Louis St. Laurent
Louis Stephen St. Laurent – 25 July 1973) was a Canadian politician who served as the 12th prime minister of Canada, from 15 November 1948 to 21 June 1957. He was a Liberal with a strong base in the Catholic francophone community, from which base he had long mobilised support to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. St. Laurent was an enthusiastic proponent of Canada's joining NATO in 1949 to fight the spread of Communism, overcoming opposition from some intellectuals, the Labor-Progressive Party, and many French Canadians. The contrast with Mackenzie King was not dramatic – they agreed on most policies. St. Laurent had more hatred of communism, and less fear of the United States. He was neither an idealist nor a bookish intellectual, but an "eminently moderate, cautious ... man ... and a strong Canadian nationalist".(Saint-Laurent or St-Laurent in French, baptized Louis-Étienne St-Laurent; 1 February 1882
Louis St. Laurent
St. Laurent in the 1950s.
|12th Prime Minister of Canada|
15 November 1948 – 21 June 1957
|Preceded by||W. L. Mackenzie King|
|Succeeded by||John Diefenbaker|
|Leader of the Liberal Party|
August 7, 1948 – January 16, 1958
|Preceded by||W. L. Mackenzie King|
|Succeeded by||Lester B. Pearson|
Louis Stephen St-Laurent
1 February 1882
Compton, Quebec, Canada
|Died||25 July 1973 91) (aged|
Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
|Resting place||Saint Thomas d'Aquin Cemetery, Compton, Quebec|
|Political party||Liberal Party of Canada|
(m. 1908; died 1966)
Early life, family, and education
Louis St. Laurent (French pronunciation: [lwi sɛ̃ lɔʁɑ̃]) was born on 1 February 1882 in Compton, Quebec, a village in the Eastern Townships, to Jean-Baptiste-Moïse Saint-Laurent, a French Canadian, and Mary Anne Broderick, an Irish Canadian. He grew up fluently bilingual. His English had a noticeable Irish brogue, while his gestures (such as a hunch of the shoulders) were French.
He received degrees from Séminaire Saint-Charles-Borromée (B.A. 1902) and Université Laval (LL.L. 1905). He was offered, but declined, a Rhodes Scholarship upon this graduation from Laval in 1905. In 1908, he married Jeanne Renault (1886–1966), with whom he had two sons and three daughters, including Jean-Paul St. Laurent.
St-Laurent worked as a lawyer from 1905 to 1941, also becoming a professor of law at Université Laval in 1914. St-Laurent practised corporate and constitutional law in Quebec and became one of the country's most respected counsel. He served as President of the Canadian Bar Association from 1930 to 1932. In 1913 he was one of the defending counsel for Harry Kendall Thaw, who was seeking to avoid extradition from Quebec.
St-Laurent's father, a Compton shopkeeper, was a staunch supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada and was particularly enamoured with Sir Wilfrid Laurier. When Laurier led the Liberals to victory in the 1896 election, 14-year-old Louis relayed the election returns from the telephone in his father's store. However, while an ardent Liberal, Louis remained aloof from active politics for much of his life, focusing instead on his legal career and family. He became one of Quebec's leading lawyers and was so highly regarded that he was offered a position in the Cabinet of the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen in 1926 and was offered a seat as a justice in the Supreme Court of Canada; he declined both offers.
Minister of Justice
Following the death of his Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe, in November 1941, King was well aware of the need for the government to have a strong, well-respected member of cabinet to serve as a new deputy for Quebec to help deal with the volatile conscription issue. King had been in his political infancy when he witnessed the Conscription Crisis of 1917 during World War I and he wanted to prevent the same divisions from threatening his government. No Quebec or francophone members of King's cabinet or government were willing to step into the role, but many recommended St. Laurent to take the post instead. On these recommendations, King recruited St. Laurent to his World War II cabinet as Minister of Justice, Lapointe's former post, on 9 December. St. Laurent agreed to go to Ottawa out of a sense of duty, but only on the understanding that his foray into politics was temporary and that he would return to Quebec at the conclusion of the war. In February 1942, he won a by-election for Quebec East, Lapointe's former riding. St-Laurent supported King's decision to introduce conscription in 1944, despite the lack of support from other French Canadians (see Conscription Crisis of 1944). His support prevented more than a handful of Quebec Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs) from leaving the party, and was therefore crucial to keeping the government and the party united.
He had to deal with the defection of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko in Ottawa in September 1945; Gouzenko's revelations and subsequent investigations over the following few years showed major Soviet espionage in North America.
Minister of External Affairs
King came to regard St-Laurent as his most trusted minister and natural successor. He persuaded St-Laurent that it was his duty to remain in government following the war in order to help with the construction of a post-war international order and promoted him to the position of Secretary of State for External Affairs (foreign minister) in 1945, a portfolio King had previously always kept for himself. In this role, St-Laurent represented Canada at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference and San Francisco Conference that led to the founding of the United Nations (UN).
At the conferences, St-Laurent, compelled by his belief that the UN would be ineffective in times of war and armed conflict without some military means to impose its will, advocated the adoption of a UN military force. This force he proposed would be used in situations that called for both tact and might to preserve peace or prevent combat. In 1956, this idea was actualized by St-Laurent and his Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson in the development of UN Peacekeepers that helped to put an end to the Suez Crisis.
Prime Minister (1948–1957)
In 1948, King retired, and quietly persuaded his senior ministers to support St-Laurent's selection as the new Liberal leader at the Liberal leadership convention of August 1948. St-Laurent won, and was sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada on 15 November, making him Canada's second French-Canadian Prime Minister, after Wilfrid Laurier.
In the 1949 federal election that followed his ascension to the Liberal leadership, many wondered, including Liberal party insiders, if St-Laurent would appeal to the post-war populace of Canada. On the campaign trail, St-Laurent's image was developed into somewhat of a 'character' and what is considered to be the first 'media image' to be used in Canadian politics. St-Laurent chatted with children, gave speeches in his shirt sleeves, and had a 'common touch' that turned out to be appealing to voters. At one event during the 1949 election campaign, he disembarked his train and instead of approaching the assembled crowd of adults and reporters, gravitated to, and began chatting with, a group of children on the platform. A reporter submitted an article entitled "'Uncle Louis' can't lose!" which earned him the nickname "Uncle Louis" in the media (Papa Louis in Quebec). With this common touch and broad appeal, he subsequently led the party to victory in the election against the Progressive Conservative Party led by George Drew. The Liberals won 190 seats—the most in Canadian history at the time, and still a record for the party.
His reputation as Prime Minister was impressive. He demanded hard work of all of his MPs and Ministers, and worked hard himself. He was reputed to be as knowledgeable on some ministerial portfolios as the ministers responsible themselves. To that end, Jack Pickersgill (a minister in St-Laurent's cabinet) said as prime minister St-Laurent had: "as fine an intelligence as was ever applied to the problems of government in Canada. He left it a richer, a more generous and more united country than it had been before he became prime minister."
St-Laurent led the Liberals to another powerful majority in the 1953 federal election. While the Liberals lost several seats, they still had 111 more seats than the Tories, enabling them to dominate the House of Commons of Canada.
St-Laurent and his cabinet oversaw Canada's expanding international role in the postwar world. His stated desire was for Canada to occupy a social, military and economic middle power role in the post-World War II world. In 1947, he identified five basic principles of Canadian foreign policy and five practical applications regarding Canada's international relations. Always highly sensitive to cleavages of language, religion, and region, he stressed national unity, insisting, "that our external policies shall not destroy our unity ... for a disunited Canada will be a powerless one." He also stressed political liberty and rule of law in the sense of opposition to totalitarianism.
Militarily, St-Laurent was a leading proponent of the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, serving as an architect and signatory of the treaty document. Involvement in such an organization marked a departure from King who had been reticent about joining a military alliance. Under his leadership, Canada supported the United Nations (U.N.) in the Korean War and committed the third largest overall contribution of troops, ships and aircraft to the U.N. forces to the conflict. Troops to Korea were selected on a voluntary basis. In 1956, under his direction, St-Laurent's Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson, helped solve the Suez Crisis in 1956 between Great Britain, France, Israel and Egypt, bringing forward St-Laurent's 1946 views on a U.N. military force in the form of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) or peacekeeping. It is widely believed that the activities directed by St-Laurent and Pearson could well have avoided a nuclear war. These actions were recognized when Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.
St-Laurent was an early supporter of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee's proposal to transform the British Commonwealth from a club of white dominions into a multi-racial partnership. The leaders of the other "white dominions" were less than enthusiastic. It was St-Laurent who drafted the London Declaration, recognizing King George VI as Head of the Commonwealth as a means of allowing India to remain in the international association once it became a republic.
St-Laurent's government was modestly progressive, fiscally conservative and run with business-like efficiency. Robertson says, "St Laurent's administrations from 1949 to 1956 probably gave Canada the most consistently good, financially responsible, trouble-free government the country has had in its entire history."
It took taxation surpluses no longer needed by the wartime military and paying back in full Canada's debts accrued during the World Wars and the Great Depression. With remaining revenues, St-Laurent oversaw the expansion of Canada's social programs, including the gradual expansion of social welfare programs such as family allowances, old age pensions, government funding of university and post-secondary education and an early form of Medicare termed Hospital Insurance at the time. This scheme lay the groundwork for Tommy Douglas' healthcare system in Saskatchewan, and Pearson's nationwide universal healthcare in the late 1960s. Under this legislation, the federal government paid around 50% of the cost of provincial health plans to cover "a basic range of inpatient services in acute, convalescent, and chronic hospital care." The condition for the cost-sharing agreements was that all citizens were to be entitled to these benefits, and by March 1963, 98.8 of Canadians were covered by Hospital Insurance. According to historian Katherine Boothe, however, St. Laurent did not regard government health insurance to be a "good policy idea", instead favouring the expansion of voluntary insurance through existing plans. In 1951, for instance, St. Laurent spoke in support of the medical profession assuming "the administration and responsibility for, a scheme that would provide prepaid medical attendance to any Canadian who needed it".
In addition, St-Laurent modernized and established new social and industrial policies for the country during his time in the prime minister's office. Amongst these measures included the universalization of old-age pensions for all Canadians aged seventy and above (1951), the introduction of old age assistance for needy Canadians aged sixty-five and above (1951), the introduction of allowances for the blind (1951) and the disabled (1954), amendments to the National Housing Act (1954) which provided federal government financing to non-profit organisations as well as the provinces for the renovation or construction of hostels or housing for students, the disabled, the elderly, and families on low incomes, and unemployment assistance (1956) for unemployed employables on welfare who had exhausted (or did not qualify for) unemployment insurance benefits. During his last term as Prime Minister, St-Laurent's government used $100 million in death taxes to establish the Canada Council to support research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
In 1949, the former lawyer of many Supreme Court cases, St-Laurent ended the practice of appealing Canadian legal cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, making the Supreme Court of Canada the highest avenue of legal appeal available to Canadians. In that same year, St-Laurent negotiated the British North America (No. 2) Act, 1949 with Britain which 'partially patriated' the Canadian Constitution, most significantly giving the Canadian Parliament the authority to amend portions of the constitution. Also in 1949, following two referenda within the province, St-Laurent and Premier Joey Smallwood negotiated the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation.
When asked in 1949 whether he would outlaw the Communist Party in Canada, St-Laurent responded that the party posed little threat and that such measures would be drastic.
In 1952, he advised Queen Elizabeth II to appoint Vincent Massey as the first Canadian-born Governor-General. Each of the aforementioned actions were and are seen as significant in furthering the cause of Canadian autonomy from Britain and developing a national identity on the international stage.
In 1956, using the Constitutional taxation authority of the federal level of government, St-Laurent's government introduced the policy of "Equalization payments" which redistributes taxation revenues between provinces to assist the poorer provinces in delivering government programs and services, a move that has been considered a strong one in solidifying the Canadian federation, particularly with his home province of Québec.
The government also engaged in massive public works and infrastructure projects such as building the Trans-Canada Highway (1949), the St. Lawrence Seaway (1954) and the Trans-Canada Pipeline. It was this last project that was to sow the seeds that led to the downfall of the St-Laurent government.
St-Laurent was initially very well received by the Canadian public, but by 1957, "Uncle Louis" (as he was sometimes referred to) began to appear tired, old and out of touch; he was 75 years old and had many hard years of work behind him. His government was also perceived to have grown too close to business interests. The 1956 Pipeline Debate led to the widespread impression that the Liberals had grown arrogant in power. On numerous occasions, the government invoked closure in order to curtail debate and ensure that its Pipeline Bill passed by a specific deadline. St. Laurent was criticized for a lack of restraint exercised on his minister C. D. Howe, who was widely perceived as extremely arrogant. Western Canadians felt particularly alienated by the government, believing that the Liberals were kowtowing to interests in Ontario and Quebec and the United States. (The opposition accused the government of accepting overly costly contracts that could never be completed on schedule. In the end, the pipeline was completed early and under budget.) The pipeline conflict turned out to be meaningless, insofar as the construction work was concerned, since pipe could not be obtained in 1956 from a striking American factory, and no work could have been done that year. The uproar in Parliament regarding the pipeline had a lasting impression on the electorate, and was a decisive factor in the Liberal government's 1957 defeat at the hands of the PCs, led by John Diefenbaker, in the 1957 election. Because the Liberals were still mostly classically liberal, Diefenbaker promised to outspend the incumbent Liberals, who campaigned on plans to stay the course of fiscal conservatism they had followed through St-Laurent's term in the 1940s and 1950s.
Defeat in the 1957 election
By 1957 St. Laurent was 75 years old and tired. His party had been in power for 22 years, and by this time had accumulated too many factions and alienated too many groups. He was ready to retire, but was persuaded to fight one last campaign. In the 1957 election, the Liberals won 200,000 more votes nationwide than the Progressive Conservatives (40.75% Liberals to 38.81% PC). However, most of those votes were wasted with huge majorities in Quebec. Largely due to dominating the rest of the country, the Progressive Conservatives took the greatest number of seats with 112 seats (42% of the House) to the Liberals' 104 (39.2%). Some ministers wanted St. Laurent to stay on and offer to form a minority government, arguing that the popular vote had supported them and the party's long years of experience would make them a more effective minority.
Another option circulated within the party saw the balance of power to be held by either the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and their 25 seats or Social Credit Party of Canada with their 15 seats. St-Laurent was encouraged by others to reach out to the CCF and at least four of six independent/small party MPs to form a coalition majority government, which would have held 134 of the 265 seats in Parliament—50.1% of the total. St. Laurent, however, had no desire to stay in office; he believed that the nation had passed a verdict against his government and his party. In any case, the CCF and Socreds had pledged to cooperate with a Tory government. It was very likely that St. Laurent would have been defeated on the floor of the House had he tried to stay in power with a minority government, and would not have stayed in office for long even if he survived that confidence vote. With this in mind, St. Laurent resigned on 21 June 1957—ending the longest uninterrupted run in government for a party at the federal level in Canadian history.
Supreme Court appointments
- John Robert Cartwright (22 December 1949 – 23 March 1970)
- Joseph Honoré Gérald Fauteux (22 December 1949 – 23 December 1973)
- Douglas Charles Abbott (1 July 1954 – 23 December 1973)
- Patrick Kerwin (as Chief Justice, 1 July 1954 – 2 February 1963; appointed a Puisne Justice under Prime Minister Richard Bennett, 20 July 1935)
- Henry Grattan Nolan (1 March 1956 – 8 July 1957)
After a short period as Leader of the Opposition and now more than 75 years old, St- Laurent's motivation to be involved in politics was gone. He announced his intention to retire from politics. St-Laurent was succeeded as Liberal Party leader by his former Secretary of State for External Affairs and representative at the United Nations, Lester B. Pearson, at the party's leadership convention in 1958.
After his political retirement, he returned to practising law and living quietly and privately with his family. During his retirement, he was called into the public spotlight one final time in 1967 to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada, a newly created award.
Order of Canada citation
St. Laurent was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada on 6 July 1967. His citation reads:
Former Prime Minister of Canada. For his service to his country.
Louis Stephen St-Laurent died from heart failure on 25 July 1973, in Quebec City, Quebec, aged 91 and was buried at Saint Thomas d'Aquin Cemetery in his hometown of Compton, Quebec. He is survived by granddaughters Helen, Marie, Francine and grandsons Louis St-Laurent II and Michael S. O'Donnell.
St. Laurent was ranked #4 on a survey of the first 20 prime ministers (through Jean Chrétien) of Canada done by Canadian historians, and used by J. L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer in their book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders.
The house and grounds in Compton where St. Laurent was born were designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1973. St. Laurent's residence at 201 Grande-Allée Est in Quebec City is protected as a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.
Louis St-Laurent School in Edmonton, Alberta. is named in his honour.
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- Louis S. St. Laurent National Historic Site of Canada. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
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- "Edmonton Catholic Schools". www.ecsd.net. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
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- Thompson, Dale C. Louis St. Laurent: Canadian (Toronto, Macmillan Canada, 1967)
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- J. W. Pickersgill. My Years with Louis St. Laurent: a Political Memoir by J. W. Pickersgill (1975)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Louis St. Laurent.|
- "Louis St. Laurent". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 1979–2016.
- Louis St. Laurent – Parliament of Canada biography
- Order of Canada citation
- CBC Digital Archives – Uncle Louis and Canada's Golden Age
- Louis St. Laurent's Grave
- Newspaper clippings about Louis St. Laurent in the 20th Century Press Archives of the ZBW