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Lester B. Pearson

Biography examines the human elements of a former PM's diplomacy

By Kenneth Bagnell

Lester B. Pearson
By Andrew Cohen
Penguin ($26)

There’s little doubt that Lester B. Pearson was among the most accomplished of Canada’s prime ministers. Quite an achievement for a modest, easygoing man who sometimes seemed out of place in the cut-and-thrust of partisan politics. His acts  as prime minister from 1963 to 1968, now recalled in Andrew Cohen’s gracefully written biography, seem more laudable as time goes by: the Canada Pension Plan, the Medicare Act, federal bilingualism, the Canadian flag, the abolition of capital punishment and much more.

Pearson was not just a son of the manse but a grandson; both his father and grandfather were Methodist ministers. Of Pearson’s parents, Cohen quotes what Pearson himself wrote: “There is nothing but joy and thanksgiving in my memory of two fine, saintly characters. It is not possible to assess, though it is to acknowledge, how much I owe to them.” His minister father was not a narrow idealogue on theology, politics or social policy. He loved sports, playing baseball with his three boys after Sunday service. This probably led to Lester’s becoming an athlete in university, as both player and coach in baseball, football and hockey.

Cohen — a former foreign correspondent, now professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University — clearly admires his subject. For example, Pearson (like his father) was open to seeing and respecting most sides of a complex issue. Of Pearson’s years as a diplomat before politics, Cohen asks: “What were the human elements of Pearson’s diplomacy? Patience, empathy, and the ability to understand another’s reality.” These qualities helped Pearson become the chair of the United Nations working committee that oversaw the establishment of the state of Israel.

There’s only one claim to question in this biography. In an early chapter, Cohen writes that in adulthood, Pearson moved away from Methodism philosophically. Maybe, if you believe Methodism is mostly about church attendance and nostalgia for hymns, which Cohen suggests may have comforted Pearson in turbulent times. But Methodism taken philosophically is about more than that. It’s about social obligation, human decency and progressive principles. Those aspects remained the very foundation of Pearson’s entire life.

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