Lester B. Pearson

The Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson

In office:
April 22, 1963 to April 20, 1968

Born:
April 23, 1897 at Township of York, Toronto, Ontario
Died: December 27, 1972, age 75, in Ottawa, Ontario
Resting place: MacLaren Cemetery, Wakefield, Quebec

Political party:
Liberal

Alma mater:
University of Toronto (B.A.)
University of Oxford (B.A.)
University of Oxford (M.A.)

Profession:
Diplomat, Politician, Historian

Religion:
Methodist, then the United Church of Canada

Award:
Nobel Prize for Peace in 1957, for organizing the United Nations Emergency Force to resolve the Suez Canal Crisis.

When World War I broke out in 1914, 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 later commissioned as a lieutenant. 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.

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.

During Pearson’s time as Prime Minister, his Liberal minority government introduced universal health care, Canada Student Loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the Order of Canada, and the new (Maple Leaf) Flag of Canada. Pearson also convened the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and he struggled to keep Canada out of the Vietnam War.    He also instituted the 40-hour work week, two weeks vacation time, and a new minimum wage. In 1967, his government passed Bill C-168, which abolished capital punishment in Canada de facto – by restricting it to a few capital offenses 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.

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.

Some of his work was with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963, leading to a bilingual civil service; created the Canada Pension Plan, 1965; signed the Canada-United States Automotive Agreement Pact, 1965; unveiled Canada’s new national flag, 1965; universal Medicare for all Canadians, 1966; and oversaw Canada’s Centennial celebrations, 1967, making Canadians aware of their great heritage.

On a personal note:
Married: Maryon Pearson
Children: Geoffrey Pearson and Patricia Pearson

Whilst training for the air corps, Pearson’s flying instructor felt that ‘Lester’ was not a proper name for a flying ace and began to call him ‘Mike’. For the rest of his life, Lester Pearson was affectionately known as ‘Mike’ by his friends and associates.

Pearson had a knack for recognizing talent and ability in people. Three future prime ministers were all members of Pearson’s Cabinet in 1965 (Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chrétien).

Pearson retired from politics in 1968 at the age of 71. He returned to the academic world, lecturing on Canadian foreign relations at Carleton University in Ottawa. Meanwhile, he wrote his memoirs before his death in 1972.

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