Canadian prime ministers through news photographers’ lenses

By Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert

Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) Prime Ministers and the Arts exhibition explores the sometimes unusual links between artistic forms of expression and the prime ministers of Canada. In particular, the exhibition includes architectural photographs by Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1958), Jean Chrétien’s playful selfie (Andrew Danson, Unofficial Portraits, 1985) and the large yellow-and-orange canvas by artist Carl Beam (2000), inspired by Lester B. Pearson.

These works reveal what may be an unsuspected artistic side to our prime ministers. They also show how the role and the personality of some prime ministers have—leaving politics aside—inspired a number of artists. Yousuf Karsh, for instance, whose photographs are preserved by LAC, made portraits of prime ministers of many generations and political stripes during his career, including William Lyon Mackenzie King, Robert Borden, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Joe Clark.

Black-and-white photograph of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at his desk. One of the Parliament buildings is visible in the background through a window.

William Lyon Mackenzie King at his desk, March 15, 1947. King sat for Yousuf Karsh starting in 1936. Photograph by Yousuf Karsh (e010752289)

However, some of the most famous and most iconic photos of our prime ministers are not by portrait photographers. Many were taken by news photographers whose names are unfamiliar to the public. Unlike portrait photographers, who have time to plan their background settings and research their subjects, news photographers must be both patient and react quickly. News photographers must often wait for hours before taking the “snapshot” that tells the story of an event, expresses a feeling, or even captures a prime minister’s personality trait on the fly.

You may have seen the famous photograph of Pierre Elliott Trudeau sliding down a bannister like a child! Taken during the Liberal Party of Canada leadership convention in 1968, this photo is one of the most remarkable shots in the career of news photographer Ted Grant. In a book by Thelma Fayle about Grant’s life work, the photographer explains that if he had not heard the laughter of people nearby, he would probably have missed the moment entirely: “The laughter triggered me to turn around and catch three shots before Trudeau was almost on top of me” (Thelma Fayle, Ted Grant: Sixty Years of Legendary Photojournalism, Victoria, Heritage House Publishing, 2013, p. 67-68).

Born in Toronto in 1929, Ted Grant became a photographer in the mid-1950s. Seen by many as a true pioneer in Canadian news photography (some even call him the “father of Canadian photojournalism”), he worked on contract for various newspapers (including the Ottawa Citizen), the National Film Board and the Canadian Government Travel Bureau. During his career, Grant photographed many leadership campaigns, elections (federal and provincial) and first ministers’ conferences. While following the campaign of Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Grant befriended a young Joe Clark, the future prime minister, and made connections with his political entourage and family. Many black-and-white photos in the Joe Clark fonds and Ted Grant fonds show Clark during public appearances such as his swearing-in ceremony as well as in more private settings such as working meetings with his principal advisors.

Black-and-white photograph of Joe Clark standing and being sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada. Seated at his side is Governor General Edward Schreyer.

The swearing-in of Joe Clark as the 16th Prime Minister of Canada, June 4, 1979. Photograph by Ted Grant (e010764766)

The special relationship between Ted Grant and the Clarks gave him access to the Prime Minister’s private and family life. The photographer took the very first photos of Catherine, the couple’s only child, and he was invited to informal family gatherings and garden parties. Though Grant was in the room, the Clarks seemed able to ignore his camera. According to Clark’s wife, Maureen McTeer, the photographer knew how to be patient and keep a low profile: “Ted will wait for the photograph. If you are aware of his presence, he will wait until you are not. That is a very unusual quality for a photographer” (Fayle, p. 75). But while Grant captured happy moments, such as the Prime Minister sitting on the floor at 24 Sussex Drive relaxing with his wife and daughter, he also caught times of obvious disappointment, including election night 1980.

Black-and-white photograph depicting Prime Minister Joe Clark with his wife and daughter, sitting on the floor in the living room, in front of a fireplace.

Prime Minister Joe Clark and his family (spouse Maureen McTeer and daughter Catherine) at 24 Sussex Drive (e002712822). This photograph is an excellent example of the exceptional, trusting relationship between the Clark family and photographer Ted Grant. Over several decades, Grant documented many important events in Clark’s career, as well as intimate family moments.

Because news photographers capture an instant, it is not surprising that their photo collections include snapshots of prime ministers in the heat of political action. Consider, for instance, the Louis Jaques photo of a young John Diefenbaker speaking in the House as an MP aspiring to become leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Or the Robert Cooper photo of John Turner speaking to a crowd during his campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

Black-and-white photograph showing MP John Diefenbaker standing and speaking to the House of Commons. Around him, MPs are sitting at their desks.

John Diefenbaker, MP, speaking in the House of Commons, 1948. Photograph by Louis Jaques (C-080883)

Black-and-white photograph of John Turner speaking into a microphone in front of a crowd. A Canadian flag is visible.

John Turner speaking to a crowd in Ottawa, at the Liberal Leadership Convention in 1984. Photograph by Robert Cooper (a152415)

Interestingly, nearly half of the photographs preserved by LAC are in photojournalism collections. Ted Grant’s collection alone includes almost 216,000 black-and-white and colour photographs, photo negatives and contact sheets, while there are 175,000 in the Duncan Cameron collection. Much like Grant, Duncan Cameron began his career as a news journalist in the 1950s. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Cameron immigrated to Canada in 1954 and covered Parliament Hill for many years, photographing and forming relationships with various political figures. Cameron was also a contract photographer for Time Life Inc. from 1963 to 1976, and he completed his career at the Public Archives of Canada, to which he donated his collection.

Black-and-white photograph showing four former Canadian prime ministers: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Lester B. Pearson.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson after a Cabinet shuffle, April 4, 1967. Photograph by Duncan Cameron (a117107)

In short, the collections created by news photographers not only document Canada’s political history in exceptional ways but also highlight more private times in the lives of Canadian prime ministers. Whether capturing the heat of a moment or a moment of quiet, or the rise or fall of a prime minister, these artists have managed to capture different sides of prime ministers’ personalities.

Black-and-white photograph of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph

Pierre Elliott Trudeau taking a photograph with one of Duncan Cameron’s cameras, June 28, 1968. Photograph by Duncan Cameron (a175919)


Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert is an archivist in the Private Archives Division, Science and Governance, at Library and Archives Canada.

A diplomat, a Prime Minister, and a scholar: remembering Lester B. Pearson

By Mariam Lafrenie

It goes without saying that the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson achieved much in his life. Whether you look at his success politically, academically or even athletically—Pearson always excelled. Although Pearson served as Canada’s 19th prime minister, his legacy and indeed his influence began long before his prime ministership: as chairman of the NATO council (1951), as President of the United Nations General Assembly (1952), and as a Nobel Peace prizewinner (1957).

“Nevertheless, [Pearson’s] five-year legacy is very impressive: a new flag, the Canada Pension Plan, universal medicare, a new immigration act, a fund for rural economic development, and the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism which led to the foundation of a bilingual civil service.”

Excerpt from First Among Equals

A black-and-white photograph of a formally dressed couple. The man is holding a box with a medallion.

Lester B. Pearson and his wife, Maryon at the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony, Oslo, Norway, December 1957. Photograph by Duncan Cameron (MIKAN 3209893)

A black-and-white photograph of a man standing up and addressing a room of people.

Lester B. Pearson, at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, San Francisco, Calif., USA, 1945 (MIKAN 3193176)

Rising quickly through the ranks and moving from one portfolio to another, Pearson proved himself a worthy and talented diplomat. After a 20-year career in External Affairs, his success did not end there, but followed him throughout the next decade as leader of the Liberal Party (1958-1968). Without a doubt, some of his most exciting—if not his most significant achievements—came during his time as Prime Minister.

A flag for Canada

The quest for a Canadian flag—one that represented everything that Canada had become in the last century and all that Pearson hoped it could become—was fraught with bitter debate and controversy. Indeed, as many may recall, “The Great Flag Debate” raged for the better part of 1964 and saw the submission of approximately 3,000 designs by Canadians young and old.

“Under this flag may our youth find new inspiration for loyalty to Canada; for a patriotism based not on any mean or narrow nationalism, but on the deep and equal pride that all Canadians will feel for every part of this good land.”

Address on the inauguration of the National Flag of Canada, February 15, 1965

These words, spoken by Lester B. Pearson during the inaugural ceremony of the Red Maple Leaf flag on February 15, 1965 at Parliament Hill, highlight precisely what he aspired to achieve—a uniquely Canadian identity. Few prime ministers can attest to leaving a legacy so great as to have forged an entirely new cultural symbol for their country.

A black-and-white photograph of a man holding an illustration of the Canadian flag.

Lester B. Pearson’s press conference regarding the new flag, December 1964. Photograph by Duncan Cameron (MIKAN 3199509)

A year of celebration

Not only was Pearson responsible for championing a new Canadian flag, but he was also lucky enough to remain in office during Canada’s centennial year. In his Dominion Day speech on July 1, 1967, Pearson called on Canadians to celebrate their past and their achievements, but also encouraged them to think of the future and of the legacy that they could leave for the next generation of Canadians. Much like this year, when we celebrated Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation and were encouraged to think of our future as a nation, 1967 was also a year filled with celebrations.

The aim of the centennial celebrations were twofold: to create memorable events and activities for all Canadians and to create a tangible legacy that current and future generations could enjoy. In fact, both the provincial and federal governments encouraged Canadians to celebrate by creating their own centennial projects—films, parades and festivals, tattoos, recreation centres, stadiums, etc.—and agreed to match their spending. One of the most memorable celebrations was that of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67, as it was nicknamed. Open from April 27 to October 29, Expo 67 is considered one of the most successful World’s Fairs and one of Canada’s landmark moments.

A colour photograph of a group of men standing in front of an enlarged map of New France.

Expo 67’s opening day with its General Commissioner Pierre Dupuy, Governor General of Canada Roland Michener, Prime Minister of Canada Lester Bowles Pearson, Premier of Québec Daniel Johnson and Mayor of Montréal Jean Drapeau (MIKAN 3198338)

For many Canadians, 1967 characterized the peak of nostalgia and indeed a year filled with optimism. With this optimism and increased governmental spending, Pearson’s popularity boomed and further solidified his accomplishments as prime minister and widespread support for the Liberal Party amongst Canadians.

Conclusion

Forty-five years ago, on December 27, 1972, after a long and successful political career, Lester B. Pearson passed away. His passing struck a chord with many Canadians as more than 1,200 people attended his funeral service to pay their last respects. Pearson’s legacy and indeed his name are still present today in the numerous awards and buildings named in his honour. Paving the way for what many Canadians and the international community alike have come to love about Canada, Pearson can be said to have shaped and indeed laid the foundation for the Canada we know today.

A black-and-white photo of man standing under an interesting architectural building.

Prime Minister of Canada Lester Bowles Pearson in front of the Katimavik at Expo 67 (MIKAN 3198467)

The Lester B. Pearson fonds preserved by Library and Archives Canada consists of 435.71 meters of textual records, over 3,500 photographs, 315 audio recordings on various formats, 3 films totalling 47 minutes, 54 items of documentary art, and 98 medals.

Related links


Mariam Lafrenie is an undergraduate student research fellow from Queen’s University who worked in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada during the summer of 2017.

Guest curator: Katie Cholette

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.


Red and black Norwegian text on a cream background awards the prize to Lester Bowles Pearson. Text is topped by a red lion holding an axe on a blue mountain bordered by blue waves with a circled star at the top.

Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Lester B. Pearson for his role in establishing United Nations Peacekeeping, 1957. Designed by Gerhard Munthe for the Nobel Committee (MIKAN 4900031)

Former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s idea for a neutral military force, to help stabilize conflict zones, earned him the Nobel Prize. Most Canadians now regard peacekeeping as uniquely ours.


Tell us about yourself

I have always had an interest in graphic design. My first career was as a graphic artist and typesetter. I eventually found my way into art history, teaching and now archival work. Although I work primarily with textual documents these days, I am frequently delighted by the array of aesthetically pleasing items in LAC’s collection.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Lester B. Pearson won the Nobel Prize for his role in negotiating a peaceful resolution to the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The crisis erupted when Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser seized and nationalized the Suez Canal (then jointly owned by France and Great Britain), a move that threatened the supply of oil to Europe. In retaliation, France, Great Britain and Israel secretly collaborated to attack the Sinai Peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union subsequently became embroiled in the conflict, with the Soviet Union threatening to use nuclear weapons against the assailants. Pearson, at the time Secretary of State for External Affairs and head of Canada’s delegation at the United Nations, stepped in and helped establish the United Nations Emergency Force, which was instrumental in de-escalating the conflict.

At the presentation ceremony on December 10, 1957, in Oslo, Norway, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Gunnar Jahn, stated that the prize was being awarded to Pearson because of “the powerful initiative, strength, and perseverance he has displayed in attempting to prevent or limit war operations and to restore peace in situations where quick, tactful, and wise action has been necessary to prevent unrest from spreading and developing into a worldwide conflagration.”

Although Pearson was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1957, the design of the certificate dates from the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to hand-drawn calligraphy, it features a lithograph designed by Gerhard Munthe in 1901, the year the Nobel Peace Prize was first awarded. A Norwegian painter, decorative artist and illustrator, Munthe took many of his artistic motifs from his native Norway. He worked in the National Romantic Style, the Scandinavian version of Art Nouveau in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This style, which was a reaction against industrialism, promoted ideas of northern nationalism based on the renewal of interest in Norse mythology and sagas. The illustration at the top of the certificate shows a lion holding an axe, a symbol of power and courage that appeared in Norwegian folk art as far back as the 13th century. The motif also appears on the coat of arms of Norway. Atop a decorative frieze of stylized fir trees, the lion stands proudly in a wild northern landscape. Northern lights swirl above his head, and the image is surmounted by the North Star. Although the overall design is delicately rendered and restrained, it is nevertheless a powerfully evocative image.

Detail of the certificate showing a red lion holding an axe on a blue mountain bordered by blue waves and a star in a circle.

Detail of Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize showing the lion on the certificate  (MIKAN 4900031)

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition

Pearson wearing a suit with a bow tie and holding a pencil in his upraised hand.

Lester B. Pearson holding a pencil. Photo taken August 11, 1944. (MIKAN 3607934)

A smiling man speaking with another man against a curtained window with the drapes drawn back. Both men are wearing suits and ties.

Anthony Eden. Photo by the Alexandra Studio. (MIKAN 3215249)

I was particularly struck by a photograph that shows Lester B. Pearson with another of the key players in the Suez Crisis: British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden. Duncan Cameron, an Ottawa photographer from Capital Press Limited (and the only Canadian contract photographer for Time Life Inc.), snapped the photo of Pearson and Eden outside the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa on February 6, 1956. Eden, who had known Pearson since the 1930s, was visiting Canada and had just given a speech to the House of Commons. A long-time politician known for his skill in public affairs, Eden succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1955. In the photograph, the two men appear relaxed and happy; there is no premonition that a rift would develop between Canada and Great Britain a few months later, after Eden collaborated with France and Israel to invade Egypt. While Pearson went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, become Canada’s 14th prime minister, and gain a reputation for international diplomacy, Eden’s popularity took a nosedive, and as he was in ill health, he resigned in February 1957. Interesting side note: the photographer, Duncan Cameron, would eventually join the Public Archives of Canada, where he became Photo Custodian of the National Photographic Collection. LAC holds his fonds, which consists of 175,000 prints, negatives and slides.

Biography

Katie Cholette is an archivist in the Governance and Political Archives section. She is currently working in the private military and non-LAC Act institutions areas. Katie has a BA in Art History, an MA in Canadian Art History, and a PhD in Canadian Studies. She has previously worked as the Curator of Acquisitions and Research and the Curator of Exhibitions at the Portrait Gallery of Canada (2007–2008; 2011), held two Research Fellowships in Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada (2006; 2012–2013), and taught courses in Art History and Canadian Studies and at the College of the Humanities at Carleton University (2003 to present). She has delivered papers and published articles on various aspects of art, architecture, culture and identity, and has worked on a number of freelance curatorial and research projects. As a student at Carleton, she was a regular patron of Mike’s Place, the graduate student pub named in Lester B. Pearson’s honour.