Louis St-Laurent, Canada’s foreign policy pioneer

By Bruno Sauvagnat

July 25, 2018, marked 45 years since the death of Louis St-Laurent, the 12th prime minister of Canada (1948–1957) and a very active participant on the international scene.

Louis St-Laurent was born on February 1, 1882, in the small village of Compton, Quebec, where he was raised by parents Jean-Baptiste Moïse St-Laurent and Mary Ann Broderick. During his youth, he was introduced to politics by his father, who ran unsuccessfully as a provincial Liberal candidate. However, Louis St-Laurent had little interest in politics and instead concentrated on law. In 1905, he completed his studies at Université Laval and began a prestigious law career, which he pursued until 1941.

That year, at the request of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Louis St-Laurent agreed to leave his lucrative career to become the Minister of Justice in the Liberal federal government. He helped develop several policies to support the war effort during the Second World War. St-Laurent played a crucial role in implementing the National Resources Mobilization Act, which brought about conscription to address the Canadian Army’s need for personnel.

In 1946, St-Laurent became the Minister of External Affairs. One of his highlights in this capacity was a speech to students and professors at the University of Toronto entitled “The Foundations of Canadian Policy in World Affairs.” The speech was not revolutionary, but it was the first to clearly articulate Canada’s international policies.

Black-and-white photograph showing Louis St-Laurent seated on a couch, reading a newspaper to two young girls sitting on either side of him.

Louis St-Laurent reading to children, 1947. Photos like this one served to reinforce his image as a kind, accessible person. Source: a125907

Two years later, St-Laurent succeeded Prime Minister Mackenzie King as the country’s leader. He owed his success in part to a change in his image: from a discreet lawyer to an approachable man who was close to the Canadian people. During this time, he acquired the nickname of “Uncle Louis” in the English-language media.

Black-and-white photograph of Louis St-Laurent flanked by soldiers. Two South Korean soldiers are on his left and two others on his right. Two Canadian soldiers can be seen in the background. In the foreground, on the left, is the partial profile of a Canadian soldier wearing glasses and a cap.

Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent visiting Canadian troops in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Canada on the battlefield in Korea, March 1954. Source: e011185001

While in power, St-Laurent worked to make Canada a key player in the international arena. In particular, he supported the United Nations in sending forces to intervene in Korea. It was also during his administration that the Blue Berets were created as peacekeepers to resolve the political crisis over the Suez Canal.

St-Laurent called on international institutions when they could support his initiatives. Although his decisions on foreign policy sometimes appeared to be based on a humanitarian vision, they actually stemmed from a pragmatic approach. Canada benefited both economically and politically from a more stable world, one that was able to purchase surpluses produced by Canada.

St-Laurent was also passionate about Canadian unity. It was during his time in office that Newfoundland (now Newfoundland and Labrador) joined Confederation. He also sought to reduce the tensions between English‑speaking and French‑speaking communities that had followed conscription.

When he was 75 and exhausted, St-Laurent lost the 1957 election to the Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker. St-Laurent’s legacy to Canadians was a nation able to meet the challenges of the Cold War. He retired from politics but resumed his law career and died in 1973.

You can learn more about Louis St-Laurent by consulting the fonds with his name at Library and Archives Canada.

Sources:


Bruno Sauvagnat is a student archivist in the Science and Governance Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

One thought on “Louis St-Laurent, Canada’s foreign policy pioneer

  1. Thank you for this posting. When I was a little girl, Louis St-Laurent was prime minister and I knew his name and his face very well. He was my first sense of what ‘government’ might be and for a little girl, his personage made being a Prime Minister seem a rather noble thing to be.
    We know far too little about our prime ministers throughout Canadian history other than perhaps John A. Macdonald, Lester Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau. The others seem to have faded into the background. Learning about this man’s role in foreign affairs was a welcome sidelight on ‘my first prime minister’.

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