April 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Lester Pearson’s resignation as Prime Minister of Canada. At the time, many Canadians didn’t think much of Pearson’s reign. Historian John English notes that when Pearson left office, polls showed that most Canadians could not think of anything he accomplished. Prominent critics like Marshall McLuhan and Peter C. Newman presented Pearson as an ineffective bungler presiding over a chaotic, disorganized government with little to show for its two minority governments and five years in office.
Other observers, like journalist Walter Stewart, were more perceptive. In his book Shrug: Trudeau In Power, written three years after Pearson resigned, Stewart noted that despite his allegedly chaotic minority government, Pearson passed legislation that would shape Canada for decades to come. While Newman and others correctly depicted Pearson’s administration as chaotic, Pearson still produced amazing results that arguably make him the second-best Prime Minister Canada ever had, after John A. Macdonald.
Pearson created the modern Canadian flag and oversaw the successful Expo 67 celebrations, helping to create a modern Canadian identity that saw the country as more than just an appendage of the British Empire. He paved the way for bilingualism with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and supported the recognition of Quebec’s distinct place in Canada. He helped entrench equality by creating a colour-blind, points-based immigration system, decriminalizing homosexuality and creating a Royal Commission on the Status of Women. He supported the well-being of Canadians from every walk of life by creating the Canada Pension Plan and Medicare.
He boosted Canada’s prosperity with the Auto Pact and shielding Canada’s banks from foreign takeovers, which helped us avoid the worst of the 2008 recession. He made life easier for Canadian workers by mandating the 40-hour workweek and two-week annual vacation. He made it easier for people to access higher education with Canada Student Loans. He also began formally recognizing Quebec’s distinct challenges in Confederation by allowing it to “opt out” of particular federal programs.
Other prime ministers have also made critical contributions, such as Pierre Trudeau passing the Official Languages Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But other prime ministers also have notable failures, such as Trudeau’s 1969 White Paper on Indigenous rights and the National Energy Program, among others. Pearson’s legacy, though, stands out for its lack of failures.
For doing so much to define Canada over the long-term, with so few failures that harmed Canada, Pearson is one of the greatest statesmen Canada ever had.
Pearson represents Canada in several ways, some more subtle than others. Newman ridiculed Pearson as boring and dull, out of step with the sophisticated times. Canada is often ridiculed as dull and boring by sophisticated elites in other countries, and its accomplishments are often overlooked by Canadians themselves.
But, just as Pearson had so much to commemorate from his time in office, even if others did not always recognize it, so too does Canada as a whole, whatever the elites in other countries might have to say.
Originally published at www.stalbertgazette.com on April 14, 2018.