How the Prime Minister became Uncle Louis
He started as a scholarly corporation lawyer. He didn’t want to get into politics. Yet a half-dozen years have made Louis St. Laurent the greatest vote-getter Canada has ever known. How did he do it? What is his secret?
HERE ARE THE ANSWERS
ONE DAY last fall Louis Stephen St. Laurent was at the railway station in Ottawa saying good-by to Prime Minister Yoshida of Japan, who had paid him an official visit. A taffy-haired eight-year-old, Jill Winnett, was at the station too and crying because her grandmother was going to England for the winter. St. Laurent broke away from Yoshida to comfort Jill.
Newspaper and radio reports of the incident added another fragment to the growing legend of the man who in the last half-dozen years has become in the minds of millions a sort of Canadian father-image named Uncle Louis, a benevolent patriarch who loves children.
Uncle Louis, whose personality is accentuated by the fact that our two previous prime ministers, W. L. Mackenzie King and R. B. Bennett, were frosty bachelors, is a new and amazing phenomenon on the country’s political stage. The results of two general elections have established his statistical position as the greatest vote-getter since Confederation. The Toronto Telegram, which has strong Conservative leanings, has described him as "an extremely attractive figure in public life” and admitted that his qualities “enormously increase the difficulties of opposition parties.” Harvey Hickey, parliamentary correspondent of the Toronto Globe and Mail, which also has strong Conservative leanings, recently acknowledged St. Laurent’s popularity by writing that “the Liberal platform is Louis St. Laurent.”
In the House of Commons most of his political opponents tacitly bow to his prestige by avoiding personal criticism of him because they’ve found it has a tendency to boomerang. “He’s a terrible problem for us,” a Progressive Conservative MP remarked recently with a sigh.
When St. Laurent left Yoshida to mop little Jill Winnett’s tears in the Ottawa station, nobody was surprised. It was in keeping with a familiar side of his character. Yet even members of his own cabinet were surprised a fortnight later when he did something equally typical of another side of his character by declaring war on Quebec nationalism.
Actually, such a declaration might almost have been expected. Quebec’s nationalists, led by Premier Maurice Duplessis and backed by elements of the Quebec clergy, were riding high and St. Laurent had warned them before. He had stated as early as 1942 that French Canada “must abandon an illusive dream of a French state in North America” and, like Sir Wilfrid Laurier, he had always set himself against those who preach that Quebec should be, in effect, a French Catholic republic aloof from the rest of Canada.
In the light of this, what he said was startling chiefly because of where, when and how he said it. He deliberately chose Quebec City, the hotbed of Quebec nationalism; the occasion at which he spoke was primarily social, the formal opening of the new building of the Quebec City Reform Club; and his words had a ring of cold angry determination. The impact of what he said was heightened by the fact that the facade of Uncle Louis cloaks the inner toughness of St. Laurent.
People forget that he is probably blunter and more uncompromising than any of the eleven men who preceded him as prime minister. They forget that in the middle of one election campaign he snapped at Maritime fishermen that he had no intention of using taxpayers’ money to buy their surplus fish, and that in the middle of another campaign he flatly told Saskatchewan farmers he couldn’t promise federal funds for the South Saskatchewan irrigation project unless they convinced him that it was of national rather than regional importance and that they hadn’t convinced him.
People forget that he hastily ended a railway strike by ramming emergency legislation through a special session of parliament, an unprecedented action, and that last summer when a second railway strike appeared inevitable he announced, “There will be no strike,” and compelled union leaders to submit to arbitration by threatening another special session of parliament.
People forget that in Quebec he has already fought and won three battles, each of which Liberal stalwarts feared would be his “political suicide.” Two of these, during the war, were against anti-conscriptionists, and one, just after the war, was against Quebec isolationists.
The outcome of his present fight against Duplessis’ deeply entrenched nationalists remains uncertain, but he did not enter it without weighing all the factors. Why did he take the course he took?
Sitting at Laurier’s old desk in the East Block on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, in front of a portrait of Laurier, the Prime Minister told me he looked on what he had done to bring English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians closer together as his main contribution to Canada. When he saw his work threatened by the upsurge of Quebec nationalism, he had to try to stem the tide.
“It seemed to me,” he said quietly, “that attitudes were being adopted and promoted in Quebec that were contrary to my ambition to see this country develop as one Canadian nation and not merely as an alliance of ten separate state provinces. And I had come to the conclusion that I could start something of that kind (a struggle with the Duplessis nationalists) and expect to be here long enough to avoid leaving too heavy an unfinished task for those who would come after me.” He reached his decision alone, without consulting his cabinet.
His Reform Club speech was like an echo from the past. It was as though history had turned full circle and he had pulled over his shoulders the mantle of Laurier the silver-plumed knight, Canada’s only other French-speaking prime minister. In 1877 and again in 1896 in ancient Quebec City, Laurier thundered defiance at a group of politicians and priests who were stirring up Quebec nationalism with the aim of forming a French Catholic party, and who were feeding the inherent fear so many Canadiens have of losing the language and religion of their fathers. That fear sways voters.
Laurier said the right of clergymen to interfere in politics ceased where it encroached on the independence of the elector. He said that a French Catholic party would be a crime against Canada and would hurt the Catholic Church itself, since it would result in the formation of an English Protestant party by the majority of Canadians.
St. Laurent directed his fire at a similar alliance of politicians and priests, linking the actions of Duplessis’ Union Nationale government with the philosophies of Abbé Lionel Groulx of the University of Montreal, a writer and historian whose thesis, St. Laurent said, is that Quebec should be segregated from those “cursed” Protestants who surround it.
Because of nationalism, he said, Quebec alone of the ten provinces had refused grants for education, declined to participate in the trans-Canada highway construction, and rejected a tax-rental agreement with Ottawa an agreement which would have brought Quebec scores of millions of dollars a year.
Like Laurier, St. Laurent propounded the principle that Canada is one country and no province can block its progress. He added a newer principle, that the federal government must maintain a “reasonable standard” of prosperity in all ten provinces, and must thus be able to tax rich regions like Ontario and Quebec to help poorer regions like the Maritimes.
HE’LL FIGHT ANOTHER ELECTION
He returned to Ottawa and waited for a reaction. In ten days Duplessis telephoned him and arranged a meeting at Montreal, on “neutral ground.” St. Laurent obviously believed he had won the first round and was so anxious to have the news flashed through Canada that he phoned the House of Commons press gallery himself. The last prime minister to do this was R. B. Bennett and he did it in a rage, to tell one of the correspondents he was suing him for libel.
When a page picked up the receiver and heard St. Laurent say “This is the Prime Minister,” he asked, “Who are you kidding?” Then, with a shock, he recognized the voice and screamed for a reporter.
The St. Laurent-Duplessis meeting at Montreal and subsequent negotiations have led to an uneasy truce and a review of federal-provincial fiscal relations. Whether St. Laurent has subdued the Quebec nationalists and can turn the truce into a lasting peace is far from clear. Some Quebec politicians claim his declaration of war on nationalists did more to unify the nationalist movement than to unify the nation, and that St. Laurent faces a long grim combat.
But this much at least seems plain—that if St. Laurent did have plans to retire soon, as was rumored last spring, he has laid them aside. He would hardly have challenged the nationalists without being prepared to shepherd the Liberals through another general election and there is unlikely to be such an election until 1957.
Meanwhile his Reform Club speech can be set down as a further step in the curious process by which a rather shy corporation lawyer who had no political ambitions, who passed his fifty-ninth birthday before he ran for office, and who didn’t really want to be prime minister, has marched into the history books.
How has he done it? What is his secret?
Part of the answer is that in the eyes of Canadians from Newfoundland to British Columbia he became Uncle Louis. St. Laurent has been a cabinet minister since December 1941, and prime minister since November 1948. But the emergence of Uncle Louis dates only from St. Laurent’s nationwide tour prior to the general election of June 27, 1949. The change had three phases.
Reporters traveling with St. Laurent noticed the first phase shortly after the trip started. As he grew accustomed to mixing with crowds the Prime Minister shed the starchy formality which had clung to him earlier. As a lad in his father’s general store in a Quebec village, he had chatted easily with the customers about crops and the weather and all kinds of things. Now he recovered this half-forgotten talent and chatted as easily with the voters. They liked it. But his speeches were still scholarly and precise, like the lectures of a professor, and the applause they drew was more polite than spontaneous.
The second phase came when St. Laurent found out quite by accident how to reach an audience. This was at Edson, Alberta, where schoolchildren far outnumbered the adults who gathered to hear him. He talked to the children instead of to their parents and it was St. Laurent the grandfather talking. Suddenly the adults were cheering and clapping. Here was the beginning of the simple colloquial style of speech he has since used and which is now so familiar to Canadians.
In his Reform Club speech, for example, he took to task the zealous and militant Jesuit Order and implied that the Jesuits were more concerned with the welfare of the rich than the welfare of the poor. He illustrated his point by telling of a Jesuit priest who had once complained to him that family allowances violated Quebec’s autonomy and had said Quebeckers would not accept them. “Well,” St. Laurent related, “I said to him, ‘How many children have you? There are many people in the province of Quebec who have children and I would be surprised if some would return our cheques.’ ”
Mackenzie King always wrote his speeches or had them written for him, with the result that they sounded stilted.
St. Laurent usually speaks extemporaneously, as he did at the Reform Club, and sometimes remarks, as he also did at the Reform Club: “After all, I am among friends, and, well, I can speak to them as I can speak to members of my own family. When there is something to explain to members of my family I do not put it down on paper beforehand.” Press gallery correspondents firmly believe that when he gives a speech he tries to imagine he is talking to his own family, although he has never admitted this.
The final phase of Uncle Louis’ emergence on that campaign tour in the spring of 1949 was when he gained his nickname. This political asset was bestowed on him by a Conservative, Norman Campbell, a reporter covering the tour for the Toronto Telegram.
When the train stopped at Field, R.C., early one morning, Campbell and Alex Hume of the Ottawa Citizen rubbed the sleep from their eyes and got off for a walk. St. Laurent, immaculately groomed, was already on the station platform shaking hands, patting the heads of children and admiring a squaw’s brown chubby-cheeked baby.
“I’m afraid Uncle Louis will be a hard one to beat,” said Campbell. In his dispatch to the Telegram that day Campbell referred half-derisively to the “Uncle Louis technique” St. Laurent had adopted. It was the first time St. Laurent had been called Uncle Louis in the Press. The tag seemed to fit so well that other correspondents picked it up and telegraphed it through Canada.
Such small events had a bearing on his metamorphosis but they don’t begin to explain the political phenomenon of St. Laurent. The explanation lies in many things, among them the kind of parents he had, the kind of community in which he was brought up, his own intellect, education and appearance, and the kind of woman he married. His story is as distinctly Canadian as his name, borrowed from the St. Lawrence River by a remote French ancestor whose family name was Huot.
It’s the story of a boy in the Quebec village of Compton who spoke English to his Irish-Canadian mother and French to his Canadien father, and who thought all boys did this. Compton folks called his father the “peacemaker” because he settled the disputes between English-speaking and French-speaking residents. From him the boy learned that it was wrong for people to distrust one another just because they spoke different languages.
It’s the story of a brilliant student who was a disciple of Laurier but wrote once that “politicians are no more to be trusted than the weather,” and who refused a chance at a Rhodes scholarship to go to work for a law firm at fifty dollars a month.
It’s the story of a lawyer who defied Quebec convention and made a name for himself by calling priests and nuns as witnesses in a will case; who married a pretty Canadien girl and raised two sons and three daughters; who laid down strict rules for the courtship of his daughters but often had twelve or fifteen of his children’s friends at the dinner table; who sat on ten directorates and earned more than $50,000 a year but tinkered with broken clocks in his spare time.
At fifty-nine, an age at which many men think of retiring, he liked golf, bridge, fishing, his family, his home and reading comics to his grandchildren. He was a happy man. But, as he had once told his law students when he was a professor at Laval University, men’s lives are influenced by events they can’t foresee. His own destiny was changed on November 29, 1941. the day of Justice Minister Ernest Lapointe’s funeral.
Quebec, with memories of the conscription riots of the First World War, was torn by conflicting emotions, but Mackenzie King had been sure his great political lieutenant, Lapointe, could keep the province behind the war effort. Now he turned to the veteran Quebec politician C. G. (Chubby) Power and asked desperately, “Who can we get to succeed Lapointe?”
“Get St. Laurent,” Power said.
Early in December 1941, King asked St. Laurent to join his cabinet as minister of justice. On the urging of Rodrigue, Cardinal Villeneuve, whose advice he sought, St. Laurent reluctantly agreed to take the job on December 10. 1941. A new grandchild, Marie, a daughter of his son Jean-Paul, was born that day. As he looked at the infant, St. Laurent said: “For myself I may be making a mistake, but in the long run this child may benefit.”
St. Laurent moved from his big house in Quebec City to a modest rented apartment in Ottawa where his dark-eyed wife cooked for him herself. He walked back and forth to his office without being recognized. At first his cabinet colleagues looked on him as a stopgap who would do until a new Lapointe arose. But on his first test, the by-election for Lapointe’s seat —and Laurier’s old seat—in Quebec East, he won a victory even though he rejected the demand of anti-conscriptionists that he pledge himself against conscription.
He told them, “Not one dollar, not one man, will be conscripted for anything but the defense of the country, but that does not mean the defense will be made entirely on Canadian soil.” His stock at Ottawa went up, especially since party workers had labeled his conscription statement political suicide. It kept soaring as he campaigned for a “yes” vote in the conscription plebiscite of April, 1942, and voted to send draftees to Europe in 1944. Despite more cries of political suicide he w’as given a majority of 10,000 when he contested the Quebec East seat in the 1945 election.
Having proved his toughness in his handling of the conscription issue, St. Laurent showed it again in the Gouzenko spy exposé when he was responsible for a secret order-in-council suspending several legal rights of individuals. To protests in the Press and in parliament he replied: “I would have been disappointed had that criticism not been made. It is good, when extraordinary measures are taken, that they should be looked at very closely and that those who take them should feel they have to respond to the tribunal of public opinion for those actions of which they have been the authors.”
Then, with a storm still raging, he told Mackenzie King he wanted to retire and return to his law' practice. But King had other plans and persuaded him to stay on as secretary of state for external affairs. In this role the corporation lawyer from an isolationist province became the blunt voice of Canadian internationalism.
He spoke out for foreign commitments as no Canadian statesman ever had before. In his own Quebec, some called him a “warmonger.” This was on his mind one day as he strolled with a friend in his native Compton. He pointed around him at the countryside. “I don’t believe,” he said, “that anybody brought up in a lovely country like this could be a warmonger.”
By now Mackenzie King’s long career was drawing rapidly to a close. Old and ill, King knew he would soon have to give up the prime ministership, and he instructed his party to call a national convention and choose a new leader.
No Mountie For a Guard
St. Laurent said recently he didn’t want to be prime minister. Why did he let his name go before the convention? The reason was that there had been a feeling in Quebec since the death of Laurier that there would not be another French-speaking prime minister. St. Laurent felt he should show his fellow Canadiens, if he could, that their race and language were not held against them by the rest of Canada and would not exclude a Canadien from the country’s top job.
On August 17, 1948, in Ottawa, as he waited for the ballot that would make him the new Liberal leader, St. Laurent washed down a ham sandwich with a glass of milk and scribbled notes on an envelope for an acceptance speech. Afterwards there was a reception in his honor. He wasn’t there. He had forgotten about it and taken his wife to dinner.
On November 15 he was sworn in as prime minister. He worked in the East Block until 7.30 that evening and as he was leaving he said to the elevator operator, an elderly man, "Do you always stay this late?"
"I have orders to stay until the Prime Minister leaves," the man said.
"After this go home at the same time as the others," said St. Laurent. "I can walk downstairs."
Mackenzie King had refused to have plain-clothes policemen follow him around. He was one of the few unguarded heads of state on earth. St. Laurent instructed the RCMP that he was not to be guarded either, but in his first days as prime minister he noticed a man trailing him. He summoned the commissioner, S.T. Wood, and asked why his instructions had been disobeyed.
"But I haven't anybody following you sir," said the commissioner.
"Well, somebody is following me,"
The RCMP boss thought a crackpot, perhaps a potential assassin, might be after the Prime Minister. Next morning his men were out in strength. They quickly nabbed the man who had been shadowing St. Laurent--a reporter from a U.S. magazine, gathering material for an article.
St. Laurent the novice prime minister of 1948 was not the poised confident politician of today. In the evening when he was in the House of Commons Mme St Laurent frequently sat in the gallery watching him. Even she noticed that his even temper and his courtesy encouraged opponents to goad him.
Then came March 17, 1949. George Drew had been repeatedly on his feet arguing about questions of procedure. St. Laurent jumped up, scowling fiercely. “I wish,” he said, “to make a short reply to this further lesson in procedure in this House which the new leader of the Progressive Conservative party has been dinning into our ears ... I have attended meetings of other deliberative bodies and have seen just the same tactics adopted and the same waste of time by those who were obstructing consideration of the real merits of issues.”
As he sat down, his opponents looked flabbergasted. The polite St. Laurent had finally exploded. Liberals, recalling St. Laurent’s Irish-Canadian mother, chortled that Drew should have known better than to get an Irishman’s goat on St. Patrick’s Day. St. Laurent himself, with his flair for quickly appraising a situation, realized he had learned a new lesson in political leadership -the art of occasionally showing anger. Later when an Ottawa Journal editor asked him about the difference between appearing in the Supreme Court and in the House of Commons, his eyes twinkled and he said, ‘‘In the Supreme Court it is fatal to lose your temper. In parliament, it is fatal not to pretend to lose your temper.”
St. Laurent’s first test as party leader in a general election was the 1949 campaign. He started as Louis St. Laurent, a man virtually unknown to the average Canadian, and he emerged as Uncle Louis the universal father-image, a full-fledged political phenomenon who has since been unbeatable. When the returns were tallied on the night of June 27, 1949, the Liberals had captured 187 of 262 seats in the House of Commons—more than any party had ever before held.
With the election off his mind St. Laurent dug into his job and a new atmosphere settled over Parliament Hill. Mackenzie King, the mystic, the man who consulted spiritualists and had a light burning constantly under his mother’s picture, had been a remote unapproachable figure. St. Laurent, the antithesis of King, has nothing of the mystic about him. He is extremely practical and cabinet ministers and top civil servants find him easy to approach, although even the senior ministers address him as ‘‘Mr. Prime Minister” or “Mr. St. Laurent” —never as “Louis.”
King’s thoughts were often up in the clouds. St. Laurent is not too preoccupied with dreams and great affairs of state to think of smaller matters and dictate memoranda for departmental executives. One six-page memorandum from his desk expressed the opinion that income-tax forms were too complicated for the ordinary person and suggested ways in which they could be shortened and simplified. The T-l form, the easiest to understand and complete that Canada has ever had, sprang from his suggestions.
King was unpredictable in his habits. His secretaries seldom knew what day he would be at his office in the East Block, let alone what hour. St. Laurent, in contrast, has so organized his daily routine that his life—as much as the life of a chief of state can—has a regular pattern.
He did this in 1949. The only change since then is that he now drives to work. He walked while he lived in an apartment close to Parliament Hill, but in 1951 the St. Laurents moved to 24 Sussex Street, a mansion Canada bought for St. Laurent and all future prime ministers. It’s too far from Parliament Hill for walking.
He rises at 7.30 a.m. and reads the Montreal Gazette as he breakfasts on orange juice, cereal, bacon and one egg, toast, jam and coffee. He is at the East Block, a grey stone Victorian structure, by 9 or 9.15. He has a friendly word with his confidential messenger, Aldric Groslouis, a short spry but ageing man whose forebears were Quebec Indians, and disappears into his inner office.
The first business of the day is a brief conference with his senior secretary, Pierre Asselin. Asselin, a forty-three-year-old bachelor of commerce who has been with the Prime Minister for years, has already put St. Laurent’s mail on his desk with the more urgent letters on top. He has also put on the desk diplomatic and departmental reports. Pinned to the corner of each of the longer documents is a brief typed summary of what it contains.
Asselin himself and other secretaries acknowledge letters the Prime Minister hasn’t time to handle—such as letters that pour in by the hundreds when some group with an axe to grind persuades its sympathizers to address pleas or protests to St. Laurent. Asselin screens crank letters and copes with crank callers, one of whom appears regularly and proffers an engraved card identifying himself as “The King of Canada.”
Apart from cabinet ministers, top civil servants and personal friends around twenty people a day seek “just a few minutes” with the Prime Minister. Most of them are directed to other officials but if St. Laurent is not too busy he sees a couple of visitors in the morning and a couple more in the afternoon. Asselin occasionally lets visitors through to St. Laurent for no other reason than that he thinks St. Laurent would be interested in seeing them.
One of these was a United States tourist who said he liked Canada so much that he’d appreciate having an opportunity to shake the hand of the Prime Minister. St. Laurent not only shook hands but talked with him for fifteen minutes. Another was a young Torontonian, fresh out of university, who said that since he intended to spend his life in Canada he would like to meet the man who runs the country. St. Laurent talked with him for forty-five minutes about Canada and Canada’s unfolding promise.
He Has a Winning Way
When he can, the Prime Minister goes home to lunch at 1.15. His midday meal is light and he’s delighted when it is macaroni and cheese. He often takes correspondence home with him. He reads as he is riding in his car, a black Chrysler. He cultivated the habit of working while in motion in the days when his law practice kept him shuttling by train between Quebec City and Montreal.
There is a story that once on the way to Montreal he was coaxed into a poker game and won $50. He liked the game but decided that if he continued to play poker on the train he would waste time he would otherwise devote to studying and preparing cases. He played once more with the same men on the return trip to Quebec City and deliberately lost his winnings. After that, no more poker.
The Prime Minister is back in his office by 2.30 and on an average day is there until 6.15. The civil-service week is five days but St. Laurent works Saturday mornings too. When the House of Commons is in session and he has to combine his House leadership with his executive duties, he is on Parliament Hill four or five nights a week and is likely to be at his desk all day Saturday and most of Sunday.
In the House of Commons he is personally liked by most members, whatever their party, and is pleasant to all of them. When Margaret Aitken of Toronto, a Conservative, successfully contested the constituency of York-Humber, she wrote a book about her experiences, Hey Ma! I Did It. St. Laurent made a point of reading it and when Miss Aitken took her place in the House he crossed to the Conservative benches to congratulate her on it and tell her he thought it should be prescribed reading for all new political candidates.
Members of the press gallery like him too. He talks to them more freely than did Mackenzie King, who, in the last years of his regime, was close-mouthed and evasive. Correspondents used to have a long-established custom of being on hand when a cabinet meeting was breaking up, to ask the prime minister what had gone on. They dropped this because King so rarely offered any news. They have now resumed it.
St. Laurent can be testy when reporters press him too hard about a question he doesn’t want to discuss, and last fall when an editorial in the Ottawa Journal annoyed him he did an unprecedented thing for a prime minister and wrote a sharp letter to the editor, claiming the facts were not as the editorial stated. But a couple of weeks after that when Maj.-Gen. G. R. Pearkes, VC, a Conservative MP, blasted the press corps in Ottawa for their handling of news and accused them of being pap-fed, St. Laurent sprang to their defense.
St. Laurent limits his social engagements as much as he can but perhaps twice a week has to put in an appearance at a cocktail party held by a foreign ambassador or some other dignitary. He arrives punctually, drinks a single drink, smokes one of the fifteen straight Virginia cigarettes he allows himself a day—using a black holder--and leaves in exactly half an hour. If Mme. St. Laurent is with him she drinks fruit juice.
He and Mme. St. Laurent dine together at 7 in the big expensively furnished dining room at 24 Sussex Street. This is a stone mansion overlooking the Ottawa River. Parliament bought and redecorated and furnished it at the suggestion of Mackenzie King, who, just before his retirement, said it was impossible for a prime minister without private means to maintain a proper residence on his salary, and that Canada, like other countries, should provide a place for her prime ministers to live.
St. Laurent, whose salary, sessional indemnity and allowances as prime minister total $37,000 a year, was offered 24 Sussex Street free by the House of Commons but insisted that he should pay $5,000 a year toward its upkeep. The establishment’s staff of five includes a cook but Madame St. Laurent prepares the menus and watches the kitchen to make sure the food comes to the table the way her husband likes it. Chicken and roast beef are his favorite dinner dishes.
The St. Laurents have a television set but seldom use it except to watch hockey. In the evening if they have members of their family with them they play bridge, or St. Laurent may play Scrabble with a son or daughter. He likes Scrabble but Mme. St. Laurent dislikes it. The Prime Minister and Mme. St. Laurent are both expert bridge players and Mme. St. Laurent likes poker—for very small stakes. If the St. Laurents are alone they usually have a game of canasta, then the Prime Minister reads. Recently he was in the middle of two books, Trevelyan’s English Social History and an adventure tale, Of Whales and Men, by Robert W. Robertson.
As prime minister he has to take a lot of trips. If he should be going away the next day, he does his own packing. He checks item by item the list of what he will need. He has done this ever since he discovered, in England, that the pants of his evening clothes were still in Canada. Before he closes his bag Mme. St. Laurent makes sure he has put in his bottle of Vitamin B pills. He has used these pills for twelve years.
St. Laurent speaks French to his wife, whose English, while grammatically correct and effortless, has a French accent. St. Laurent has no accent himself in either language. He thinks automatically of some things in English and others in French. He prays in English and attends St. Joseph’s Church and St. Theresa’s Church in Ottawa, both of which have English-speaking priests. He thinks of the Quebec civil code in French and corporation law in English. He slips into English when he is with his daughter Mrs. Hugh O’Donnell, because her husband, a Montreal lawyer, is English-speaking and English is the language of the O’Donnell home.
The Prime Minister goes to bed at 11.30 and sleeps eight hours a night.
He and Madame St. Laurent have grown fond of 24 Sussex Street, although she misses her own possessions. The rugs, furniture, pictures, plates, silverware and even the pots and pans in the mansion are all national property.
A Fondness for Children
St. Laurent says as much as he likes the view of the Ottawa River from Sussex Street he prefers the view of the St. Lawrence from the eastern Quebec resort of St. Patrice, 115 miles from Quebec City, where he has had a summer home since 1950. “I can say this without being partisan,” he smiles. He has a quiet kind of humor. He can say it without being partisan because Sir John A. Macdonald, the great Conservative chieftain and Canada’s first prime minister, also preferred St. Patrice to Ottawa and had a summer estate there within shouting distance of the place that is now St. Laurent’s.
The St. Laurents and Madame’s budgie bird spent much of last summer at St. Patrice. The Prime Minister had a secretary with him and didn’t ignore his work but missed only two days on the golf course. He loves golf but plays poorly.
From the golf club he went most days to nearby Cacouna, to the country home of his son Jean-Paul, who has a salt-water swimming pool. St. Laurent, who taught himself to swim at the age of sixty-nine, likes to splash around in the pool with his grandchildren.
Altogether he has seventeen of them. This is almost enough for anybody, but, in the process of becoming Uncle Louis, he has developed a grandfatherly fondness for all children. He is pleased when moppets recognize him.
Not long ago Alan Phillips, an Ottawa writer and radio commentator, saw his young daughter Mara waving out the window and smiling at someone.
“Who are you waving at?” he asked.
“I’m waving at the Prime Minister,” she said.
Phillips looked. It really was the Prime Minister and he was waving back. It struck Phillips, as it has struck many others, that as he approaches his seventy-third birthday Prime Minister St. Laurent is actually enjoying the job he didn’t want. ★