When you ask young people in this country about Lester B. Pearson - and Andrew Cohen, the political journalist, author, and Carleton University professor, often has - you can't always rely on them to know who he was. "They may know that they fly into a big, busy airport in Toronto named after him," says Cohen, author of Lester B. Pearson, the latest biography in Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series. "And they do know he won the Nobel Peace Prize." But as for who the man was, Cohen's students tend to have a gauzy notion of Canada's 14th prime minister as a saffron-robed, incense-wielding Prince of Peace. In truth, he was more of a paradox: many of Pearson's greatest achievements were as divisive then as they remain today. And yet, perhaps more than any other individual, Pearson - or "Mike," as he was affectionately called - is responsible for entrenching many of the basic tenets of modern Canadianness.
During his tenure as prime minister, from 1963 to 1968, Pearson shepherded the introduction of universal medicare, bilingualism, the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact, and the Canada Pension Plan. All of this after having already forged an ambitious career as a diplomat. In the middle decades of the 20th century, he managed to position himself, and Canada, right in the heart of the action. He was pivotal in the creation of NATO and the United Nations (in 1952, he was elected to serve as president of the UN's General Assembly). His negotiation skills won him the Nobel Peace Price in 1957, after he brokered the creation of a UN Peacekeeping force during the Suez crisis. In short, he helped transform Canada from a colonial appendage to an autonomous state with a powerful voice and a sterling reputation. In February 1965, Pearson joyfully ran the newly minted Canadian flag, also his initiative, up the Peace Tower, while John Diefenbaker, a tried-and-true anglophile, must have wept into his figgy pudding.
Partly, the fact that Pearson often goes overlooked today is his own failing, says Cohen, who dissected the former PM's foreign policy legacy in his 2004 book While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World. Pearson the man was many things, Cohen says, but in the '60s - a political era characterized by JFK and televised debates - a stylish and charismatic showman he was not. He spoke with a slight lisp. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, bow ties, and homburg hats. By mid-decade, he seemed to be out of touch. "He looks just a little bit awkward," says Cohen. "In the Age of Aquarius, he's an antiquarian. He wasn't the suave, debonair Pierre Trudeau, and he wasn't John Kennedy. But he had a great sense of humour and he was enormously likeable."
Another reason he doesn't get his due, Cohen believes, is that reporters of his time were often distracted by the volatility of the era - the fact that, faced with Quebec's Quiet Revolution and the rumblings of the civil rights movement, his government "looked like it was forever bumbling from crisis to crisis." The media, Cohen says, couldn't see that amid all the chaos and tumult and smoke and fire, Lester B. Pearson was quietly legislating.
Perhaps more than any Canadian leader in history, Pearson embodies a certain archetypal notion of what it means to be Canadian. For better or worse, he popularized the idea of us as an understated, compassionate, peacemaking people - labels we're still negotiating four decades later. Oration and pomp were not his fortes, to be sure. Still, his presence is felt in this country every day. Every time a teenager sets off to Europe with a Canadian flag sewn onto his backpack, it's because of him. And every time a local is suddenly pleasant to the kid because of that flag, he has Lester B. Pearson to thank.
Maclean's September 22, 2008