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L. Ian MacDonald: Fifty years later, Pearson’s legacy lives on

Any serious list of great Canadian prime ministers includes Lester B. Pearson, who brought the Liberal party back to government half a century ago in the election of April 8, 1963.

Any serious list of great Canadian prime ministers includes Lester B. Pearson, who brought the Liberal party back to government half a century ago in the election of April 8, 1963. In only five years in office, his achievements in social and economic policy, as well as Canadian identity and unity, were second to none in modern times.

And this was in successive minority Parliaments, when the government, a few seats short of a majority after the 1963 and 1965 elections, could have fallen at any time. Fortunately, Pearson had an ally in Tommy Douglas and the New Democratic Party.

The Pearson legacy includes the Canada-Quebec Pension Plan, universal health care, the auto pact, the Maple Leaf flag, and the commission on bilingualism and biculturalism.

Some of these achievements, notably pensions and the flag, stand by themselves. Others, like the auto pact and the epic B&B Commission, are part of a policy continuum from one government to the next, regardless of political colours or partisanship.

The flag and the CPP-QPP were brokered by Pearson in the spirit of Canadian compromise. Today’s young Canadians, travelling abroad with the red maple on their packsacks, would be astonished to learn of the acrimonious nature of that debate, ended only by closure.

In terms of the policy continuum, the 1965 auto pact was the forerunner of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. While the auto pact was a sectoral agreement, it made the case that Canada could compete on a level playing field with the U.S.

Had the auto pact been a failure, Brian Mulroney could never have undertaken free-trade talks with the U.S., much less sold it to the voters in the 1988 election. It was the Macdonald Commission on Canada’s economic prospects that recommended the “leap of faith” on free trade to the Mulroney government in 1985, but Donald Macdonald was actually appointed by Pierre Trudeau. It was the most important royal commission since the B&B Commission.

It revealed many of the fault lines of the federation, and led to the Official Languages Act of 1969 and later the Multiculturalism Act under Trudeau. Many of these linguistic and cultural protections were incorporated into the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

The Charter is itself another example of the Canadian policy continuum, stretching back not just to Pearson, but to his Conservative predecessor, John Diefenbaker, who enacted the Bill of Rights in 1960. While it didn’t have entrenched constitutional status, it was an inspirational and aspirational document that put Canada on the road to the Charter.

Diefenbaker’s legacy is a rich one in terms of the policy continuum.

In 1961, he appointed a Saskatchewan judge named Emmett Hall to chair the Royal Commission on Health Services. Hall’s landmark report to Pearson in 1964 led to universal health care.

Again, it was Diefenbaker who appointed the Braden Commission on the Automotive Industry, which led to the auto pact. It was Diefenbaker who introduced simultaneous translation to the House of Commons, and bilingual cheques by the federal government. It was Diefenbaker who first sold wheat to China, opening the door to recognition by Trudeau in 1970. And it was Diefenbaker who first spoke out against the scourge of apartheid in South Africa, a cause taken up by his successors, notably Mulroney in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela.

Diefenbaker and Pearson were mortal foes, and it’s unusual to think of them as allies. But in terms of the policy continuum, they can be viewed through the historical lens as often making common cause.

One difference between them — Pearson knew when to leave the stage, but sadly, Diefenbaker did not, contesting his party’s leadership after he’d lost it. Pearson understood that succession is an important part of governance, and when he retired in 1968, he left the Liberals with a competitive leadership race that chose the first Trudeau.

And he left a country enriched by his policy legacy.