Nostalgia or Reality

  • National Newswatch

It ended up being my quiet recluse during my years as a Member of Parliament.  My office was on the fourth floor of West Bloc, and the larger window faced the bronze statue of Lester B. Pearson.  He sat, quiet and serene, legs crossed and looking out over the Commons.Frequently sitting on the bench beside the statue and attempting to find some purpose and solitude after some incredibly hectic sessions in Parliament, I drew strength from a presence that was a significant part of this country's global reputation in the immediate decades following World War Two.  I was on the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs in the decade following 9/11, and Pearson's insights seemed especially timely as we watched the world slowly sinking into conflict.This past weekend was the anniversary of the installation of that statue in 1990.  I was flushed with memories of that sanctuary for me in my political years. I opted to publish a post on social media of that date, along with a photo of me standing next to the statue. A low-key post, I wasn't prepared for the response.Within minutes, supportive posts showed in my feeds from across the world.  Some were familiar to me – Bob Rae, Ralph Goodale, John McCallum – but others were diplomats, past and present, from a range of countries that held Lester Pearson in remarkably high regard.  Hundreds of the assurances of the man's abilities, presence and greatness poured in over the following hours. By the end of the day, it had become clear that this was a presence that so influenced global affairs that he could define an era in a fashion that left the world with the impression that Canada was a valid international country.I recall being asked to lunch by the Russian ambassador while a parliamentarian and talking about global issues, especially in Afghanistan and Africa.  At one point, I asked him how he got into the diplomatic service, and he burst out in a delightful kind of laughter.  He told of how he was advised of the possibility of getting into Russia's diplomatic service if he passed an in-person interview.  The future ambassador was asked only one question: “Who is the prime minister of Canada?  He had no idea but knew everything was riding on his response.“Lester Pearson,” he responded and got the job.  “He was such a giant in those days, and I knew about his winning the Nobel Prize,” he said.  “He was a soldier, a gentleman, a diplomat, a peacemaker, but I had no idea he was in politics.  I answered with his name because he was the only Canadian I knew.”That says a lot about Lester B. Pearson.He was a master of global issues in a time when Canada's diplomatic service was at its zenith.  With the expansive minds of people like Pearson, John Holmes and Robert Ford, and complemented with globally respected military leaders such as General Charles Foulkes, Air Marshal Roy Sleman, and General “Tommy” Burns, Canada proved an able chess master in a world that was in the process of remaking itself.Just as it is now.  While the old global architecture refashions itself with a weaker America, a rising China, globalization, climate change and COVID, the need for “soft power” nations like Canada is immense if we are to come out of this series of extraordinary challenges with peace and prosperity intact.Yet, there is a clear sense within Global Affairs Canada and its international partners that this country has been so preoccupied with domestic pressures that successive governments have lost their way in ensuring that our international diplomatic service remains top-notch.  It's no secret, and everyone talks about it.  But it isn't receiving the attention it deserves.  As Daniel Livermore, of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs in Ottawa, succinctly put it:“In the case of foreign policy, one of the critical questions facing the Trudeau government is the delicate condition of Global Affairs Canada, which should be one of the foundations for the government's future success.”There is much to do if Canada wishes to keep an edge in dealing with a world that always seems at odds with itself.  Our reputation as a peaceful nation that, despite its many divisions, maintains a workable commonality can make room for us on the global stage.  But it requires a diplomatic service that can propel those domestic victories into a global reality.I learned from all the responses to Lester Pearson's statue that there is a massive historical memory of the man and the remarkable service he helped build and lead.  But if we don't work harder on this country's unique abilities in foreign service, it all just becomes nostalgia – the last thing Lester B. Pearson would ever have desired.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.