After crushing defeat to the Tories in 1958, Lester Pearson’s Liberal Party had no realistic prospect for electoral success anytime soon. So they didn’t focus on that. Instead, they embarked on a period of real policy renewal, built on people attracted to Mr. Pearson’s quiet, intelligent and humane character (read about it in Tom Kent’s “A Public Purpose” or Andrew Cohen’s book or his column today). They built a new Liberal Party that deserved to govern and, five years later (50 years ago yesterday) won a minority.
The last PM born in the 19th Century – and one of the oldest people to take the office – “Mike” led the most consequential modern government. With other parties’ support, Pearson established universal health care, the Canada Pension, student loans, tackled women’s rights and fostered national unity. Pearson forged closer ties to the USA, including the Auto Pact – the first great free trade agreement, which gave birth to a whole new economy in Canada. He didn’t over-spend or over-tax. And he kicked Charles de Gaulle out of the country, too! All in less than 5 years.
Today, April 23 2013, is his 116th birthday. But you can see a reminder of Mike Pearson every day – just look up any flagpole. There’s that flag he gave us, too.
The path chosen by Pearson – to bide awhile in the wilderness, to learn what the country needed and to build a new team – was what some hoped for the Party after 2011. Some saw Bob Rae as the person to lead that effort and, of course, he could have if the Party had let him. But instead of sober purpose and merited success, the remnants of the old crew turned the Party into a Twitter feed, used a ridiculous election method to install a Crown Prince and bet all on the hope that glamour might vault them back into the jobs they feel entitled to.
The Pearson Path is still open, for those prepared to walk it.