An insider’s review of the Pearson Government

By James A.Coutts

pearson-statue

In the end, we see a man who achieved a great deal on the world stage and for his country. His and his team’s reforms have served us well for 50 years. But what was achieved is a tribute to this rumpled reformer, who shifted agendas regularly and managed chaos with ease.

Anniversaries are nostalgic occasions. When Mr. Pearson asked me to come to Ottawa to talk with him in April of 1963, I thought he wanted to discuss Liberalism in Alberta, where I had been his provincial chairman in the campaign that brought him to power. I had prepared a 15-page report with my ideas for the path ahead in that province. He thumbed through it and threw it in his Out Basket, saying “I certainly want to look at that.” “Then shouldn’t it be in the In Basket?” I asked. “Oh yes,” he said and moved it.

Then he asked me if I would come and work for him.

It is remarkable to think that Pearson’s government’s impressive record was initiated and implemented during the five short years of his minority government.  It is important to remember what this government did, because it is part of our history, it ushered in the modern Canada that we can be proud of, and also because most of his legacy is still relevant today, and will continue to be so for many years to come.

Without trying to be all inclusive, here is a list of some of the major accomplishments:

  1. The Canada Pension Plan
  2. The program that lifted more Canadians out of poverty than any measure before that time – the Guaranteed Income Supplement. It actually ended poverty among seniors, a remarkable achievement in a very short time.
  3. Medicare. There were huge disagreements and a big battle within Pearson’s government before it went forward. What if it had failed?
  4. Fiscal Policy:- the Pearson Government more often than not had a balanced budget — after seven consecutive years of Tory deficits.
  5.  Trade. The Auto Pact with the United States has led the way for 50 years.
  6. Foreign Ownership.  A real start at measures to guarantee Canadian control and ownership of our economy. It was a bumpy road and later abandoned, but notably the control of major corporations like Alcan and Inco that it was designed to protect are now gone.
  7. The Canadian Student Loan Plan, and youth training – policies that badly need re-thinking and re-shaping.
  8. Extraordinary progress in Canadian unity – not the least of which was established with the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalis
  9. A flag for Canada.
  10. The successful planning and creation of Expo ’67, which gave a new face to Canada around the world.
  11. A progressive aid policy with the creation of Canadian International Development Agency.
  12. And towards the end of his government, IDRC – the International Development Research Council with Canadian finance and non-Canadians sharing in its direction, control and priority setting – a first in development.
  13. An immigration policy that was color blind and ended the quota system.
  14. The unification of the Armed Forces.
  15. A new labour code.
  16. Creation of the Canada Development Corporation.
  17. Creation of the Economic Council of Canada.
  18. Creation of the Science Council of Canada.
  19. Regional development that advanced equality to the have-not regions of the country.
  20. Finally, a Canada with enough courage and international prestige to question the American war in Vietnam (and not joining the war), while still remaining allies, friends and trading partners with the U.S.

I want to emphasize how much was done, and to underscore that it was the man himself — Lester B. Pearson – with his unusual leadership style that enabled him and his team to achieve what no one else ever had.

I believe, in his five years, he and his team did more than any other government in Canadian history.

But I should add one caveat. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. When you were there – involved in the scene it was anything but orderly. It was turbulent – and occasionally nasty. It seemed at times that nothing could be done – and then everything seemed to get done.

Pearson had five qualities, that perhaps go some way to explain this tremendously productive period…..who was Pearson and how did he lead?

  • First, he was a major liberal reformer who often posed as a cautious Canadian.
  • Second, he was as able a recruiter of talent as the country has known.
  • Third, a significant manipulator of agendas.
  • Fourth, a man who could survive and lead through chaos, confusion and turmoil. At times he even seemed as though he enjoyed all three conditions.
  • Finally, a tough guy — even ruthless at times – who usually disguised himself as a nice guy – playing the role of “just plain Mike”.

Clearly a look at his government’s record, and at the record of his years as Foreign Minister, shows that he was a liberal reformer – a man who wanted change.  Indeed it was his central role in resolving the Suez crisis in the late 1950s while he was the External Affairs minister led him to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

But he was too wise to call himself a reformer or a conservative, and would never have been caught in meaningless left-wing/right-wing rhetoric.

He knew that Canadians could be led to want change, but were naturally cautious – even conservative.

He knew it was better to bring about change and reform, than to simply talk too much about it in abstract terms.

He had good friends in the world of finance, business, the media, and in the Liberal Party who felt he had surrounded himself with too many progressives – “leftists” in their view. These cautious folk often came to see him before he was Prime Minister and while he was Prime Minister to caution him about advice his progressives advisors and colleagues were putting forward. He always heard them out – even implied they were right to be concerned – but on most fronts continued to support the reformers in his cabinet, caucus, staff and in the party.

Pearson was a reformer – a small “l” liberal – but not a radical and not a socialist. Once caught in an interview saying he would sooner be “red than dead,” he quickly learned not to express abstract philosophy, or to answer hypothetical questions. The proof was to be in the doing – and he did a great deal.

If Pearson wasn’t the reformer that more progressive colleagues would have liked, he was even more of a reformer than conservative colleagues and friends feared.

He once told me that if he had entered politics from “outside” rather than from the public service – he would have been a follower of J. S. Woodsworth – an advocate of the Social Gospel.

This was not surprising for Woodsworth – a printer and preacher would have been a familiar voice to Pearson – a son of the manse.

He did not admire Mackenzie King, despite the fact King had brought Pearson into his cabinet. He disliked the way King treated senior ministers and public servants. Pearson would not disagree with King’s policy initiatives. He simply felt King was too cautious a reformer – certainly too cautious in foreign policy. He preferred working with R.B. Bennett on the Royal Commission on Pricing, because he liked the way Bennett worked with junior officials.

And of course the Liberal Party of Canada was never a doctrinaire party. In fact, it didn’t have a policy-generating unit within it. The leader and the core group around the leader set the agenda.

The Party was a federation of organizations – a machine to coalesce groups within the country to win elections. Its policy-making was confined to a small group that brought its work every couple of years to the party’s conventions for approval.

Pearson wanted to make it very clear that he was not part of the party apparatus. He was an independent thinker, with ideas to advance Canada in the world.

But he was not effective acting alone. If he was to succeed, it would not be as a one-man show, but as the leader of a progressive team. He would have to recruit those who had an appetite for change.

He was not a stranger to team-building. His success in External Affairs was as a direct result of assembling teams of officials and diplomats around major issues as they arose. And as the issue changed, he changed the teams.

Organizing a political team was more difficult. Diefenbaker’s sweep of 1958 shattered the old Liberal team.

Pearson would have to build a new one to gain the leadership, organize the opposition and prepare for government.

In politics it is essential to be ambitious – it is equally important not to show that ambition. He had to develop techniques to advance himself while hiding the desire to do so. Pearson hid his ambitions well.

Pearson followed three principles. First, look like you really need help, be vulnerable, then let your recruits recruit you. Next, recruit recruiters who will find others for you.

And finally delegate to those you recruit and move them out if they can’t perform

He first sought out an inner core of advisors who would be with him for the 10 years of his leadership. There were many who came to help, but two stood out at the beginning – Walter Gordon and Tom Kent.

Pearson first went to meet Kent in Winnipeg, where Kent was then Editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Pearson told Kent that he, Pearson, was being pressed to run for leader, but didn’t know if he was up to the task. Kent saw a man who had great talent, but needed support.

Kent knew he could be useful and aspired to be an architect of Canadian public policy. He felt Pearson couldn’t succeed without him or someone like him. In essence they recruited each other.

Kent came to Ottawa to write Pearson’s ’58 leadership speech that became the ’58 election platform. He went on to write the programs for ’62 and ’63 and many of Pearson’s speeches as Opposition leader. Kent then served as the prime minister’s senior policy advisor until the fall of 1965.

I first met Tom Kent when I had become President of the National Young Liberal Federation and was on a cross-country tour speaking to youth clubs.

Kent, who worked at Liberal Headquarters at 251 Cooper Street in Ottawa, was a towering figure. “What will you say to these young Canadians?” he asked. “Oh,” I said, “I’ll tell them what a great guy Mike Pearson is.” “Jim,” he said, sucking on his pipe, “don’t you think you should say something about youth unemployment?”

Walter Gordon – who had known Pearson for years – also felt that Pearson was the right man, but vulnerable and in need of Gordon’s kind of organizing skills. As in the case of Kent, Gordon and Pearson recruited each other.

Gordon, in turn, recruited new activists in the regions who would find candidates, raise money, work with publishers and media owners, and do their own recruiting in every corner of the country.

Pearson’s team inside Ottawa was also well selected. It included:

  • Allan MacEachen, a bright economist, who had been a Cape Breton M.P. in the St. Laurent period;
  • Maurice Lamontagne, who had been in the Privy Council and who later became an M.P. from Quebec East;
  • Richard O’Hagan from Toronto, who came to Pearson’s office in 1960 as Press Secretary;
  • and Keith Davey who came to Cooper Street as Director of the Party, also in 1960. Davey was the recruiters’ recruiter. He scoured the country to find people who would join the Pearson team – as potential candidates or poll captains.  NHL star, Red Kelly was one of them.

The advantage of having others recruit for you is that you can shift the team as the need arises. If you recruit well and delegate, the team members can act independently.

Thus Pearson had ministers, officials, agency heads and staff, who could run their own areas of activity, without being second-guessed by the PMO or the central agencies.

By the time the Pearson government was elected in April 1963, the major elements of its program had been designed, and impressive new players were elected to the House of Commons.

But Pearson was always full of surprises. Many of us were stunned when the first cabinet was announced – for at least half of the ministers were old-timers from the St. Laurent years. M.P.s who had been with Pearson in opposition. Many bright young members, whom we in the party had wooed and worked for, had won seats, and were the face of the Pearson team, were missing from the new cabinet.

It was typical Pearson – he paid his dues to his opposition caucus by appointing these older M.P.s., but put reformers in the key spots.

It was another example of how he understood the nature of Canada, the factions in the party and the caucus that he would have to keep happy as the turbulence of office and minority government took hold.

Now it was time to prioritize a very full agenda. Of all the ideas before the government, what should take precedence?

Kent and Gordon were firmly of the view that a government can pass only two or three major initiatives in the life of a parliament.

Pearson, I believe, did not share this view, but appeared to go along with it – at least for a while.

What he understood was that Walter’s two choices were different from Tom’s, and Tom’s were different from Judy LaMarsh’s, and Judy’s were different from Guy Favreau’s, so it turned out there were many, many initiatives – all proceeding at once!

Many program ideas became legislation, some got into difficulty (including Gordon’s first budget). Pearson’s way of dealing with trouble was to shift from one agenda to another – coming back later to the issues that had faced difficulty. In this way, Pearson was able to dominate the House and public opinion. If you have succeeded with pensions – go on quickly to medical insurance or start talking of a Charter of Rights.

Through all this, Pearson looked rumpled and seemed disorganized. When I first came to his office two weeks after he was sworn in as Prime Minister, there were no cabinet committees.

All items came directly to the cabinet. Cabinet meetings that were held twice a week, started right after question period at 2:00 p.m. and could go until 8:00 in the evening.  There could be as many as 25 items. At 7:45 p.m. when everyone was exhausted, Jack Pickersgill would add one more, knowing ministers would agree to it, so they could go home to dinner.

Gordon Robertson, the new cabinet secretary, wanted to reorganize it all – create cabinet committees, create rules that nothing could go to cabinet that had not been agreed to by at least two committees. Pearson didn’t stop the reforms, but I don’t believe he especially wanted them.

Pearson’s office was also chaotic – there was no Chief of Staff. All documents arrived each morning on his desk in a big pile – personal letters, budget notes, privy council memos, Kent’s strategy papers, foreign affairs telegrams and draft speeches. Pearson read them all, scribbled notes across them and took those he couldn’t deal with in his office home at the end of the day.

Meetings were equally disorganized. I recall a federal-provincial meeting on Medicare that almost fell apart over disagreement. I said to him at lunch, “That was pretty bad.” “No,” he said, “it is worse than that – it is a disaster – now maybe we can get something done.”

He was the one who chose to introduce the new flag at a Winnipeg annual meeting of the Canadian Legion – the centre of opposition to this initiative.  Wearing his military medals, Pearson created the chaos and faced the booing from the delegates – to the joy of the advocates of the new flag.

It was clear that Pearson, whether at NATO or UN meetings, had been used to dealing with chaos – often emerging as the person who could create new order out of the mess.

Minority parliament and federal-provincial meetings couldn’t be more difficult than the Suez crisis afterall!

Pearson was an historian – he didn’t see the world as fixed forever in one state. I recall being with him at a Commonwealth meeting in Lagos in 1966. There was violence in half the member countries. Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister of Nigeria, was murdered soon after we left.

I wondered how this turmoil could be resolved and spoke to the Prime Minister about it. “Maybe it won’t be,” he said. “The map of Africa was drawn by Europeans – not with Africa’s interest in mind. It may change a few times in the coming years – perhaps it should.”

To Pearson, everything was constantly in flux. The task of a leader was to “seize the day, and create something out of the chaos”.

So what kind of man was he?

Throughout his long career as Foreign Service Officer, Deputy Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, Liberal leader and Prime Minister, he was known as intelligent, easy-going and unusually informal – as much at home in the baseball stands as in the UN General Assembly.

He seemed amiably approachable – but there was another side to him.

Often when he met tourists on Parliament Hill, he would encourage them to come by and see him, as though he had hours to sit and chat with whoever might be in town.

As his Appointment Secretary, I had to deal with these “guests.” I would come into his office to report they had arrived to have the meeting he had encouraged. He was almost affronted that they had taken his casual invitation seriously!

With ministers and M.P.s he could be even more severe. He was tough-minded over how colleagues carried out their duties. If their performance threatened his or his government’s reputation, he could be ruthless.

Walter Gordon, Guy Favreau and Judy LaMarsh were three of his most senior colleagues, who had done a great deal to see him elected, but when they got into serious political trouble, he shifted them out of their portfolios. They were bitter that their years of loyalty to Pearson were not reciprocated.

In the end he was one of the few survivors of his government who emerged unscathed. I would argue that Prime Ministers need that kind of selfish instinct for survival. And if you are an activist Prime Minister, with a long list of reforms to bring about, new institutions to create and programs to launch, tough-mindedness is essential.

Pearson always kept his broad smile, and there was usually a corny joke and self-deprecating humor to go with it.

Those who survived in his circle learned to listen carefully to the jokes, for often there was a darker message for them hidden within it. After the ’65 election, the question arose whether the cabinet should resign to give Pearson flexibility in re-shaping it. “Yes,” said Pearson, “you could each write me a resignation letter – except Judy – I have a drawer full of hers.”

In the end, we see a man who achieved a great deal on the world stage and for his country. His and his team’s reforms have served us well for 50 years. Many urgently need repair and are unlikely to see that repair in the immediate future.

But what was achieved is a tribute to this rumpled reformer, who moved forward by appearing to need help, who recruited and delegated with great skill, who shifted agendas regularly and managed chaos with ease.

And through it all he appeared as the nice guy, the parson’s kid, who would invite you to his office for a chat “if you had the time”.

James A. Coutts was appointments secretary to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Policy.This article is based on a speech delivered on April 9, 2013 at a conference commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Pearson Government, hosted by the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto

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