My favourite major sports event today. Not because I'm a rabid football fan, but because Grey Cup day brings back remembrances of one of Canada's greatest prime ministers. I should add "in my opinion," because I'm sure many will challenge my promotion of Lester B. Pearson to the list of giants who have walked our political landscape.
He earned my respect for his work when the United Nations organization was being born; for his triumphs in the days when Canadian troops and our Maple Leaf flag were recognized internationally and praised for their peacekeeping deployments. And he won my admiration as a prime minister who remembered small commitments and honoured promises made with a handshake.
Readers who have been reading the Times Colonist for decades and whose memories have not yet been impaired by the passage of time may recall a column written in January 2002 about a one-dollar bet I once made with Pearson on the outcome of the 1964 Grey Cup. Why on Earth I was writing about the 1964 Grey Cup in January 2002 is beyond me, but if you are among readers who remember the item, you are excused today's reading chore. You may proceed to other pages where new information awaits you as I move into recycling mode.
There hasn't been a Grey Cup since 1964 that I haven't remembered my encounter with the PM in Lloydminister three days before a Saturday game day in Toronto. I had been dispatched from the Edmonton Journal to confront the prime minister and demand from him details on an exploding scandal already named The Rivard Affair.
Lucien Rivard was a violent man, drug dealer, all-round criminal and in jail awaiting extradition to the U.S. He was a Mafia man, and Erik Nielsen, Conservative MP for Yukon, was asking some pointed question in Ottawa about deals between Rivard and Pearson cabinet members. Bribery was hinted at, and Pearson was being accused of hiding from the Ottawa searchlights "somewhere out west."
Hiding was a bit of a stretch. The prime minister was on one of those grinding speaking tours politicians had to make before the world began to twitter and cyberspace replaced the coffee shop or garden fence as the best place to gossip. Lloydminister, straddling as it does the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, was, maybe still is, a popular political whistle-stop because the visitor can woo two provinces with one round of greetings and a single speech.
My assignment was to seek audience with the prime minister and pry from him the truth about the "Rivard Affair," a daunting task made more difficult by a band of local citizens who formed a protective screen around the PM. Like blockers escorting the kick-return guy downfield, they swept all, including me, aside as they marched from high school stage to a private office with an RCMP constable to guard the door. The PM and his entourage were to have a little refreshment before heading south and east by train. He would not be granting interviews.
I waited a few minutes, walked down the corridor and, conjuring up my best Ottawa bureaucrat look, gave a serious nod to the policeman on the door and swept into the presence of the prime minister. Lloyd-minister loyalists intervened with cries of "he's from the Journal" and immediate eviction on their minds.
"No, no," Pearson the peacemaker said, "he's made it this far, let him stay." And with a half-smile asked me: "What do you want to know?" So I asked my devastating questions about Rivard. Local sycophants gasped. Lester B., eyes twinkling, the once-famous Pearson grin flashing said: "I'll have something to say on that when I get home. But for now I have no comment.'' The subject was closed.
I thanked him, wished him "safe journey tomorrow and a good kickoff in Toronto on Saturday." As I turned to leave, I asked him whom he favoured. The Pearson grin again: "The east, of course." There was an audible gasp from the locals when I flashed back - "A dollar says you're wrong," and the PM shook my hand and said: "You're on."
On Nov. 28, 1964, the B.C. Lions beat Hamilton 34-24. On Dec. 9 I received an envelope embossed with PMO credentials. Inside was a personal cheque for one dollar and a note reading in part: "Dear Mr.
Hume: I would not want you to think I am not prompt in settling my sporting debts. I am therefore enclosing the full amount of my losses to you in the Grey Cup game! In spite of this financial setback, I still think it was a good game ... B.C. Lions were full value for their win....."
The dollar bet became an annual thing for a few years. I won a couple, lost a pair. Two Lester B. Pearson cheques and charming letters nestle uncashed in my safety deposit box.
I take a look at them at Grey Cup time just to remind myself of a politician who remembered small things and kept commitments sealed with a handshake.
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