While the news wires and Twitter feeds are fired up over the latest drama in Canadian politics, I’m reflecting on a leader who shaped Canada rather quietly but profoundly, well before the days of the 24 hour news cycle.
I seldom keep quiet about the public figures I admire. Some readers will remember when I publicly confessed my crush on the brilliant Somali-Canadian singer, K’naan. Now it’s time to make another declaration of admiration. This time I write about my deep regard for a late Canadian Prime Minister, Lester Bowles (Mike) Pearson. I have decided to document some reasons why I like Pearson so much in preparation for a “Pearson Party” that I’m helping to host in Markham in a couple weeks.
I never met Mike Pearson. He became Prime Minister of Canada when I was a toddler. I’ve always been curious about him. I value the ways that he transformed Canada. I’ve often wondered what drove him.
My father, my husband and my daughter all have post-secondary degrees in history. But I’m not a trained historian. Therefore, in these early months of my political career, I’m trying to dedicate some leisure reading to books that will broaden my understanding of Canada and how we got to where we are as a nation. One of the books I picked up at our local library is a brief biography of Pearson written by Canadian journalist Andrew Cohen.
The more I read about Pearson, the more interesting he becomes. Pearson was patient, empathetic and reflective. He understood nuance and negotiation. He had a particular genius in working with groups of diverse perspectives to find common ground.
I became so intrigued in my study of Pearson that I wanted to explore his story with others who, like me, were not aware of all his contributions to Canada. So our federal Liberal riding association decided to invite author Andrew Cohen to visit and tell about this leader who transformed our country in such important ways. I’m happy to report that Cohen said yes. We look forward to his visit to Markham on April 16.
What is it about Pearson that fascinates me? Well, I’m impressed by what he accomplished as a Canadian leader. But I’m also interested in why and how he led.
The list of his accomplishments is stunning – introducing Medicare, Canada Pension Plan and our Maple Leaf flag, to name a few. Perhaps Pearson’s most important successes related to his role in peacemaking and peacekeeping. Of all his diplomatic victories, Pearson is probably best remembered for his critical role in the Suez crisis of 1956. The world was at the brink of war. Building on years of experience and international relationships, Pearson was able to broker a resolution to satisfy the parties involved and turn a potential powder keg into a period of peace.
I won’t list all of his other achievements here. It takes a book or two to properly document the Pearson legacy. But one area of his work that captivates me is the way he led Canada to pursue a foreign policy that included contributions to aid and development. Pearson challenged Canadians to provide foreign aid beginning in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1951. For the next two decades Pearson’s influence made Canada a global leader in humanitarian aid. After his time as Prime Minister, at the urging of the World Bank, Pearson formed the Commission on International Development. It was a report of this Commission in 1969 that made the recommendation that developed countries commit 0.7 % of their GNP to Official Development Assistance. Canada has never managed to reach this goal but it set a standard that is still the most widely cited international target for aid.
As I admire Pearson’s leadership – and admittedly aspire to leave my own legacy of good work, I’d like to understand more than just the details of what he did. I’m curious about his motivations. I’m proud of at least one reality I share in common with him – being a preacher’s kid. Pearson’s father was a Methodist minister. My dad is a (retired) Presbyterian minister. I wonder if there’s a clue in that history about Pearson’s ambition for public service. In the biography, Cohen proposes that Pearson was driven to become Prime Minister by a good old Methodist sense of duty. Cohen offers a great glimpse of the values instilled in Pearson who recalled this from his childhood: “I was always taught as a boy in my family not to run away from anything. If you were convinced you ought to do it, try to do it.” I can relate to that. In the minister’s home where I grew up, there was a clear message that, to whom much is given, much is expected.
I haven’t studied Pearson nearly enough to truly understand the instrumental forces in his life. But I’ve read enough to know that I like his style. Pearson was a great mediator – a diplomat in every sense of the word. He liked people and was curious to learn about the perspective of those whose views he didn’t entirely share. He was enormously open-minded. It seems that in any given crisis, he used a creative mind to imagine the best possible outcome – then worked to make that a reality.
My journey to understand this former Prime Minister has barely begun. But already my study of his legacy has filled me with hope – as I recall how much can be achieved by a political leader who is thoughtful, fair and compassionate. I’m not sure how Pearson would fare in a very different political context of the 21st century. I’m glad he was around in the previous one, to shape our nation for the better.For information about the “Pearson Party” on April 16, please visit this Facebook page.