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March 2011 - Nr. 3

As Canada emerged from the shelter of the British Empire after the Second World War, its foreign policy wore the sunny smile of Lester B. Pearson. Pearson’s amiable nickname was Mike, his boyish looks and breezy personality conveying the enthusiasm and innovation of a country coming into its own in the world.

Canada’s tenacious post-1945 international engagement became forever linked to Mike Pearson, Canada’s Ambassador to the United States as the Second World War came to an end; deputy foreign minister and then foreign minister from 1946 to 1957; and prime minister (1963-1968) when the country celebrated its 100 birthday.

In the lobby of the Lester B. Pearson Building, the headquarters of Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, is Pearson’s 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for his imaginative diplomacy in arranging a United Nations peacekeeping mission to defuse the Suez Crisis.

Canada had seemed so small and limited before 1939. The Mackenzie King government was a good citizen of the British Empire, but also a careful one, fearful of international commitments that would divide Canadians. Aside from Britain, Canada was represented by a diplomat in only three major foreign countries — the United States, Canada’s closest neighbour and main trading partner; France, the ancient mother country of French Canadians; and Japan, covering Canadian interests in the Pacific Ocean. Everywhere else British ambassadors did Canada’s work.

A decade later, Pearson’s Canada was very different: wealthy, united, confident, and strong when so many other countries had been devastated by the Second World War. Pearson and his diplomats called Canada a middle power, closer in their view to a great power than an insignificant one. They valued international commitments as a way to offset the power of the United States.

The Canadian government was one of the chief architects of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, and played a vital role in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the 1949 Western security alliance against a possible Soviet attack. Canada contributed to United Nations forces in the Korean War from 1950–1953, and built a sophisticated military to serve with NATO in Europe.

Canadian mediation skills were crucial in building a multiracial Commonwealth of Nations out of the dying British Empire. Canada forged relationships with the developing world, and was soon launching foreign aid programs in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The Department of External Affairs, as the foreign office that Pearson led was known, was widely thought one of the world’s best. Young Canadians wanted to be like Mike Pearson, making a global impact.

By the time that Pierre Trudeau succeeded him as prime minister in 1968, Pearson’s internationalism was out of fashion in Ottawa. Trudeau slashed Canada’s commitment to NATO, and downgraded the Department of External Affairs. Canada was a modest power, not a middle power.

Trudeau emphasized economic growth as the prime goal of his early foreign policy. The potential of a large Chinese market for Canadian products was a motive in Canada’s diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1970.

Soon enough Trudeau edged back in Pearson’s direction. NATO, the Commonwealth, and the new organization of French-speaking countries were important parts of Trudeau’s international policies as they evolved in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

The 1984-1993 government of Brian Mulroney gave its greatest attention to good relations with the United States. Yet it was also deeply committed to constructive involvement in multilateral institutions, where Mulroney became a respected figure. Canada condemned apartheid in South Africa at the United Nations and elsewhere, and in the aftermath of the Cold War participated in the coalition that defeated Iraq in the First Gulf War and sent peacekeepers in the thousands all over the globe.

Prime minister Jean Chrétien (1993-2003) and the most important of his foreign ministers, Lloyd Axworthy, carried the Pearson legacy forward with successful campaigns for the establishment of the International Criminal Court and an international ban on landmines.

Pearson was remembered in another way as the 1990s came to an end. Critics said that Canada’s power and importance in the world had dwindled away. What a stunning contrast that was, they complained, with Canadian leadership in the years after the Second World War, when Pearson’s activist diplomacy and his Nobel Prize had made Canadians proud.

When early 21st century prime ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper pledged that they would restore the country’s international influence, they were promising that they would return to a time when the world listened to Canadians, as it had listened to Pearson. Mike Pearson’s internationalism smiles much less often than it once did, but it remains deeply ingrained in Canadians as the standard by which their place in the world is judged.

Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs at Carleton University. Readers interested in L. B. Pearson can follow up on this article with his three volume memoir, Mike (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972-1975), and John English’s two volume biography, The Life of Lester Pearson (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989 and Knopf Canada, 1992).

Next Instalment: Canada’s Pragmatic World View


The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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