Mr. St. Laurent
Louis St. Laurent by-passed politics to land in the cabinet. He’s Canada’s voice to the world
M. Grattan O'Leary
THE LATE "Tiger Tim" Healy, wittily referring to his own political career, once spoke of the good fortune of a man whose father had been hanged. "If the son turns out badly," he said, "everybody agrees that it is not his fault, whereas if he is only a reasonably decent member of society, everybody says, `What a contrast with his father!'" it is a tribute to Louis St. Laurent, Minister of External Affairs and perhaps the most talked-of politician of his day, that public estimate of him rests in no way upon whether his ancestors were rogues or ruffians or wore shining armor and great swords. A tribute to him also because it is not influenced by any abnor mal characteristics, his career being singu larly free from adventure and romance. About Mr. St. Laurent there is a quiet rectitude which denies adventure. Not that his ancestors are unworthy of mention. On his father's side, St. Laurent's people have been in Canada since 1653, one of the earliest being an important official. The original family name was not St. Laurent, the "St." having been added somewhere down the generations. Correctly pronounced, it sounds like this: sahnlaraun - said fast and fluidly, coming down heavily on the last syllable.
Louis St. Laurent, of the sixth Canadian
generation, was born at Compton, P.Q., on Feb. 1, 1882, the son of Moise St. Laurent, a merchant. His mother was Mary Broderick, Irish. English and French were spoken in their home, young St. Laurent learning both at the same time. His mother, a schoolteacher, taught him at home, and when he went to school,
was sent to St. Charles College, Sherbrooke, his
he parents would hoping, be a priest. after the In St. fashion Charles of College Quebec, there that was a learned cleric, a Father Simard who gave lectures in philosophy, stressing Thomas Aquinas, Young St. Laurent, giving early signs of what he was to become later, asked questions. When Father Simard, finding the questions too numerous and insistent, ruled that they must be asked in Latin, St. Laurent brushed up on his Latin, resumed his questioning.
A few years later, when graduation had come, and the elder St. Laurent asked Father Simard whether his son should become a priest, the good father shook his head. “No, no,” he said, “a lawyer.”
CT. LAURENT went to Laval University and became a lawyer. His first practice came in the
office of Louis Philippe Pelletier, a brilliant stormy petrel of Quebec politics, who was Postmaster-
General in the ministry of Sir Robert Borden. St. Laurent’s salary was $50 a month.
St. Laurent, unlike most French - Canadian youths, had no interest in politics. It was the day of picturesque Quebec politicians, of great and bitter controversies. He was remote from them. Even during the conscription crisis of 1917, when other young French-Canadian lawyers and notaries were flocking to the platform, he remained with his clients and the courts, resolved to make a legal reputation.
Today he admits, almost sheepishly, that only
once or twice did he shake hands with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and that before coming to Ottawa his acquaintance with Mr. King was only casual. “Sometimes,” he says, “I would go out to make an election speech, but mainly to show that our firm was not wholly Conservative.” Law was his mistress, and in it he was soon to show his mettle. One Continued on page 52
Mr. St. Laurent
Continued from page 12
of his friends was Marius Barbeau, the I ethnologist and folklorist (they had both won Rhodes Scholarships, St. Laurent, for financial reasons,declining his). When Barbeau’s mother died and willed everything she possessed to her parish priest, Barbeau decided to contest the will on grounds of mental incapacity and “undue influence.” S.t. Laurent took the case. The result was a trial which stirred Quebec from Gaspé to the Ottawa River.
St. Laurent put the priest on the witness stand, cross-examined him relentlessly, put nuns on the witness stand, cross-examined them. When he lost the case in the lower courts he appealed it to the Court of King’s Bench, spoke for a day and a half in marshalling and presenting his evidence. The King’s Bench overturned the will.
St. Laurent, in his 25th year, became famous overnight, or, as he puts it smilingly, “perhaps notorious.” (St. Laurent’s partner, Pelletier, shortly afterward a candidate in the riding of Montmagny, was denounced asa “priest hater,” defeated overwhelmingly.)
Up the Legal Ladder
St. Laurent, not having to contest elections, went on to bigger and better cases. While still in his twenties he came to Ottawa for the late Sir George Garneau to work out legal agreements appropriating land for the Quebec Battlefields Commission. When the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company sued the Quebec Bank in connection with cashed cheques for a crooked agent, St. Laurent took the bank’s case, won over the insurance company’s more experienced counsel.
Metropolitan, knowing a good thing when it saw it, promptly employed him, in time made him one of its Canadian directors. Within a few years, and while still in his thirties, St. Laurent was appearing regularly before the Supreme Court of Canada, travelling across the Atlantic to the Privy Council, being sought after by the great pulp and paper and other companies which had come to Quebec during the 1920’s. He had already begun to rank in prestige with men like LaFleur and Geoff-
rion and Tilley. He might not have LaFleur’s massive logic, nor Tilley’s overwhelming force, nor Geoffrion’s agility; but he was becoming recognized as the equal of any of them in knowledge of constitutional and corporation law and in ability to win cases. The struggling young lawyer at $50 a month had reached the point where he could write four figures on a brief.
Ernest Lapointe died in late November, 1941. His going, in relation to Mackenzie King, was as though one blade of a scissors was lost. Within a week, St. Laurent, working in his Quebec City office, received a telephone invitation from King to come and see him in Ottawa. Over a luncheon table at Laurier House he was invited to join the Cabinet.
St. Laurent did not refuse, did not accept. When he told King that he must consult with responsible Quebec leaders and was informed in turn that King already had consulted them, he insisted that he himself must see them. A few days later St. Laurent was back in Ottawa to become a Cabinet minister. Mr. King, at their first meeting, had told him that in the opinion of high authority the war might be over in two years. When St. Laurent walked into King’s office for their second meeting he found him reading a newspaper with the account of the sinking of two British battleships at Singapore. “Do you still think,” asked St. Laurent, “the ' war will be over in two years?” Mr. King was not sure. But he had St. Laurent.
St. Laurent, still troubled about the wisdom of his step (he was sacrificing the largest legal practice in Canada and had no heart for public life), yet convinced that he must play his war part (his son and daughter were already in uniform), was sworn in as Minister of Justice.
It was a post well suited to his training and temperament. Ernest Lapointe, an orator who could sway his people and compel their devotion, was never a great lawyer and was not a great Minister of Justice. St. Laurent, unschooled in politics and without platform experience, was a great lawyer and became a great Minister of Justice. Perhaps one of the greatest since Confederation.
He became more. French-Canadian
politicians are not noted for their grasp of business or economics; are more at home with the abstract and constitutional. St. Laurent was different. With wide knowledge of business, gained through connections with many corporations, he quickly became a tower of government strength in a multiplicity of matters, soon found himself on practically every Cabinet committee struggling with war problems.
“There were months and weeks,” he says, “when I did not give more than an hour to the Justice department, devoting most of my time to work with all sorts of committees.”
But the greatest testimony to St. Laurent’s versatility was the ease with which he mastered the demands of the Department of External Affairs, following his appointment last Dec. 11. Here was a field supposed to belong only to the trained diplomat. Within a week of invading it St. Laurent was amazing officials with his quick grasp of its activities and problems. “We leave him with a file or memorandum,” said one veteran of the department, “and within no time at all he has mastered it, and is suggesting important and helpful changes.”
First at Paris and later at Lake Success, he had to meet and cope with the best brains of British, Russian, American and French diplomacy, with men who had made international affairs their life work. On the evidence of impartial observers there was none at either gathering who was his master; none with capacity to analyze with greater clarity the meaning and implications of the United Nations Charter. Said a member of the Cabinet: “When he returned from Lake Success and gave us a report on what was going on, even we understood him.”
St. Laurent likes his new work, says he finds it enthralling. When I visited him in his apartment he was deep in Sumner Welles’ “Where are We Heading?,” admitted that he was reading everything of authority that he could find with a bearing on the international problem. When he appeared before a meeting of the Ottawa Institute of International Affairs to speak of the UN assembly, veterans of the Institute were amazed to find him without a single note,.quoting from the Charter and detailing the proceedings of the assembly from memory, and always with an extraordinary lucidity.
The House of Commons, with all its faults, has an instinct for ability and character; judges them by stern tests. Men with large reputations whose eloquence could melt and control crowds in other arenas have pathetically failed to “gain the ear” of the House, to win the approval of that assembly of critical and contemptuous M.P.’s. A Laurier could hold such an audience by the beauty of his eloquence, a Meighen command it by his sheer lucid magic, a Fielding win its attention by clarity and knowledge. The mere bombastic rhetorician has never gained its applause. It is no small testimony for St. Laurent that without Laurier’s love for the pageantry as well as the distinction of words, he has complete command today of the House’s ear, winning its respect by sheer character and intellect.
He hasmade some concessions to Parliament’s political atmosphere. When I asked him whether there was much difference between speaking to the Supreme Court and the Commons, he smilingly replied: “Before the
Supreme Court anger would be fatal; in the House, sometimes, it is desirable to appear angry.”
Hard it is to convey the pleasure
I derived from a few hours talk with this man, so different from the average politician, or even the average minister. His talk ranged easily and spontaneously over all kinds of topics, from grave to gay, from lively to severe. The present and future of the United Nations, his conception of his part as Minister for External Affairs, his impressions of Parliament and public life, his views on the future of Confederation under a federal system, his views of his own people and province—all were dealt with candidly and always with unexpected depths or suggestive turns which revealed his background of knowledge and reflection.
Whether St. Laurent has outlived his future as a statesman, and now, in his middle sixties and with his war contract fulfilled, will be “content to let occasion die,” I do not know. Watching him, listening to him, one thinks of him as being too sensitive for rough-and-tumble politics; as shrinking from the caucus, the wire-puller and the ward-heeler—as one who, refusing to stoop, must fail to conquer.
Studying St. Laurent, too, one doubts whether he is altogether in harmony with his age. As Minister for External Affairs one can see him, mixing with the great, moving in high altitudes, concerned only with the high problems of diplomacy and State. It is not easy to think of him as close to the masses, understanding their lives, the pressures under which they live, the sense of injustice and inequality which rankles in their bosoms, the appetites and aspirations to which they would respond; somehow one gets the impression that all these questions of social reform, of labor, housing and health, arouse in him only a cool, benevolent interest.
And yet it is not possible to think of the time when Mackenzie King at last puts off his armor without thinking of Louis St. Lament as a possible Liberal leader; and it is hard to think that he himself does not sometimes dwell on what political destiny might hold for him.
Achievement for Harmony
One thing is sure. If Louis St. Laurent quits Ottawa in the near future—my own feeling is that he will —the loss for Quebec will be grievous. Not since Laurier has any FrenchCanadian political leader done so much to soften asperities between the two races. Five years ago, two years ago, a French Canadian as leader of a party in Canada, much less as Prime Minister, would have been unthinkable. Today, I think, the Liberal party, its English-speaking wing as well as its Quebec wing, would accept St. Laurent as its leader without risk of antagonism from any group whatsoever. That is the measure of what he has done for harmony.
Quebec Cabinet representation of such character with such gain is a tremendous thing for Canada. The peril is that if St. Laurent goes there will be no Quebec successor equipped to don his mantle. The Wilfrid Lauriers, the Ernest Lapointes, the Louis St. Laurents are rare enough anywhere; they are all too rare at this moment in Quebec. Not among young French Canadians in the House, not among Quebec politicians on the viewable horizon, is there a figure of such stature, nor even of its promise.
Such thought, I think, will be much on Louis St. Laurent’s mind as during the coming months he ponders whether he should remain in public life or return to the triumphs of his law practice. If his decision should be to put off his political armor, to call it a day, there wifi be no one to reproach him; in full
measure he has kept his contract to serve for the “duration.” If his decision should be otherwise, it will be taken without personal vanity, without cheap ambition.
For St. Laurent is essentially the product of humility. No public man of our time has been more free of guile, or
of the posturings of the demagogue, or of the treachery and ruthlessness of the careerist. War emergencies produced him, brought to politics a fresh figure of dignity; whether the emergencies of peace are to find his talents still available is Ottawa’s largest question mark today. if