Pearson Becomes Canada’s Prime Minister Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Canada’s Conservative prime minister, John G. Diefenbaker, was ousted from power by the victory of the Liberal Party at the polls. The election ushered in the administration of Lester B. Pearson, who presided over the turbulent mid-1960’s in Canadian politics.

Summary of Event

Before he was elected head of the Canadian Liberal Party, Liberal Party, Canadian in the summer of 1957, Lester B. Pearson had achieved great prominence as an important Canadian diplomat. From 1928 until 1957, he occupied increasingly important positions in the Canadian diplomatic service. During World War II, he represented Canada at numerous international conferences. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King appointed Pearson as the Canadian ambassador to the United States in 1944. Pearson earned the respect of both Canadian and U.S. political leaders and played a major role in the 1945 San Francisco conference that created the United Nations. In September, 1948, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent appointed Pearson as minister for external affairs, a position he held for nine years. From 1952 to 1953, he also served as the president of the General Assembly of the United Nations. In 1956, he helped avoid a major international crisis by persuading French and British officials to end their invasion of Egypt, which had been provoked by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. For his efforts, Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Lester B. Pearson[Pearson] in 1957. He was the first Canadian to receive this prestigious honor. Prime ministry, Canadian;Lester B. Pearson[Pearson] Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1963 [kw]Pearson Becomes Canada’s Prime Minister (Apr. 22, 1963) [kw]Canada’s Prime Minister, Pearson Becomes (Apr. 22, 1963)[Canadas Prime Minister, Pearson Becomes] [kw]Prime Minister, Pearson Becomes Canada’s (Apr. 22, 1963) Prime ministry, Canadian;Lester B. Pearson[Pearson] Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1963 [g]North America;Apr. 22, 1963: Pearson Becomes Canada’s Prime Minister[07600] [g]Canada;Apr. 22, 1963: Pearson Becomes Canada’s Prime Minister[07600] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 22, 1963: Pearson Becomes Canada’s Prime Minister[07600] Pearson, Lester B. Diefenbaker, John G. Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Canada[Canada] St. Laurent, Louis Trudeau, Pierre

Canadian political traditions required cabinet members to serve in the House of Commons. For this reason, Pearson ran for and was elected to Parliament in 1949. He represented the Ontario district of Algoma East (near Sault Ste. Marie) until his retirement from politics in 1968. Although Pearson was a greatly admired diplomat, no one knew how skillful he would be as a politician.

In the June, 1957, election, the Conservatives, under the leadership of John G. Diefenbaker, won more seats than the Liberals. However, two relatively minor parties—Social Credit Social Credit party, Canadian , from Quebec, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, Canadian New Democratic Party, Canadian (later called the New Democrats)—prevented the Conservatives from obtaining an absolute majority. Former prime minister St. Laurent soon resigned as the head of the Liberals, and Pearson succeeded him.

In 1958, the Conservatives Conservative Party, Canadian won a resounding majority in the federal parliament with 206 seats, while the Liberals won in only 49 districts. Most Canadians felt that Pearson was a singularly ineffective politician, but they badly underestimated his tenacity. Diefenbaker made a series of major political blunders: alienating French-speaking Canada;French Canadian dissent Canadians by failing to appoint Quebecers to any important cabinet positions, opposing increased U.S. investments in the Canadian economy, and especially refusing to support the United States immediately during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962. His needless alienation of President John F. Kennedy increased tensions between the Canadian and U.S. governments and persuaded many Canadians that Diefenbaker’s actions were harming their economy.

In the June, 1962, elections, the Conservatives won 116 seats, the Liberals 97, and two minor parties 49. Unlike Diefenbaker, Pearson understood that a Canadian prime minister could govern effectively only by recognizing the aspirations and rights of both French- and English-speaking Canadians. In a December, 1962, speech in the House of Commons, Pearson argued that the fair treatment of French-speaking Canadians was essential for maintaining national unity. This speech was singularly effective, both in Quebec and in the English-speaking provinces. The thirty Quebec members of Parliament from the Social Credit Party, on whom Diefenbaker had relied for support, increasingly sided with the Liberals.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, more people in Canada and the United States came to believe that indecisiveness might provoke another war. When Diefenbaker exacerbated an already bad situation by refusing, in January, 1963, to accept nuclear weapons from the United States in order to defend Canada against a possible air attack from the Soviet Union, his own defense minister, Douglas Harkness Harkness, Douglas , resigned in protest. Sensing that the Conservatives were in disarray, Pearson, with the support of the Social Credit and New Democratic Parties, asked the House of Commons for a vote of no confidence in the leadership of John Diefenbaker.

Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.

(Library of Congress)

The motion was approved by a margin of 142 to 111 on February 4, 1963. For only the second time since the creation of the Canadian Confederation in 1867, a prime minister had lost a vote of no confidence. This vote dissolved the House of Commons, and new parliamentary elections were held on April 8, 1963. Although the Liberals won 125 seats in the House of Commons to the Conservatives’ 95, the Liberals were still four votes short of an absolute majority. With the support of the Social Credit and New Democratic Parties, Pearson was able to form a new government and became Canada’s fourteenth prime minister on April 22, 1963.

During the parliamentary campaign of 1963, Pearson had promised Canadians that he would accomplish a great deal in his first sixty days in office. He had spoken of “sixty days of decision,” and he realized that decisive action had to be taken if the Liberals were to remain in power for long. Within three weeks after becoming prime minister, Pearson flew to the United States to meet with President Kennedy, and relations between the U.S. and Canadian governments improved significantly. This helped encourage additional U.S. investments in the Canadian economy.

Pearson improved the status of senior citizens by persuading the House of Commons to approve a national pension plan. He appointed a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, Canadian Languages;cultural importance which proposed many laws designed to protect the linguistic and cultural rights of all Canadians. French speakers from Quebec were made to feel once again that they were equal partners with English-speaking Canadians.


Arguably Pearson’s most lasting contribution to Canadian unity was his proposal, in 1964, to create a purely Canadian flag Canada;flag Flag, Canadian with a maple leaf, the traditional symbol of Canada. Until then, the Canadian flag had contained a Union Jack and was called the Red Ensign. This proposal was highly controversial, especially with veterans who had fought in the two world wars under the old flag. Recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, Pearson first made his proposal at a veterans’ meeting. He argued persuasively that the Canadian flag should not contain either British or French symbols but should, rather, represent the unity of this diverse country.

Pearson understood that French-speaking Canadians found it difficult to feel an emotional bond for a flag that reminded them of the British flag. After much acrimonious debate in the House of Commons, and even a filibuster orchestrated by Diefenbaker, the Liberals voted closure and the new flag was approved. The new maple leaf design was presented to the Canadian people in a ceremony on Parliament Hill on February 15, 1965. Despite all the controversy, Canadians from all ten provinces and the two territories came to feel great pride in their new national flag.

In the November, 1965, election, Pearson’s Liberal Party once again won more seats than the Conservatives, but they still lacked an absolute majority. However, Pearson remained as Canada’s prime minister until April, 1968, when he was succeeded by his minister of justice, Pierre Trudeau. The Liberal Party remained in power until 1979. Prime ministry, Canadian;Lester B. Pearson[Pearson] Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1963

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bothwell, Robert, Ian Drummond, and John English. Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism. Rev. ed. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Contains a good summary of the political, economic, and social changes in Canada between the end of World War II and the late 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillmer, Norman, ed. Pearson: The Unlikely Gladiator. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999. Compilation of essays devoted to Pearson’s career and role in agressively defending Canadian security. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutchison, Bruce. Macdonald to Pearson: The Prime Ministers of Canada. Don Mills, Ont.: Longmans, 1967. Contains excellent short biographies of the prime ministers of Canada, from John A. Macdonald to Lester Pearson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kent, Tom. A Public Purpose: An Experience of Liberal Opposition and Canadian Government. Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988. A reliable history of Lester Pearson’s service as the opposition leader from 1957 to 1963 and as prime minister from 1963 to 1968.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Lester B. Memoirs. 3 vols. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1972-1975. A thoughtful, well-written autobiography, begun after Pearson’s retirement as prime minister in 1968 and completed shortly before his death in 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tauber, Eliezer. Personal Policy Making: Canada’s Role in the Adoption of the Palestine Partition Resolution. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Details the role of Pearson in the 1947 partition of Palestine, one of his most important diplomatic endeavors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thoradarson, Vruce. Lester Pearson: Diplomat and Politician. Toronto, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 1974. A sympathetic, well-documented biography. Contains a well-annotated bibliography of important studies on Pearson’s career in diplomacy and politics.

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Categories: History