ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Reading Andrew Cohen, Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008; a review

Updated on November 22, 2012
Lester B. Pearson addressing a United Nations committee
Lester B. Pearson addressing a United Nations committee | Source

Very readable, though begging questions

Reading: Andrew Cohen, Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008; a review.


On the one hand Lester B. Pearson is a curiously elusive figure. On the other, one gets the suspicion that there was less there than met the eye.

In the Introduction by John Ralston Saul (the series editor), Mr Saul pauses to reflect briefly on the meaning of failure. Andrew Cohen’s very readable attempt to portray Pearson does not seem to have considered such a perspective, however.

Because by any standards, ‘Mike’ Pearson was very successful in exercising his skills as a diplomat on Canada’s behalf. Even here, however, the story of his Nobel Prize for Peace is probably more nuanced than Andrew Cohen’s book relates. If J L Granatstein is to be believed (which is probably often) it was the emphasis of Pearson himself on peacekeeping which contributed to almost killing off the Canadian military, compared with a period when Canada’s armed forces were the fourth largest in the world (which the writer seems to gloss over). More than Andrew Cohen does, other writers (such as historian Michael Bliss) have discussed Lester Pearson’s own candid realization of the unreasonable expectations which Liberals put on him after he won the Nobel Prize. The very success of his role as a diplomat in helping to set up NATO, in what he was perceived to have done at the UN during the Suez crisis of 1956, etc., may actually have acted as a poisoned chalice on the domestic political front in terms of the unrealistic expectations which his party subsequently heaped upon him. A professorial conciliator and professional, linguistic fudger was expected thereafter to be a bold and decisive actor, knocking heads together in a far-flung Confederation which did not wish to be knocked.

As a domestic politician his is thus a different story. Entering Parliament, Lester Pearson scraped home by less than 2000 votes in a constituency which he at first couldn’t find on a map when his Liberal patrons arranged his candidacy. He was sometimes absent from his constituency for almost an entire year. Liberals often compare him favourably with his Prime Ministerial predecessor, John Diefenbaker, but not even his fervent admirers could claim that Pearson was an electoral asset: losing four out of the five Federal elections in which he led the Liberals.

Andrew Cohen’s attempt to talk up Lester Pearson’s domestic political record reads in places like a hagiography, but he is on stronger ground when he describes the very different world which ‘Mike’ inhabited in his youth and the transition to post-World War Two scene which he and others other his generation negotiated. Interestingly, while many contemporary writers are quick to discount the religious backgrounds of leaders, Andrew Cohen suggests that it was Pearson’s Methodist background as a son of the manse that gave him a consistent sense of duty throughout the various roles which he fulfilled.

Yes, the writer discusses Pearson’s responsibility for the Canada Pension Plan, ironically sometimes criticized today as too little, too late. And Andrew Cohen relates something of the flag debate, into which many of Pearson’s energies were engaged, sometimes to the bewilderment of his own government colleagues. It is hard to argue against the aesthetics of the Maple Leaf flag; it is equally hard to argue that Lester Pearson’s handing of such a symbolic issue, which really needed widespread, cross-party support, was not bungled.

Andrew Cohen points out that Lester Pearson was much better at managing relations with the United States than was his predecessor John Diefenbaker. However, one did not achieve greatness by merely being more tactful about bombs and trade than John Diefenbaker was. The greatness of Lester Pearson (wherever it supposedly lay) cannot be said to have depended only on his record of attempts to mollify the Lyndon Johnson Administration. The writer tries to portray Pearson’s preoccupation with the affairs of Quebec and its place in Confederation as having been an extraordinary part of his legacy (although he admits that Pearson could not speak French). Lester Pearson did, of course, talent-spot Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The writer also tries to compare Lester Pearson favourably with various later Prime Ministers of Canada, although he does not say much about one of these, a Liberal leader whom I think he in some ways resembles: John Turner. Like Turner, Pearson’s main opponent was a larger-than-life Conservative whose spending profligacy (ironically for professed conservatives) and verbal grandiosity caused his leadership eventually to implode, making the Liberal leader of the day look reasonable in comparison. Like Turner, he spent years in plodding opposition, patiently rebuilding a party, following electoral misfortune. Rather than engaging in the sort of adulation in which this book seems in places to be pursuing, this in fact may be an aspect of the career of Lester Pearson to which thoughtful Liberals need to look. So I don’t quite see what both Andrew Cohen and John Ralston Saul mean by the word ‘Extraordinary’ in the book’s title, but nevertheless, in an age of sound-bites, the sheer tenacity of Pearson the Plodder is something which can be reflected upon profitably. (Though naming Toronto’s airport ‘John Turner International’ would probably be no less deserved.)

And if the truth is known, Lester Pearson’s international affairs seminars, given at Carleton University in his semi-retirement, were probably what he, with the mantle of elder statesman — and his spellbound students — enjoyed the most.

November 21, 2012

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)