Respecting Pearson’s legacy at last

by Andrew Caddell

The Hill Times
January 10, 2018

When I was an undergrad student a million years ago, I was fortunate to study international affairs under Professor King Gordon at the University of Ottawa. Gordon had a wealth of national and international experience and was close friends with Tommy Douglas and “Mike” Pearson. As might be expected, we had an array of impressive guest speakers come through our class.

That fall, I asked Gordon if Pearson would speak to our class. As a child of the 1960s, his diplomatic and political accomplishments were burned into my brain. I had read the first volume of his autobiography, Mike, twice.

I was told he usually came to describe the founding of the United Nations, but was ill. Nonetheless, “he promised me he would come to lecture once he regained his health.”

Sadly, that Christmas, Pearson died.

During my career in journalism and politics, I can say I met every person who served as prime minister during my lifetime, with the exception of the one that mattered most to me: Lester Bowles Pearson.

When I arrived at the Pearson Building to work in 2002, I was impressed to see the Nobel Peace Prize Pearson received for his efforts in defusing the Suez Crisis and introducing UN peacekeepers in the Sinai. Next to it was the scroll from Oslo in 1957 as well as the model of his statue on Parliament Hill. Whenever visitors came to the building, I would point out these artifacts and take them to the impressive display of Pearson’s life in photos and documents on the main floor of “D” tower.

Apparently, some people were not as impressed with Pearson’s legacy at the building named in his honour. On three occasions, the display was covered up by drapes in order to build a special stage for visiting dignitaries to address the media. Each time, I complained, but to no avail.

The third time it occurred was in February of 2007, for the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the year of the 50th anniversary of Pearson’s Nobel.

I went under the structure and drapes and took a picture with my cell phone and sent it to two contacts: the foreign affairs critic of the Liberal Party and the editor of The Globe and Mail.

I received a call from the critic half an hour later. He was apologetic; no one in the Liberal caucus thought it worthy of a mention in Question Period. I thought that was it, until my friend the editor called, asking “Are they f-ing nuts?” referring to the people at the department, and their political masters. He dispatched a photographer to take a picture of the forlorn statue and prize underneath steel tubing and drapes, and the photo and story appeared on the front page the next day.

The uproar was spontaneous, and as I arrived at work I saw a grim-faced group of officers leaving the building to meet the minister, Peter MacKay, at his Hill office. That day, the Liberal critic was given priority to ask his question about the “cover-up” of the prize in the House.

Subsequently, the display was moved to another side of the Pearson Building foyer, where it could never be covered again. And when he left the department, Peter MacKay graciously pointed out one of the lessons he would pass on to his successor was to “not mess around with the Nobel Prize.”

Last year, there were celebrations around the 60th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel to Pearson, interpreted by some as compensation for the Conservatives’ failure to recognize the 50th anniversary.

One of those steps was to move the prize to the Museum of History, where it will stay on long-term loan as part of a display on Pearson’s life. The display at the Pearson Building is still there, but the medal has been replaced by a facsimile. And the photo exhibit in “D” tower is still well worth visiting.

I am of two minds about the initiative: after the past abuse, the prize deserves to be in a place of honour where many more Canadians can appreciate it. On the other hand, I recall James Wright, a former senior diplomat, telling students he would pass the Pearson display each morning “and consider it an example of what we all should aspire to accomplish.”

In these dystopian times, a new generation of foreign service, development and trade officers needs to be inspired by Canada’s diplomatic triumphs of the past. I hope each one of them passes the display at the Pearson Building and thinks seriously of that legacy.

Andrew Caddell retired July 11 from Global Affairs Canada, where he was a senior policy adviser. He previously worked as a broadcast reporter and as an adviser to Liberal governments in Ottawa, St. John’s, and elsewhere.

Image credit: Library and Archives Canada

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