Lester B. Pearson, the Greatest Canadian

By John Leung

What makes a Canadian great, and what makes a great the Greatest? As the CBC tries to answer this stingy question via its new series The Greatest Canadian, a question must be asked as one takes a look at the top fifty great Canadians as nominated by Canadians themselves, and even the final ten. In this list, there are musicians like Avril Lavigne, humanitarians like Dr. Norman Bethune and Stephen Lewis, politicians like Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Jean Chretien as sports starts like Mario Lemieux and Maurice Richard. But amongst those ten nominated, which of them is truly deserving of the title? What qualities must this person possess: should they be of the stereotypical Canadian, the soft-spoken, kind peacemaker; or the typically un-Canadian, brash, loud, opinionated and unafraid to break from the norm? On top of this, what achievements must this person accomplish to set themselves above all others?

In this list, there is a smattering of all of the aforementioned. Rebellious individuals of Canada’s past like the father of universal health care Tommy Douglas, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (of Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Constitution Act fame) and world-renowned environmental activist Dr. David Suzuki intermingle with more traditionalist hero figures such as the father of Confederation Sir John A. Macdonald and one-legged runner Terry Fox. Sporting heroes like hockey legend Wayne Gretzky share the spotlight with great scientists like the discoverer of insulin Dr. Frederick Banting and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. But which one of these candidates are the easiest or the hardest sell to ordinary Canadians? Certainly in the coming weeks, each of them will have their case made. While Gretzky, Trudeau, Macdonald, Fox and Don Cherry may be the easy sells due to name recognition, Lester B. Pearson is one candidate that should not be discounted.

Lester B. Pearson is the prime minister who gave Canada the identity that we have today. Like it or not, Canadians are the humble and modest peacekeepers and brokers in the world. Thanks to Pearson’s rapid reaction as the only Canadian ever to serve in the prestigious role of President of the United Nations’ General Assembly coupled with his convictions on peace spurred from his experiences in the two world wars, the first peacekeeping force, the UN Emergency Force was created to avert the Suez Crisis in 1956. Elected twice as prime minister in 1963 and 1968, he governed without parliamentary majorities and achieved much for Canada in both mandates, such as bringing universal health care (Tommy Douglas did not bring health care to Canada himself, as some believe) to ensure the health of all Canadians (and not just Saskatchewanians), finalized the Auto Pact with the United States (spurred from American gratitude over Pearson’s creation of the UNEF) to secure the foundations for Canadian manufacturing and industry, and brought in the now world-famous Maple Leaf as our national flag after much heated debate over the issue, all through tactful negotiation and bargaining, part of the typical Canadian trait of peacekeeping rather than peacemaking. After retirement, he continued to serve in the UN on many committees in his role as an elder statesman representing Canada internationally until his death. In these terms, Pearson left Canadians with a legacy of peacekeeping, humanitarianism and a strong sense of international responsibility that lives on to this day.

While other candidates carry their credentials to the metaphorical gaming table, it is up to Canadians to decide. So the great debate begins: who is the Greatest Canadian? One must look carefully and think rationally, and not be dazzled by celebrity in making the choice, for star power alone does not make a Greatest Canadian, it is a combination of their achievements in Canada’s name and their legacy (which includes name recognition) that should determine who The One shall be.

Leave a comment