Over half a century ago, Canada was a more engaged and innovative nation than it is at present. World War Two had successfully ended, but a changed world that followed in its wake required Canadians to be a different people and its national government to discover and legislate a new framework for the future.
Today Canadians celebrate Lester Pearson's birthday. Even as we reflect back on the kind of leader he was and the growing capacities of Canada that he helped to create, we become aware that somewhere between then and now we lost our edge, our diversified global influence, and, sadly, our belief in the public good.
He had won the Nobel Peace Prize prior to becoming Liberal leader and eventually Prime Minister. His exploits on the global stage were sterling in nature and highly accomplished. But as he turned his attention to the domestic challenges faced by a robust citizenry eager to move forward, he hardly seemed the likely character. Bookish in appearance, even scholarly, people could be forgiven for thinking he lacked the tenacity and experience for the rigors of political life. It turns out they were wrong, and remarkably so.
By the time Pearson took over the top political post in 1963 it had become clear that the nation required interventions from the federal level that would spur growth throughout the provinces and territories that would be commensurate with the daring new spirit of the Canadian people.
What followed were a list of initiatives and accomplishments that far transcended anything we see at the federal level today. He helped bring in the national medicare program, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. It was under his watch that we acquired a new flag and established the groundbreaking Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. He accomplished all that in just five years without ever holding a majority in the House of Commons.
This week's federal budget reminds us of why, and not just how, we lost our capacity to dream of great and important things. Pearson's eyes were open to the chasms that existed between the political jurisdictions in a vast land that was riddled with poor families attempting to work out a living. His ears were open to their struggles and he continually voiced a commitment to bring capitalism and citizenship together, through strong federal leadership, to build a new social compact that could make the nation what it never could be under British rule. And he did it all with far less wealth flowing through Canada than there is today.
The federal budget of this week had virtually nothing new for the poor, domestically or internationally. The great resolution of 1989, under Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, to end child poverty in Canada lies in the dust, only kept alive by provincial actions. Our great international interest is characterized more by war than the kind of peace Pearson struggled for. Healthcare remains deeply challenged since the present government walked away from any real interest to prepare a better plan for the health of Canadian tomorrow. And climate change? The days of the feds engaging in the problem lay in ruins as the silence from the federal government from perhaps the world's most important danger was deafening.
Whereas Lester Pearson sought to narrow the gap between the rich and poor by implemented national strategies and programs, this week's budget continued the trend of almost two decades of using its clout to reward the wealthy with more boutique incentives, while reminding the poor that Ottawa is as far away as the moon. As long as the current Prime Minister continues in his pattern of refusing to meet with the provincial premiers collectively in matters of great importance, it is hard to imagine how Canadians can get their groove back when the isolation of the political jurisdictions continues.
John F. Kennedy, himself an engaged leader, noted:
"A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or regard that quality of life in its chosen leaders today -- and in fact we have forgotten."
Indeed, we Canadians have. Which it makes it all the more important to remember Pearson's birthday today and to remind ourselves just how much his leadership style is missed.
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