THE LONG, HAPPY LIFE OF LESTER PEARSON
He once cheated —just a littlein geography class. Now he’s got the country moving boldly into its second century. In an intimate interview with ALEXANDER ROSS, the prime minister talks about the people, events and loves that shaped his life, and the Canada he’s helped to change
It was the best possible day to interview the prime minister of Canada. It was April 28 — the day after Expo 67’s sneak preview — and Mike Pearson, like everyone else in Montreal that day, was excited and almost childishly proud. Not merely because Expo is a fantastic Canadian achievement, but also because, almost for the first time, he could sense a new feeling in the country — a new confidence, a new pride, the beginning of the end of our century-old notion that Canadians are somehow second-best. The press has eased its criticism (some columnists are even beginning to conclude that lie's a great prime minister), parliament is getting things done, and the whole country — miraculous! — is actually starting to swing. Mike Pearson fell very good that day. And so, when he sat down in a ninth-floor Ritz Hotel suite with Maclean’s managing editor, Alexander Ross, he talked frankly and expansively about the life lie's led and the country he loves:
Ross: I guess the first thing 1 want to ask you is: Do you feel proud?
Pearson: I feel very proud today, but even more so yesterday, when I had a very special, almost a childish sense of pride in my country when 1 was at the opening of Expo. 1 think everybody felt that way. Ross: 1 came to Montreal this morning and, as 1 always do when 1 come here, I felt the sense of purpose of the Montrealers, the people of Quebec. They know who they are and what they're trying to achieve. 1 don't get this same feeling in English Canada. Is it ever going to happen?
Pearson: I think it is going to happen — indeed, is happening now. One of the reasons is that there is a French Canada. That feeling you mention — i get it too. There's no mistaking Montreal, or Quebec, for an American city. This i>; an identifiable community of its own on the North American continent, this French-speaking Canadian community. If you go to Winnipeg or Vancouver or any of the other big Canadian cities — I don't want to over-simplify this — you could think you were in Seattle or Indianapolis. So I feel that we, in the English-speaking parts of Canada, should be happy about the development of this special sense of purpose and pride in French Canada. It could help us to acquire the same strength of feeling nationally.
Ross: Now for a few questions about what's going to happen after your retirement. I've dreamed up a few imaginary job offers for you. Secretary-General of the United Nations?
Pearson: Impossible. No man who's reached 70 should take on that job.
Ross: President of the University of British Columbia?
Pearson: 1 wouldn't want to be president of any university for the same reason. A visiting professorship would appeal to me — but not to take charge of I 0,000 undergraduates.
Ross: What would you like to do most?
Pearson: I'd like to sit around for a while. 1 have a lot of papers and correspondence I'd like to put in order. That will take quite a long time. But most of all I would like to rest for a time. My wife says that's the most nonsensical observation she's ever heard from me: the idea of sitting around the house, doing nothing, just nothing.
Ross: Well, here are a few questions about the future generally. 1 get the impression that a lot of people feel that in Canada — and mostly as a result of Liberal governments — we've now got just about all the welfare legislation we need. The problem of individual economic security hasn't been solved, but it's almost been solved — and the result has been that we're perhaps too cautious a country, that there isn't enough risk-taking. Do you think this is true? And is there anything a government can do to encourape risk-taking?
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“It might be better if we had a guaranteed annual income”
Pearson: I agree that we've pretty
well established what 1 have called the basic foundation of social security. From now on, we will improve and refine rather than extend. For instance. we now have provided pensions for all over 65; nobody need starve to death in Canada. But it might be better—certainly simpler— if we had some kind of guaranteed annual income for everybody. This isn't such a revolutionary .change as it may seem, because we do have a sort of basic income for nearly everybody now — from pensions or allowances or grants of one kind or another. But this idea of a guaranteed annual income will take a lot ot careful study. Would it take away, tor example, the incentive from people to do more, that you have just mentioned? Will it make people sit back
and say: “I get my $250 from the state, why worry?”
Ross: That’s not really my question, because I don’t think anybody believes that welfare really kills initiative. But the fact is, we are too cautious a country, we are not a sufficiently adventurous people; is there anything the government can do to change this? Pearson: I would like to challenge
your statement that we have been too cautious. In the last 100 years, we have taken some of the biggest economic and industrial risks that any country ever took. We've opened up the northern half of a continent with a few million people. We have pushed railways into the wilderness, built bridges over great rivers, dug mines in the remote north and done other things that wouldn't have been done if we had been too cautious.
Ross: But haven't most of these things been done with American participation, even American initiative?
Pearson: Very often, but then a lot of the things that were done in the United States in early years were done with British initiative and capital. The impression of caution, which you mention, may be partly due to the fact that we haven't done much in building up a feeling of pride that these things were done by Canadians for Canada. We've even been a little worried at times that perhaps we were overreaching ourselves. I'd trace this back not so much to ingrained caution and conservatism, but to the fact that for much of this period we were colonial in fact; and. later, colonial in feeling. Our march to full independence was slow, steady and unexciting. We should have had a war of independence with somebody and run up a flag covered with blood. But that's not the way it happened. The other reason is the powerful influence of the United States. As we moved from colonial tutelage, we found ourselves faced with American pressures — friendly pressures, but foreign ones; subject to American influences. We had less confidence in ourselves, as Canadians, than we should have had. Now we are getting over iliis. I think that in the next tew years we'll have removed am remaining criticism that we are a too cautious people. Expo is one very good example, but there are others: the huge power development projects in British Columbia, Labrador and elsewhere; oil and gas and mining and great resource-development programs. We're moving into all sorts of new areas of activity. There should be no room for any feeling that we're too cautious to do big things.
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Today’s MPs look bad? 75 years ago they THREW things!
Ross: When was the last time that
you, personally, took a chance on anything?
Pearson: I have taken quite a chance on some of the proposals I have introduced in the House of Commons! My more cautious colleagues in the party, for instance, said: “If you're going to have a maple-leaf flag, he very careful. Take lots of time, set up an all-Party Committee to look into the proposition. That would take a couple of years. Fool around with their report and then gradually, over the years, there will be agreement on a design. Don't plunge in.” Well, I plunged in. I said in the summer that, by Christmas, w'e would have a flag. We had one a few weeks alter that deadline and I think that, in Centennial Year especially, this has turned out to be a good thing. I also took a chance in the procedure we followed regarding the Canada Pension Plan. That issue could have broken up our country. If Quebec had gone ahead with a pension plan of its own that bore no relation to the national pension plan. I think it would have been very damaging for unity. I took the risk of bringing in a Canada Pension Plan on the assumption that, if Quebec insisted on its own plan, the two could be reconciled without the federal plan being weakened. That happened, but it was quite a chance. Remember, these things were done by a minority government which could have been thrown out at any time if the opposition parties had united for that purpose. It was a situation which, it could be argued, was made for the careful avoidance of risks.
Ross: I know you're very conscious of the status and prestige of Parliament. But most people I know seem to think of it as almost a joke. Pearson: I get impatient with a lot of the criticism of Parliament. Much of it is due to the nature of modern media of communication and their treatment of Parliamentary activities. At Parliamentary sessions, say 75 years ago, there was much more time-wasting and much worse behavior than now. They even threw things at each other in those days and some of the sessions were very unruly. Our manners are today, by comparison, gentle and courteous. However, lapses didn't matter so much in earlier times for two reasons: first, there wasn't the television news every night or the early edition every morning, concentrating on the more exciting and often, therefore, on the less attractive side of Parliament; second. Parliament now' has to do so much more than it ever did before and nearly everything it does affects many more people more directly. A combination of these two factors has made Parliament a less reputable institution in the public mind than it used to be. There is also the legitimate criticism that we arc too slow and inefficient in dealing with the matters before us. I agree that we must abandon or change many of our old out-of-date procedures so as to enable us to deal with the increasing amount of important work. Not so very many years ago a major problem of a Prime Minister was to find enough for the House of Commons to do to justify bringing people all the way to Ottawa for two or three months.
That's not my problem!
Ross: Wouldn't televising the House proceedings facilitate the process of reforming Parliament?
Pearson: It might. I would like to sec it begin with parliamentary committees. I would also like to see parliamentary committees be more efficiently organized and given more authority in our parliamentary system. I'd like to see television cameras at some committee hearings.
Ross: Mr. Diefenbaker has finally
decided that he is not opposed cither, so why doesn't the government get cracking?
Pearson: I would hope that by next autumn we could move the cameras into some of the committees. There is. of course, a good deal of opposition to this departure from tradition. Ross: We have been talking about
communications, and this brings up the great prophet of Toronto, Marshall McLuhan. Have you been reading him lately?
Pearson: Yes. but even more, what others are wmiting about him. Some of his ideas I don't understand. But I understand enough to know that he is right in his basic approach, that new communications have produced the greatest revolution of our time. We’ve got to be both w'ise and imaginative in adapting our institutions to these changes. Parliament is a very good example. We are making some progress in changing parliamentary methods but there are still people who say: "Well, this is the way they did it in Cromwell’s time or at Magna Carta, so be awfully careful. The old traditions mustn’t be interfered with." Ross: One of the fundamental McLuhan propositions is that youth — young people — have become almost a new nationality. Do you believe that young people now are fundamentally different from you and me?
Pearson: Very different; so different from what my generation was w'hen we were at high school, that they could be another race! Today’s young people feel that the last two generations have shown themselves to be infantile in their approach to international questions. They also know that the position has now been reached when mistakes could destroy life on this planet. I talk to young people — I try to see as many as I can. They’re worked up, they're excited, they're determined to avoid the mistakes of their ciders. But they have a sense of responsibility, too, with the exception of an “off-beat” minority who seem to get all the publicity.
I have great hope in young people. Theirs is a very different generation than mine was. And so it should be. Ross: But is it better? I saw a picture of you w'ith all your grandchildren gathered around you, and you are really in a minority, because the fact is in this country, family life . . . dying in the house you were born in, anything like this ... is almost completely unknown now. I think your generation had it better.
Pearson: It’s not easy to have a cohesive, closely knit old-fashioned family life, w'hich really is the basis of national health and strength, in a flat in Habitat ‘67 where we're staying at the moment. I was brought up in big, old. red brick houses with lawns and trees and playing space. Home was the centre of our life, the centre of our growth and most of our activity. It’s pretty hard in urban life today to create that kind of environment. Ross: Don’t you think you had it better? That the whole business of living was easier?
Pearson: Of course I had it better, though my mother didn't — with all the hard work she had to do — without mechanical help, gadgets or packaged meals. But, for better or for worse, we can't return to that kind of environment.
Ross: Now I want to ask you about Vietnam. You're on record, of course, as approving the aims of the American presence there, but disapproving of this escalatory process that President Johnson seems to have embarked upon. Why do you approve of the aims?
Pearson: 1 thought the Americans were entitled at the beginning to respond to the request of the South Vietnam Government for help to defend themselves against armed subversive action fomented and organized from the North.
Ross: Here is a faintly analogous situation: suppose Quebec were a separate state and we. in Englishspeaking Canada, were trying to unite it with the rest of Canada by force. Suppose the Americans disapproved and started bombing Ottawa. Who.
“Americans are the least imperialistic people in history”
in this situation, is the aggressor? Pearson: I don't think it is analogous. This is not going to happen, of course, but let's say, for the sake of argument, that Quebec, or any other Province, has established, by the will of its people, an independent state. We would accept that fact, however reluctantly. But that did not happen
in Vietnam. The North never did form a separate state by the will of its people. And it tried to prevent South Vietnam from working out its own arrangements. I'm not arguing that American tactics and policies since that time have always been wise or right. But the initial purposes of their intervention seemed to me to he
justifiable and not imperialistic. Indeed. I think that in many ways the Americans arc the least imperialistic people in history. They don't want to spread around the world as the British did, carrying the white man's burdens and benefits. They want to stay home, drink Coca-Cola and go to baseball games. I have never met an Amcri-
can abroad who didn't want to come home. But the Americans can't get out of Vietnam now, or so they think. 1 have ventured some advice to them on that score.
Ross: This policy of yours, of giving advice quietly and not making elaborate public postures, has not produced very much result. Are we reaching the point where perhaps a public gesture, a public break of some kind, is going to he required?
Pearson: If I thought a public statement or a public posture by me or Mr. Martin would help to bring about an end to the fighting. I wouldn't hesitate to make it. But I would want to be pretty sure that it would really help, because the consequences of a public statement of that kind might be a public break with the administration in Washington.
Ross: But what good results has
consultation achieved so far? The war keeps escalating.
Pearson: Well, it hasn't yet escalated to the point where they have destroyed North Vietnam. The Americans have been perhaps more careful than any great power in history to avoid the lull use of power in war against an enemy. They have bombed the North, but they have tried to bomb military targets. They have killed civilians in the process, hut that happens in any kind of bombing, however tragic it may be. Haiphong Harbor, for instance, could have been put out of action in the last year or two, but they haven't done that. They haven't dropped saturation bombs on Hanoi City. They haven't destroyed the country. 1 wonder what would nave happened if a despotic, a totalitarian government, with overwhelming power, had been faced with this kind of military involvement. They would likely have destroyed North Vietnam completely. It would have been a desert by now. The Americans, unfortunately for them, have received no credit for any restraint they may have shown. They have really got themselves into a messy and a tragic situation. We are the neighbors and the friends of the U.S.A. and our relations are closer than those between any two free countries in the world. This is not the overriding consideration in determining our own policy, of course, but we can't ignore the fact that a first result of any open breach with the United States over Vietnam, which their Government considered to be unfair and unfriendly on our part, would he a more critical examination by Washington of certain special aspects of our relationships from w'hich we, as well as they, get great benefit.
Ross: This isn’t really very different from satellite status, is it?
Pearson: Every small or middle country is in some ways a satellite of some great power now, using that word to indicate dependence. This is the kind of world in which we live. Even the United States is a satellite of world opinion; or why would they worry so much about that opinion? It's not a very comforting thought but. in the economic sphere, when you have 60 percent or so of your trade with one country, you are in a position of considerable economic dependence.
Ross: Mr. Pearson, during the Little
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“There are 150 interpretations of love—and I like them all”
Rock integration crisis. Max Ascoli of the Reporter magazine wrote a very famous editorial. He said that it President Eisenhower would go down to l ittle Rock and take one negro child by the hand and lead him into school, the crisis would melt away. Now what would be the political effect if you were to make a similarly
neutral gesture? What would happen if you, as a private citizen, and at your own expense, flew home one burned Vietnamese child to a Canadian hospital?
Pearson: I've never thought of any such action in those dramatic terms. Some people would just say I was being an exhibitionist; others would
say I was doing it for political reasons; but that wouldn't worry me if it would accomplish anything worthwhile. Ross: We have an air force; why not fly a thousand of them home? Pearson: It’s an interesting idea. We’ve been trying to establish a hospital in Vietnam and take care of some children there, but w'e’re having
some difficulty because of certain conditions that the South Vietnam authorities want accepted before we do it. A Canadian doctor connected with the project has been giving us the devil because we haven't been rough enough with Saigon.
Ross: I’m going to fire a few words at you now, Mr. Pearson, and ask for your instantaneous reaction. Okay? Diefenbaker.
Pearson: He’s the outstanding parliamentary figure in our time.
Pearson: It's not exclusively found in politics.
Pearson: It’s the kind of country that all other countries say they would wish to be like. Many Swedes would wish to be like Canada, no doubt. Ross: Scvigny.
Pearson: He's a very charming and
courageous man. I have nothing to say about his involvement in the affair of [long pause] — what’s her name? Don't tell me I've forgotten her name! That shows how things change!
Ross: The press.
Pearson: I am more worried now about the press losing its sense of responsibility than its freedom, 'flic press, much reduced in numbers, has greater power and therefore has a greater responsibility than it ever had before.
Pearson: There arc 150 interpreta-
tions of it, and I’m in favor of them all; well, nearly all.
Ross: Somebody asked Dalton Camp a couple of weeks ago: “Why is it that politicians never talk about love?” Pearson: In my second year at college, I had to write an essay on the subject: "it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I was 17, so you can appreciate my experience in this field. But I got a prize for that essay, so I have since always considered myself an authority on love. But not so much of an authority that I dare answer your question.
Ross: Has love, whatever that means, played any large role in your life? Pearson: A very large role. I was brought up in a household where love was the guiding light. We were very close to each other. Things of the heart meant a lot in our family life. The mind did too, but the heart meant more. It was a religious household, without being stuffy and sanctimonious. We were taught, as children, to appreciate the love of the good and to have a deep respect for enduring values; love of God. Home life in that environment of love played a large part in forming my character, whatever it may be.
Ross: Has Mrs. Pearson been a great help?
Pearson: More than I can ever say. We’ve had a good many years together now. It's been the kind of life together that makes it impossible forme to consider doing things separately from her. She is more shy and withdrawn than I am. I'm outgoing, easier with people, perhaps. She is very frank and straightforward and I can always be absolutely certain that her reaction to anything I do or saywill be 100 percent honest.
Ross: I gather that Mrs. Pearson would prefer not to be quite so much in the public eye all the time. Pearson: Oh, she certainly would! We've just been talking about our visit to Expo; how we can't wander around and sec things because people recognize us and naturally crowd around a bit. take pictures, get autographs. She can put on dark glasses and mingle with the crowd and have a good time, as a private citizen, but I can't in the same way; not that 1 don't appreciate the friendly attention 1 get. My wife will be happy when we get back to private life, though she has a great interest in public affairs and has played her full part in mv public career. And her part is in many ways harder than mine. For instance, it isn't too difficult for me to get on a platform and make a political speech. It is far harder for her to sit and listen to it.
Ross: Has there ever been a time in your life. Mr. Pearson, when you felt really confused about the direction ol your own life?
Pearson: 1 think the most confusing period was when I came back from World War 1. I'd spent my 18th. 19th, 20th and 21st birthdays in uniform. This is a big slice out of one's life. I had gone through a period from which it wasn't easy to recover. I didn't know7 what to do. so I went over to Chicago and got a job in the stock yards. This wasn't as “Horatio Algcrish" as it may seem, because I had an uncle who was very high up in the firm and became President of Armour & Company. I could have gone ahead in that business, 1 suppose. and made money, but the prospect became less and less attractive. So I had to decide whether to remain in business there or chuck it. 1 chucked it and came back to Canada. Ross: How is your health these days. Sir?
Pearson: Oh. my health is fine. My health seems too good. 1 get quite annoyed when I feel tired, as I often do, and never get any sympathy because 1 look so well.
Ross: Who picks your clothes? Pearson: My wife. She buys everything for me. She also looks after all housekeeping details, all our finances, all our family arrangements, all the payments we have to make, taxes we have to pay. She's the business manager of this outfit, and has been from the very beginning, and she's a very good one. She has taken a heavy burden off my shoulders.
Ross: Why have you stopped wearing bow ties?
Pearson: 1 got a little sick of being called a bow-tie boy. I used to wear them because I liked them, but they became a kind of political symbol, and 1 became tired of that. I still like to wear them, but now 1 wear .the other kind as well, so I can't be exclusively identified with the bow tie. Maybe 1 should have picked on a pipe or something more manly as a trade mark!
Ross: Who's the greatest man you
Pearson: If you mean the man — leaving my father out—who made the greatest impression on me personally. it would be Mr. Downey, a teacher in m\ public school in Peterborough. when 1 was a boy. He died only last year in his 95th year. He was a genius as a teacher and made a lasting impression on me; taught me how important it was to work, and study and use your mind. I had the same kind of inspired teacher at high school in Hamilton. Mike McGarvin. In the record of history, these are obscure men, but they meant more to me than practically any of the great of the world that I have met since, many of whom I have found to be not really so truly great as their publie relations officers make them out to be! Far and away the most dynamic and compelling person — great in the sense of his impact on the history of his times and on all the men he met — was Winston Churchill. Dag Hammarskjöld was a great human being in terms of intelligence and insight and moral quality. I got to know him pretty well.
Ross: Can you recall doing anything that you're now ashamed of?
Pearson: Considering that I've lived 70 years, 1 have a reasonable immunity from guilt. But I certainly have done some things 1 later regretted. I cheated in a geography class once when I was in Grade 6 or 7. I think, and I've never forgotten it. The teacher asked the class about Canada's imports from Denmark. I had the school book open on my desk and it had the answer. I looked down, put up my hand and gave a perfect answer. He said: “Are you sure you arc not reading that?" I said: “No.” and I've felt guilty ever since. Ross: Just two more questions. Sir. They say it’s lonely at the top. Do you feel lonely?
Pearson: I've been lonely at times, especially when certain decisions have to be made — and by me alone — when 1 can't really consult anybody.
I don’t feel lonely in the sense that 1 am aloof or that 1 don't enjoy being with people. A columnist in Vancouver referred to me the other day as “the lonely extrovert." I think that's it. But who can be lonely with a wonderful family, including 10 grandchildren; and close friends?
Ross: One final question. Mr. Pearson. What do you most want to be remembered for?
Pearson: 1 would like to be remembered as the head of a Government which — without a majority in the House of Commons — gave Canada a national flag and which got through Parliament a great deal of legislation for the good of the Canadian people, including a National Pension Plan. I would like to be remembered as one who tried hard to keep his country united at a time when there were great pressures and strains on that unity. I would like to be remembered for the part I played in transforming Canada’s foreign policy from one of isolation and non-commitment in the thirties to the acceptance of our full share of international responsibility in the postwar years for the maintenance and strengthening of peace and security in the world.