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.


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.


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.