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Jock, prof, diplomat: author Andrew Cohen tells of the multiple identities of Lester B. Pearson

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Most Canadians know Pearson better as an airport than a Prime Minister, said syndicated columnist and noted political analyst Andrew Cohen at this year’s Keith Davey lecture. But the Lester Pearson he presented was an affable athlete, a distinguished diplomat, and an architect of Canadian identity. The lecture on Monday at the Isabel Bader Theatre marked the release of Cohen’s latest book, a biography of the Prime Minister.

Pearson attended Victoria College before enlisting in the army, where his squadron leader nicknamed him “Mike,” because he thought Lester didn’t sound fierce enough. After the war he attended Oxford, where he excelled, briefly becoming a professional athlete. Later in his political career, when asked what he had that his colleagues didn’t, he responded, “I played professional baseball.”

He taught for several years at the University of Toronto before joining the newly created Department of External Affairs as one of its first employees. In 1941 he was posted to Washington where, according to Cohen, the greatest test of Pearson’s diplomacy was mollifying then-Prime Minister Mackenzie King, for whom Pearson once had to collect, package, and ship rocks from ruins.

By the 1940s, his profile was rising: he was integral in creating NATO, and on the committee that created the state of Israel.

Apparently, the Liberals once had to pull out a map to show him his riding in northern Ontario, Algoma.

He won, and was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs. In this capacity, he invented “Pearsonian diplomacy,” most notable in the Suez Crisis, a situation he famously diffused, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Cohen says that Pearson “didn’t invent peacekeeping, but realized it needed a midwife.” Certainly, he can be credited with this part of Canadian identity.

Soon after Suez, he became a Liberal leader, winning a minority government in 1963. Cohen suggested we draw lessons from Pearson, whose minority government was “singularly transformative,” bringing in the Canadian flag, Medicare, official bilingualism, and the pension plan, to name only a few. Pearson, as presented by Cohen, certainly challenges the claim that you can’t get things done with a minority.