The famous 1967 photograph says it well. Lester Pearson is in the right foreground, smiling, exuberant. In the background are three future prime ministers of Canada – Trudeau smirking with John Turner and Jean Chretien looking on. The happy Liberal family in its youth. They are all so young, so confident. This amazing photograph says a good deal about the kind of country Canada became from the 1960s onward. Love it or hate it – and there are plenty on both sides – modern Canada was made by the four men in this photograph.
I don’t spend many days sharing coffee with prime ministers. Yet here I was last Tuesday in a room where you couldn’t walk from the croissant tray to the coffee urn without bumping into a right honourable so and so. All those Orders of Canada pins shining on lapels, familiar faces from newspapers or television. Likely half the people there had their own entry in the Canadian Who’s Who. I was the Tim Horton’s bumpkin at the living mausoleum of the Laurentian elite.
The event was a one day conference celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the election of Lester Pearson’s government in 1963. It was put on by the newly established Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.
It was truly a room of yesterday: gray hair, walkers, canes and bow ties. There were some young folks: students giving us our name tags, security guards looking threatening. There were even a few people who weren’t white. There was more than a handful – though no more than a few handfuls – of women. It really was the Canada of 1963.
There wasn’t much dissent. Lorna Marsden, former president of Wilfrid Laurier and York Universities, gently pointed out Mr. Pearson’s seeming indifference towards the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. There was Stephen Azzi, of Carleton University, noting how lonely was Walter Gordon’s economic nationalism in the Pearson cabinet.
This was a conference of appreciation and fond regard. There were references to critics on the left and the right of Pearson’s foreign policy. The critics weren’t present. But even if the conference could have been a little less cosy, it’s hard not to acknowledge the importance of what was being celebrated. The Pearson government was a turning point in modern Canadian history.
When Lester Pearson was elected, Canada was an illiberal rump of a country. Mackenzie King’s government was Liberal, but liberal only when absolutely necessary and only when the electorate led it there by the nose. Kennedy’s America was the bright beacon of hope in North America. No one then could have imagined that several decades on young Canadians would assume that Canada has always been the more tolerant, progressive country. The transformation was imperfect, incomplete; it has its jagged edges, its unfinished business. But a transformation it was.
The accomplishments of the Pearson government give a good indication of how many things we now take for granted were created in this era. This included social welfare measures like universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada student loans, aids to provincial welfare programs. It included measures of social justice such as limits on capital punishment, the new points-based immigration system, and the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It especially included moves towards building a united Canada like the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the new Canadian flag. It’s an impressive list. It would have made Mackenzie King vomit.
Add to this just a few of the measures put forward under later Liberal governments: Trudeau’s seminal Omnibus Bill, which decriminalized homosexuality and birth control and began the process of legalizing abortion; the liberalization of divorce law; and of course the repatriation of the constitution with the all important Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was that document that pushed liberal reforms under later governments. The Mulroney and Chretien governments could step back and watch the courts expand equality provisions to more and more Canadians, letting the judges do what would have been much harder for nervous legislatures to achieve.
All of this adds up to the creation of a Liberal and liberal Canada. It is exactly the Canada that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives want to take apart – at least as much as they can. That the Charter enshrined so much of this liberalism in our political DNA means that their destruction can only ever be partial – at the edges of certain measures, taking away the teeth and the force of liberal rights that have been guaranteed in principle. It’s why we hear all the time about Canada’s Economic Action Plan and not Canada’s social action plan.
The event was a time-machine back to a different era. Yet it was precisely the people in the room who made Canada a place quite different than it had been before the 1960s – multicultural, bilingual, liberal. The Canada created by the four prime ministers in the photograph opened its doors – though not all its doors, even today – to more and different kinds of Canadians.
There is a lot more to be done, but this record is something any ordinary Tim Horton’s bumpkin can celebrate.
Photo Credit: Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada, Pa-117107