man Called Intrepid—The Secret War, by William Stevenson (1976).

Pearson returned to Ottawa for a few months, where he was an assistant under secretary from 1941 through 1942.[13] In June 1942 he was posted to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., as a ministerial counsellor.[13] He served as second-in-command for nearly two years. Promoted minister plenipotentiary in 1944, he became the second Canadian Ambassador to the United States on 1 January 1945. He remained in this position through September 1946.[6][13]

Pearson had an important part in founding both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[14]

Pearson nearly became the first Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1946, but he was vetoed by the Soviet Union.[6] He was also the leading candidate for Secretary-General in the 1953 selection, when the British conducted a vigorous campaign on his behalf. He placed first with 10 out of 11 votes in the Security Council, but the lone negative vote was another Soviet veto.[15][16] The Security Council instead settled on Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden; all UN Secretaries-General would come from neutral countries for the rest of the Cold War.

The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, tried to recruit Pearson into his government as the war wound down. Pearson felt honoured by King's approach, but he resisted at the time, due to his personal dislike of King's poor personal style and political methods.[17] Pearson did not make the move into politics until a few years later, after King had announced his retirement as the Prime Minister of Canada.

Early political career

In 1948, before his retirement, Prime Minister King appointed Pearson Secretary of State for External Affairs (foreign minister) in the Liberal government. Shortly afterward, Pearson won a seat in the House of Commons, for the federal riding of Algoma East in Northern Ontario.[18] Pearson then served as Secretary of State for External Affairs for Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, until the defeat of the St. Laurent government in 1957.

Nobel Peace Prize

In 1957, for his role in resolving the Suez Crisis through the United Nations, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[19] The selection committee argued that Pearson had "saved the world", but critics accused him of betraying the motherland and Canada's ties with the UK. Pearson and UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld are considered the fathers of the modern concept of peacekeeping. Together, they were able to organize the United Nations Emergency Force by way of a five-day fly-around in early November 1956. His Nobel medal is on permanent display in the front lobby of the Lester B. Pearson Building, the headquarters of Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa.

Party leadership

St. Laurent was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker in the election of 1957. After just a few months as Leader of the Opposition, St. Laurent retired, and he endorsed Pearson as his successor. Pearson was elected leader of the Liberal Party at its leadership convention of 1958, defeating his chief rival, former cabinet minister Paul Martin, Sr.

At his first parliamentary session as Opposition Leader, Pearson asked Diefenbaker to give power back to the Liberals without an election, because of a recent economic downturn. This strategy backfired when Diefenbaker showed a classified Liberal document saying that the economy would face a downturn in that year. This contrasted heavily with the Liberals' campaign promises of 1957.

Consequently, Pearson's party was routed in the federal election of 1958, losing over half their seats, while Diefenbaker's Conservatives won the largest majority ever seen in Canada to that point (208 of 265 seats). The election also cost the Liberals their stronghold in Quebec. This province had voted largely Liberal in federal elections since the Conscription Crisis of 1917, but Quebec had no favourite son leader, as it had 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 the Prime Minister.[20]

In the federal election of 1962, the Liberals, led by Pearson, and the surprise election of 30 Social Credit MP's, helped to deprive the Tories of their majority, so that Diefenbaker's Conservatives formed a minority government.

Not long after the election, Pearson capitalized on the Conservatives' indecision on accepting American nuclear warheads on Canadian BOMARC missiles. Defence Minister Douglas Harkness resigned from Cabinet on 4 February 1963, because of Diefenbaker's opposition to accepting the warheads. On the next day, the government lost two nonconfidence motions on the issue, forcing a national election. In that election, the Liberals took 129 seats to the Tories' 95. Despite winning 41 percent of the vote, the Liberals came up five seats short of a majority largely because of winning just three seats on the Prairies. With the support of six Social Credit MPs from Quebec,[21] Pearson was able to guarantee stable government to the Governor General, and Diefenbaker resigned, allowing Pearson to form a minority government. He was sworn in as the Prime Minister on 22 April 1963. Even though the support the Social Credit MPs was soon withdrawn, Pearson was able to maintain government with the support of the New Democratic Party.

Prime Minister (1963–1968)

Pearson campaigned during the election promising "60 Days of Decision" and supported the Bomarc surface-to-air missile program. Pearson never had a majority in the House of Commons, but he brought in many of Canada's major updated social programs, including universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and Canada Student Loans, and he instituted a new national flag, the Maple Leaf flag. He also instituted the 40-hour work week, two weeks vacation time, and a new minimum wage.

On 15 January 1964, Pearson became the first Canadian Prime Minister to make an official state visit to France.[22]

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.[23] While in office, Pearson declined U.S. requests to send Canadian combat troops into the Vietnam War. Pearson spoke at Temple University in Philadelphia on 2 April 1965, while visiting the United States and reportedly voiced his support for a pause in the American bombing of North Vietnam, so that a diplomatic solution to the crisis may unfold. To President Lyndon B. Johnson, this criticism of American foreign policy on American soil was an intolerable sin. Before Pearson had finished his speech, he was summoned to Camp David, Maryland, to meet with Johnson the next day. Johnson, who was notorious for his personal touch in politics, reportedly grabbed Pearson by the lapels and shouted, "Don't you come into my living room and piss on my rug."[24][25] Text of his Philadelphia speech, however, showed that Pearson in fact supported President Johnson's policy in Vietnam, even stating "The government and great majority of people of my country have supported wholeheartedly the US peacekeeping and peacemaking policies in Vietnam."[26][27][28]

Pearson later recounted that the meeting was acrimonious, but insisted the two parted cordially. After this incident, L.B.J. and Pearson did have further contacts, including two more meetings together, both times in Canada[29] as the United States relied on Canada's raw materials and resources to fuel and sustain its efforts in the Vietnam War.[30]

Pearson also started a number of Royal Commissions, including the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. These suggested changes that helped create legal equality for women, and brought official bilingualism into being. After Pearson's term in office, French was made an official language, and the Canadian government provided services in both English and French. Pearson himself had hoped that he would be the last unilingual Prime Minister of Canada and fluency in both English and French became an unofficial requirement for candidates for Prime Minister after Pearson left office.

Pearson's 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 Forces. Military unification took effect on 1 February 1968, when The Canadian Forces Reorganization Act received Royal Assent.

Pearson has been credited with instituting the world's first race-free immigration system.[31] Credit for who created the policy, however, is disputed, and likely should be shared with John Diefenbaker.[32] Diefenbaker's government in 1962 introduced a new race-free policy; however, under the 1962 policy, Americans were still given an advantage.[33] It was in 1967 that Pearson introduced a discrimination-free points-based system which encouraged immigration to Canada, a forerunner of the system 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 aiding 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 made it clear that de Gaulle was no longer welcome in Canada.

Supreme Court appointments

Pearson chose the following jurists to be appointed as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada by the Governor General:


After his 14 December 1967 announcement that he was retiring from politics, a leadership convention was held. Pearson's successor was Pierre Trudeau, whom Pearson had recruited and made justice minister in his cabinet. Two other cabinet ministers Pearson had recruited, John Turner and Jean Chrétien, served as prime ministers following Trudeau's retirement.

From 1968 to 1969, Pearson served as chairman of the Commission on International Development (the Pearson Commission), which was sponsored by the World Bank. Immediately following his retirement, he lectured in history and political science at Carleton University while writing his memoirs. From 1970 to 1972, he was the first chairman of the Board of Governors of the International Development Research Centre. From 1969 until his death in 1972, he was chancellor of Carleton University in Ottawa.

Illness and death

In 1970, Pearson underwent a surgery to have his right eye removed in order to remove a tumor in that area.[34]

Pearson had planned at the time to write a three-volume set of memoirs, and had published Volume One by 1972. He had finished but a few chapters of Volume Two when, in November 1972, it was reported that he was admitted to the hospital for further unspecified treatment, but the prognosis was poor. He tried to write at this juncture the story of his prime ministerial career, but his condition, which was already precarious, deteriorated rapidly by Christmas Eve.[35]

On 27 December 1972, it was announced that the cancer had spread to the liver and Pearson had lapsed into a coma. He died at 11:40 pm ET on 27 December 1972 in his Ottawa home.[36]

Pearson is buried at MacLaren Cemetery in Wakefield, Quebec[37] (just north of Gatineau), next to his close External Affairs colleagues H. H. Wrong and Norman Robertson.

Honours and awards

Order of Merit (OM)
Companion of the Order of Canada (CC)
  • Awarded on 28 June 1968.[39]
Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)
1914–15 Star
  • As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces
British War Medal
  • As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces
Victory Medal (United Kingdom)
  • As a member of the Canadian Armed Forces
Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal
Centennial Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal
  • Elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1957.[41]
  • 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).
  • Pearson was inducted into the Canadian Peace Hall of Fame in 2000.[42]
  • 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".
  • A plaque at the north end of the North American Life building in North York, placed by the Willowdale Federal Liberal Party Association commemorates the location where the manse in which Pearson was born previously stood.[43] Another plaque, placed by the Ontario Heritage Trust, is on the grounds of Newtonbrook United Church, the successor congregation to the one that owned the manse.[43][44]
  • In a survey by Canadian historians of the first 20 Prime Ministers through Jean Chrétien, Pearson ranked No. 6.[45]
  • In a survey by Canadian historians of the Canadian prime ministers who served after World War II, Pearson was ranked first "by a landslide".[2]

Order of Canada Citation

Pearson was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada on 28 June 1968. His citation reads:[39]

Former Prime Minister of Canada. For his services to Canada at home and abroad.

Educational and academic institutions

Civic and civil infrastructure


Honorary degrees

Honorary Degrees
 Ontario1945University of TorontoDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [57]
 New York1947University of RochesterDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [58]
 OntarioMay 1948McMaster UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [59]
 Maine1 June 1951Bates CollegeDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [60]
 Massachusetts1953Harvard UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [61]
 New Jersey1956Princeton UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [62]
 British Columbia25 September 1958University of British ColumbiaDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [63]


 Indiana9 June 1963University of Notre DameDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [65]
 Ontario29 May 1964University of Western OntarioDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [66]
 Newfoundland and LabradorSeptember 1964Memorial University of NewfoundlandDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [67]
 OntarioDecember 1964Waterloo Lutheran UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [68]
 Maryland1964Johns Hopkins UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [69]
 Ontario1965Laurentian UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [70]
 Saskatchewan17 May 1965University of Saskatchewan (Regina Campus)Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) [71][72]
 Quebec28 May 1965McGill UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [73]
 Ontario1965Queen's UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [74]
 Nova Scotia1967Dalhousie UniversityDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [75]
 Alberta29 March 1967University of Calgary[76][77][78]
 Prince Edward Island1967Prince of Wales College[79]
 California1967University of California, Santa Barbara
 Ontario1967University of OttawaDoctor of Political Science [80]
 Ontario22 May 1971Royal Military College of CanadaDoctor of Laws (LL.D) [81]
 New YorkColumbia University
 EnglandUniversity of OxfordDoctor of Civil Law (DCL)

Freedom of the City

See also


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  2. MacDonald, L. Ian. "The Best Prime Minister of the Last 50 Years — Pearson, by a landslide", Policy Options, June–July 2003. Accessed 3 April 2014.
  3. S. Azzi, N. Hillmer. "Ranking Canada's best and worst prime ministers",Maclean's, October 2016. Accessed 27 May 2017
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  5. O'Grady, Conner "Despite cuts and critics, Bob carries on"; the newspaper; University of Toronto; 18 Dec. 2013.
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  13. EncyclopediaCanadiana (1972)
  14. EncyclopediaCanadiana (1972). "He attended many international conferences and was active in the U.N. from its inception." and "He signed the North Atlantic Treaty for Canada in 1949 and represented his country at subsequent NATO Council meetings, acting as the chairman in 1951–52."
  15. Hamilton, Thomas J. (13 March 1953). "Soviet Veto Blocks Pearson U.N. Boom; Romulo Also Fails". The New York Times. p. 1.
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Works by Pearson
  • Pearson, Lester B. (1972). Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson. 1. University of Toronto Press. [ online free]
  • Pearson, Lester B.; Munro, John A.; Inglis, Alexander I. (1973). Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson: 1948-1957. 2. University of Toronto Press.online free
    • Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson: 1957-1968 vol 3 online free
Works about Pearson
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