Patricia Pearson on her grandfather’s legacy for Canadians
Lester B. Pearson’s granddaughter Patricia Pearson takes a look back.
In early February, 1965, the Americans went into North Vietnam while my grandfather, Lester B. Pearson, was babysitting me. (I don’t know why it seems odd, almost comical, that the leader of a nation would be looking after his 10-month-old granddaughter, but that’s how cynical our modern lens on politics has become. Even mine.)
My mother and grandmother had taken my siblings for a skate at a nearby Ottawa rink, and now there were bombs dropping on Hanoi. I try to imagine how this domestic scene plays out in the absence of a Blackberry or an iPhone. Perhaps his distractedness merely took the form of churning thoughts, while I crawled excitedly about on the floor, relishing my newfound movement.
The escalation in Vietnam would later lead to a painful and resounding clash between L.B.P. and L.B.J., culminating in a startling episode at Camp David where Johnson berated my grandfather for urging diplomacy with Hanoi during a speech in Philadelphia.
“Mike,” he growled — or drawled, I suppose, in full Texan twang — “Why did you have to piss on my rug?”
Clashes were also taking place between granddaddy and John Diefenbaker, leader of the Opposition, on a more or less continuous basis as they asserted their differing visions. A newspaper cartoon at the time depicted Mike, Dief and the NDP’s Tommy Douglas as toddlers at the beach, bashing one another over the head with plastic pails and shovels over what to put on our flag.
It wasn’t a placid time. But it was energized, fruitfully argumentative, alive with protest and with possibility.
On Feb. 15, my mother wrote in her diary: “Canada has a new flag! It was a lovely, sunny day and I took all the children down to Parliament Hill to watch the Red Ensign come down and the Maple Leaf go up!” At some point later in the day, my grandfather held me aloft in the window of his East Block office to see the flag begin to flutter.
As a brand-new little Canadian, I entered into a reality forged by a generation of veterans, those who had lived through two global wars and a calamitous depression.
They longed for peace and security, but they weren’t fearful. (How could they be, after what they’d been through?)
Instead, they envisioned a society of inclusiveness, raucous debate and mutual care. Martin Luther King was on the march in Alabama; Johnson was waging his war against poverty; Ottawa had introduced medicare, pensions, student loans, and would shortly bring in official bilingualism. This was the context in which L.B.P pushed for a flag to call our own.
He had explained his vision to an assemblage of the Royal Canadian Legion the previous year: Of his comrades in the Great War, he said, there were “men whose names were Cameron, Kimora, English, Gleidenstein, de Chapin, O’Shaughnessy.”
But they “didn’t fall in or fall out as Irish Canadians, French Canadians, Dutch Canadians, Japanese Canadians. We wore the same uniform, with the same maple leaf badge, and we were proud to be known as Canadians, to serve as Canadians and to die, if it had to be, as Canadians.”
As then, he felt, so in the mid-1960s amid Quebec restiveness, all Canadians should feel concertedly included and “unhyphenated, with pride in our nation and its citizenship, pride in the symbols of that citizenship. The flag is one such symbol.”
What Canadians shared in 1965, it seems to me, was a sense of genuine agency. We were, and are, a big-hearted people who have come together from all over the world to make that world, in turn, a better place.
But too many of us right now are feeling thwarted, stifled, overlooked, even deemed suspicious, or contemptible.
This is the great murmured conversation right now in our land. Our leadership is actively dissuading us from being who we are.
To hold fast to our flag, we must regain our sense that we are all in a position to wave it.