The PM Series Interviews: Gordon Gibb

We asked the same five questions of the authors of the Prime Minister of Canada series.

5R: There are those who persist in saying Canadian history is boring. Having undertaken to write part of that history, how would you respond to that assertion?

GG: If history can be summarized as boring – regardless of the nature, and ownership of the history we are talking about – then it is to suggest that history has to be sensational, to be meaningful. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have faced different issues in Canada than our neighbors in the US, and we have not endured the assassination of a Canadian Prime Minister as America has endured with the loss of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and others, such as Martin Luther King.  To that end, Canadians are known as a peace-loving people.

That said, anyone who might suggest our nation’s history is boring need only remember the October Crisis of 1970, the rise of the FLQ, the kidnapping of James Cross and the murder of Pierre Laporte, an act of cowardice that prompted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to mobilize the National Guard.

On Lester Pearson’s watch, the adoption of the new Canadian flag was met with fierce opposition and protest that, in many respects, divided the country for a time. And who could forget, in 1967 and at the height of Canada’s hosting of the World’s Fair (Expo 67), in comes French President Charles de Gaulle from France, who ignores Ottawa and fans the flames of separation in Quebec with his infamous “Vive Montreal, Vive le Quebec…” (long live Montreal, long live Quebec) followed by “Vive le Quebec Libre” (long live free Quebec). Separatists were cheered, but federalists and Anglophones were appalled – as was the Canadian government. Prime Minister Lester Pearson, in the waning months of his time in office went on the defensive to suggest that de Gaulle’s comments were not only misguided, but inaccurate in that Quebec, like all of Canada, is and always has been free. In more recent times the flames of separatist fire have waned somewhat, but not without some nervousness during various referendums that have threatened to split the Dominion of Canada. How would the US fare were, say, New York State or the District of Columbia to threaten disenfranchisement from the United States of America? Such an issue, as unthinkable as it is, would succeed in consuming and distracting an entire nation. For Canadians, that threat has been, at times, a reality of our history.
All history is unique, as ours’ is to us. And we can remain proud, respectful and mindful of our unique history. Perhaps a bit shy of sensational, but certainly not boring…

5R: Five Rivers’ senior editor, Robert Runté makes the statement: ‘Publishers have sometimes tried to protect school children and sensitive adults from any hint of controversy or scandal, and to pretend that our story is an unblemished example of rationality and progress.’ Do you feel that’s an accurate summation, and why?

GG: Depending upon the views of the publisher, or the particular audience involved, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to have the positive, feel-good aspects of history expanded and the sorrier, scandalous and embarrassing events minimized. Be that as it may, a true historical snapshot should include all aspects of history without sensationalism, embellishment or contraction. True, an audience too young to understand the bigger picture or without the depth to grasp salient points pro or con, could be spared the starkest description. Beyond that, history has no value unless it is told in its purest form, including the good with the bad. As a nation, we can’t fully appreciate our strengths without knowing our struggles. As individuals, we all have our dark corners and Prime Ministers are no different. For Lester Pearson, there were aspects of his personality and his leadership that were lacking, or less-then-stellar. But he made up for those shortfalls through the unique strengths and skill sets he brought to the PMO. Without knowing his struggles, we could never appreciate his strengths and his overall accomplishments.
Without knowing the darker aspects of our history, we can’t appreciate the whole. A feel-good treatment of history is shallow; we can’t appreciate, or savour our victories without knowing the struggles along the way….

5R: What does it mean for you, as a writer, to undertake writing about the prime ministers you’ve chosen?

GG: For me, Lester Pearson was the first Prime Minister about whom I was aware as a youngster. While I was too young to appreciate the controversy, the thrust and parry that went into the flag debate, I distinctly remember the Maple Leaf flag arriving with great flourish into my Grade 5 classroom in 1965. I also remember, as a ten-year-old and an attendee at Expo ’67, Prime Minister Pearson’s profile in association with the event.

Later in life, settling in Peterborough, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Lester Pearson had spent part of his youth in this city. Thus, when the opportunity arose to write about a Prime Minister and Pearson was available, I naturally chose him as a subject.

5R: Were there surprises for you during your research?

There were many surprises about Pearson. First, for someone who was a bit, shall we say, ‘nerdy’ with his preference for bow ties, his high voice and his lisp – and indeed, he was a lifelong academic – I was surprised to learn just how athletic he was. He inherited a love for sports from his father and paternal grandfather – a love that he used to his advantage as a young man in the ability to offset any notion that all Pearson was about, was academia. Thus, sports served as good balance, and he did it all – baseball, hockey, lacrosse, rugby and football. He would remain a lifelong sports fan and one of the first things he did when he arrived in Ottawa was to have a television installed in his office so he could follow the scores.
Pearson was also a man with great pride in his work and his country, but was devoid of ego in any other sense. He also hated politics. Serving his government was an honor, but what he disliked was the thrust and parry of politicking. He disliked it, and had no patience for it. On more than one occasion he thought of getting out, but carried on by virtue of the Oxford credo of public government service as a gentleman’s highest calling. And so, while he loathed campaigning, he campaigned hard – often twice in one year, when elections were close together. The Liberals leaned on him heavily.

It is interesting to note that Pearson gained his most satisfaction from the work, and his most satisfying pursuits were those as a high official in External Affairs (rising to the highest position in External), together with his work as a diplomat and ambassador on the international stage. He carried no ambition to be either opposition leader, party leader or for that matter, Prime Minister. Rather, he was asked by others to serve – considered his potions carefully and in the end moved forward, albeit uncomfortably.

It is also interesting to note that his Liberal government achieved a sizeable portfolio of important legislation, including the introduction of the Canada Pension Plan, universal Medicare, the student loan program, the official adoption of ‘O Canada’ as our national anthem, the creation and introduction of the new Canadian flag (his proudest achievement), and shepherding Expo ’67 into reality.

And yet he did all that, with two successive minority governments.

Lester Pearson was a statement in contrasts. He was known and respected the world over as an international leader, yet he didn’t see himself as one. Pearson was an everyman, devoid of flash. His performance on television, a medium he disliked and didn’t understand, paled to that of skilled performers such as John Diefenbaker. He and his wife Maryon were also very frugal, preferring a rented farmhouse on Augusta Street to the tonier accommodations of Rockcliffe in Ottawa, where his colleagues lived. He only moved out of necessity when he became Opposition leader and later, Prime Minister. The houses came with the job, but his heart remained with more frugal surroundings.

Pearson was a man who flew thousands of miles per year and yet didn’t fly well. He performed his best work behind the scenes and thus, was not nearly as well-known at home as he was on the world stage. He was the proverbial guy next door – down to earth, humble, honest and truthful to a fault and expected others to be straight with him. Pearson was likeable and well-liked – not for his stature, or his accomplishments, but rather for whom he was: a truly nice fellow, who was selfless, knew the value of hard work and worked harder than men half his age.

5R: Your most memorable anecdote from the PMs?

GG: Pearson was not above taking advantage of a situation, so long as it made sense and didn’t inconvenience anyone else. To that end, as a young enlisted man sailing to Salonica, the stiff cots in the sleeping quarters were hardly comfortable. In scouting around for an alternative, he noted the ship’s barber’s chair, padded and quite comfortable, that stood empty in the dark at night. Pearson made arrangements with the ship’s barber to allow him to recline in the barber’s chair overnight, when it wasn’t being used.
Another favourite anecdote is demonstrative of Pearson’s focus on the task at hand, rather than his own image. Beyond his preference for bow ties and, of course, carrying himself appropriately and respectful of the office, he held himself with little importance. Perhaps this is why, when he stood to face a raucous gathering of Legion members in Winnipeg in an attempt to sell the idea of a new Canadian flag to replace the Red Ensign, he faced his audience and the nation with an inspired speech, and the biggest cowlick emerging from the back of his head one has ever seen. Perhaps he was oblivious to it. Or perhaps he just didn’t care. Perhaps other men would have ensured, once the fedora had been dispatched, that running the hand across, and down the crown of one’s head would ensure there was sufficient hair cream in place to hold everything together. As it was, the other men at the dais and seated in the audience had nary a hair out of place. And yet the Prime Minister of Canada was unable, or unaware of a cowlick that really needed to be tamed.

A similar incident occurred in Oslo when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Dressed in a tie, topcoat and tails, the first Canadian to be awarded the prestigious honour stood facing the world with a shock of just beginning to hang perilously across his right temple.

In no way, however, did this take anything away from his achievements, or the high regard in which he was held. If anything, the hair fails made him all that more endearing…

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