April / Canada150 – Lester B. Pearson
Yes, we choose a boring politician to grace the month of April. But consider this: during his career as a civil servant, and then as a politician, a new Canadian Identity started to emerge. We started shaking off the shackles of Britain and started taking leadership roles in international policies and events.
Lester Bowles Pearson, our foremost diplomat of the 1950s and 1960s and the Canadian prime minister from 1963–68 and design hero. Design hero? During his career, Canada’s design industry started to flourish. Coincidence? Maybe, but remember, he was in power when we flew the maple leaf over parliament for the very first time.
He spent his early career as a professor, soon landing a job with the Department of External Affairs. He spent time in London in the Canadian High Commission, he moved to Washington to work at the Canadian Legation (forbearer of our Embassy) and in 1945, he was named Canadian ambassador to the United States and attended the founding conference of the United Nations (UN) at San Francisco.
After he came back home in September 1946, he became deputy minister of external affairs. In September 1948, he won a seat in parliament and became minister of external affairs. 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 Korean conflict. 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 during the Suez Crisis. His plan was implemented, and as a reward he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.
In 1963, Pearson ran for prime minister on a platform of national unity building on his reputation as a mediator and peacekeeper. One of his first challenges involved the redesign the Canadian flag. When Pearson entered office, the proposal for a new flag incited a fierce debate among French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians about whether the flag should pay homage to the country’s colonial history. This was an era when Canada was coming into its own – we were still a colony of Britain and had the Union Jack on our flag. This was an opportunity to forge a new Canadian identity and under Pearson’s guidance, the Canadian design community was also given a chance to shine.
As a result of Lester Pearson’s leadership in the 1956 Suez Crisis and Canada’s role in the UN Emergency Force he helped create, Canadians have sometimes considered peacekeeping part of the country’s identity. In addition, his government left behind a notable legacy of legislation including the introduction of the a Canada Pension Plan, a universal medicare system, a unified armed force, and of course, the new flag.