Louis Stephen St. Laurent (1882-1973), 12th prime minister of Canada (1948-1957). St. Laurent, known as Uncle Louis, was more distinctly Canadian than any of the country's other prime ministers. His mixed French-speaking and English-speaking background reflected Canada's bilingual heritage and brought him the confidence of other Canadians. During his years in private law practice, St. Laurent was a quiet man whose dignified, old-fashioned manner and appearance seemed to bear out his distaste for public life. However, when St. Laurent entered Canadian politics at the age of 59, he adapted impressively to his new responsibilities. St. Laurent made good use of his talent for making quick and sober decisions, and he proved to have one of the most forward-looking and resilient minds in the political history of Canada.
St. Laurent grew up in Compton, a small town in southern Québec near the Vermont border. St. Laurent's mother was of Irish descent and raised him to be a devout Roman Catholic. His relatively well-to-do family owned a general-goods store, which included the town's post office. St. Laurent's upbringing was completely bilingual. As he commented, “I didn't know until I was ten years old that all fathers didn't speak French, and all mothers, English.”
St. Laurent's mother provided his early schooling. After acquiring the basic foundations of a primary education and some practical working experience as his father's helper and as assistant postmaster, St. Laurent entered Saint Charles College in Sherbrooke, Québec, to prepare for the priesthood. He proved adept at Latin and possessed a boundless curiosity. The college supervisor reassessed St. Laurent's future and suggested that his talents were best fitted to study law. St. Laurent entered Université Laval in Sainte-Foy, Québec. In 1902 he received his bachelor's degree and in 1905 his law degree.
St. Laurent became a lawyer in 1905 and soon developed a successful practice. In 1914 he was appointed professor of law at Université Laval and gained a reputation as the leading lawyer in Québec. St. Laurent became associated with leading law firms in Québec City and in Montréal. He often appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada and brought important cases before the Privy Council in London.
In 1908 St. Laurent married Jeanne Renault. The couple had two sons and three daughters. St. Laurent and his wife were devoutly attached to church and family, and he showed every sign of following a quiet routine in the legal profession for the rest of his life.
In December 1941 Ernest Lapointe, chief assistant of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in the House of Commons, died suddenly. Lapointe was a French Canadian who had effectively influenced the French-speaking public. One of the prime minister's advisers recommended St. Laurent to replace Lapointe. On December 10, St. Laurent was invited to join King's government as minister of justice and attorney general.
At first, St. Laurent carried out his responsibilities without attracting much public attention. He said little at cabinet meetings and added only what was required in the form of a lawyer's summary of facts. In 1942 he obtained the necessary seat in the House of Commons when he won a by-election to fill an empty seat as the Liberal Party candidate representing Québec East.
In 1944 the government had to institute a draft in order to reinforce Canada's overseas force in World War II. The draft had been very controversial, and many French-speaking Canadians, particularly in Québec, were against the draft. St. Laurent made a strong stand for the government's position and asked his fellow French Canadians to support Canada's war effort. His expert handling of the issue resulted in Québec's cooperation in the limited draft that was adopted. St. Laurent found himself in the national spotlight and was recognized as a capable Liberal politician. In 1945 he was reelected to the House of Commons by a large majority. That spring he went with Lester B. Pearson to the San Francisco Conference, where the two men played a significant role in helping to set up the United Nations (UN), an international organization established to maintain peace and security.
As attorney general, St., Laurent played a major part in 1945 and 1946 in dealing with an elaborate spy ring that was allegedly passing Canada's nuclear secrets to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). On his own authority, St. Laurent refused to allow the people connected with the conspiracy, including some well-known Canadian scientists, to speak with anyone. They were denied counsel and bail until the full extent of their espionage was established. His high-handed tactics caused some worry in King's government and aroused protests from influential persons. However, suspicion of serious security breaches was later confirmed and public confidence in St. Laurent was restored.
In September 1946 St. Laurent became secretary of state for external affairs, an important office that Prime Minister King had previously held. In his role as foreign minister, St. Laurent took the initiative in 1948 of recommending that Canada serve on the United Nations commission on Korea. This decision expanded Canada's international commitment beyond the limits of King's cautious policy and forced a confrontation between the two leaders. However, faced with the threat of St. Laurent's resignation, King acceded to his minister's action.
After many years in office, Prime Minister King found that his health would not permit him to continue as prime minister and Liberal Party leader. In the summer of 1948 a party conference was called to elect a new leader. Several men offered themselves for the post. However, King still had authority in the party and he convinced the Liberals to choose St. Laurent. King's choice was determined by St. Laurent's realistic and efficient approach to a wide range of government problems. St. Laurent also had influence among French Canadians, and his broad national outlook gave full consideration to the problems of the English-speaking provinces, as well as to those of Québec. St. Laurent was chosen head of the Liberal Party. On November 15, 1948, King resigned and St. Laurent, who himself was approaching 67, became prime minister of Canada.
St. Laurent inherited a powerful political machine. He preserved most of King's cabinet, including Pearson, who had acquired a worldwide reputation as a brilliant diplomat, to head the ministry of external affairs. St. Laurent stepped into leadership when Canada's economy was growing at a rapid pace. His cabinet was strengthened in this respect by Clarence D. Howe, who had been Canada's economic planner since World War II and was also minister of trade and commerce. Howe displayed an extraordinary ability to maintain one of the world's fastest rates of industrial expansion. The combination of St. Laurent and Howe followed the tradition of sharing leadership responsibilities between a representative of the English-speaking provinces and a French Canadian.
St. Laurent brought to office a new concept of government. His broad, all-national view firmly rejected Québec's traditional isolationism. He made his decisions with cool impartiality, giving first consideration to the welfare of Canada as a whole.
St. Laurent's foreign policy involved Canada in world politics. He supported the UN, fully endorsing the initiatives proposed by Pearson, his representative there. St. Laurent actively sponsored and subsequently cooperated with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a defensive alliance of North American and Western European countries, and he formulated an expanding economic and social role for NATO. He convinced India and Pakistan to remain in the British Commonwealth when they threatened to leave, thus preserving the organization. He gave full cooperation to the UN forces during the Korean War (1950-1953), despite some opposition in Canada to this policy.
St. Laurent's important domestic accomplishments included concluding negotiations that had been going on for 75 years over the entrance of Newfoundland into the confederation. In 1949, Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province. One of St. Laurent's main policies was to integrate Québec as a full and responsible partner in the Canadian Confederation. St. Laurent improved relations between the English-speaking and French-speaking communities of Canada, and he enlarged Québec's role in Canada's postwar economic boom. He abolished the carrying of judicial appeals to the Privy Council in London and made the Supreme Court the highest court in Canada. In 1952 he further asserted Canada's independence by appointing Vincent Massey as the first non-British governor-general. St. Laurent set up and appointed a royal commission on the state of the arts in Canada. It led to the establishment in 1957 of the Canada Council, which provided for government grants in scholarship and the creative arts. A drive was launched to encourage foreign immigration. Canada's limited population was substantially increased by this measure and came to include a large proportion of people from countries outside the United Kingdom. St. Laurent broadened the national welfare program to cover more of Canada's citizens, considerably increasing the variety of social services. He established a universal old-age pension, and he expanded the coverage and effectiveness of hospital insurance. He also delegated more authority to the provinces in all welfare and economic matters.
During St. Laurent's tenure in office the United States agreed, after years of negotiations, to join Canada in building the St. Lawrence Seaway connecting the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and the Atlantic Ocean. St. Laurent also invited more British and U.S. companies to make surveys and explorations of Canadian oil and mineral resources in the undeveloped northern territories. During the economic boom of the late 1940s and early 1950s the government was able to reduce the debt Canada had incurred during the war years.
As a result of St. Laurent's successful policies, his government was reelected twice with large majorities. The election in June 1949 gave the Liberal Party a landslide victory, with 190 seats, compared to the 41 seats for the Conservative opposition. He thereby earned the broadest national acceptance ever achieved up to that time by any prime minister. Canadians were getting used to the upward trend in their economy and to positive social change. The second election, held in August 1953, proved that the public still approved of the government. The voters elected 170 Liberals, as compared to 51 Conservatives. These results showed a slight loss to the Liberals in favor of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Social Credit Party, but there was no significant change in the Liberal government's strength.
After 1953, St. Laurent's administration was less successful. The elderly prime minister's health began to fail, while the political, economic, and administrative problems with which he had to deal began to increase. There was a financial dispute between the federal government and Québec over taxes. The dispute brought about a sharp conflict between St. Laurent and Maurice Lenoblet Duplessis, the popular leader of Québec. St. Laurent had over-played his impartiality to the point where he was exhorting the French Canadians to abandon their dream of independence and to put national interests before those of Québec. Although he patched up the break with Duplessis, St. Laurent's declarations provoked controversy and weakened his support among French Canadians.
The next major crisis caused a split in the cabinet when, under pressure from members of his government and the public, St. Laurent reduced the emergency war powers of Clarence Howe, his economic planner. Not long after this incident a more severe crisis began, again involving Howe. Howe proposed the construction of a trans-Canada gas pipeline from Alberta to the St. Lawrence River, and he asked the government to pay the $80 million that was needed to begin construction. Because the project was heavily backed by U.S. private capital, a commitment from the Canadian government was sought to guarantee the investment. The debate in Parliament was long and violent, and the entire project was delayed. Desperate to get legislative approval in time to meet the construction timetable, the government moved to apply closure on debate, which would have forced a vote immediately. There was a parliamentary and public uproar, which resulted in the temporary shelving of the project.
A third crisis occurred in the fall of 1956, with the news of the invasion of Egypt by the United Kingdom and France. Canada had not been notified of Britain's plans. When St. Laurent learned of the invasion, he sent a cable to London, stating his disapproval of what he considered an immoral and irresponsible act. He did not have many followers in the Canadian Parliament, because there was strong support in Canada for Britain and France. Nevertheless, St. Laurent dispatched Pearson to the UN and gave him a free hand in trying to bring about an immediate cease-fire. Pearson's historic resolution calling for the establishment of an immediate truce and the dispatching of a UN peacekeeping force was accepted. To back up the UN decision, St. Laurent immediately made available Canadian troops, which were sent to the troubled area. Although the stand of Pearson and his government was highly acclaimed throughout the world, St. Laurent was criticized by many in his own country. He reacted to his sudden unpopularity by stating in Parliament that the era when supermen of Europe could govern the whole world was quickly coming to an end. Eventually, the wisdom of St. Laurent's position became apparent, and he regained much of the respect he had lost.
In 1956 and 1957, the cost of goods and services was increasing. Canadians were also concerned about their ability to compete in export markets as Europe's economy was becoming stable again after its postwar depression. Unemployment was also becoming a serious problem in the mid-1950s. To discourage inflation, St. Laurent's minister of finance, Walter E. Harris, fought to hold down all wage increases and reduced a much needed increase in old-age pensions. These cautious tactics proved to be unpopular and were successfully challenged by the Conservatives. In his preparation for the 1957 election, John G. Diefenbaker, the head of the Conservative opposition, launched a vigorous attack on the government for trying to implement these policies.
St. Laurent, who was then past 75, put on a surprisingly strong campaign. However, it was apparent that the ailing prime minister could not be expected to carry on for much longer. The Liberals had been in power for 21 years. Their campaign, which emphasized their past achievements, proved to be inadequate in getting votes. The election of June 10, 1957, brought the Conservatives to power, with a narrow parliamentary majority of 112 members to 105 for the Liberals. Several cabinet members advised St. Laurent to ally himself with the 25 members of the CCF, but he chose to resign. He announced his resignation as prime minister on June 21 but continued to lead the opposition Liberal Party for a few months. In January 1958 St. Laurent passed on the party leadership to Pearson, and he retired to a private law practice. He died in 1973.