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The era that died in 1957 « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

The era that died in 1957

There was much pathos to the few months in which I could watch Louis St. Laurent closely. It was in the minority parliament of 1957.

Until Mr. Pearson was chosen Liberal leader three months into that session, Mr. St. Laurent was leader of the Opposition.

Daily, dutifully, he sat, almost immobile in his House seat through questions and debate while all the excitement and focus was around the new savior, John Diefenbaker. What kept Mr. St. Laurent himself from being pathetic was his courtesy and his dignity.
All of us sensed that he brooded about his responsibility for the end of the Liberal golden age. Reporters rarely bothered him. They were excited by the topical and the immediate future.

When Mr. Pearson replaced Mr. St. Laurent, and was almost immediately dished by an election call, Mr. St. Laurent disappeared from Ottawa. His death, l5 years later, does not mark the end of any era. The era ended in 1957 an era of stability and assured majority government. An era when government leaders seemed above most of the tumult and prying.

Respect existed then for a leading politician’s privacy. There was hardly any of today’s disrespect abroad for his declared motives and positions. Behind the massive and dutiful obituaries I sense little nostalgia for that era or any broad appreciation of Mr. St. Laurent’s merits and achievements.

It seems obvious to me that there is a pervasive disinterest in our history, even in the recent past. Turnover and attrition have almost erased the politicians, party workers and the press people of the 50s. Our politics are busier, more strident, nastier, frenetic and complex. There’s precious little optimism that the national concensus of the 1945-57 period is to have a resurrection. Thus the surge of recall will vanish with the interment of this most considerate gentleman.

Such assertions as I have just given keep my own gorge down over what the honorable Jack Pickersgill keeps reiterating. This long-time servant of Mackenzie King and ministerial confrere of St. Laurent and Pearson is the best proponent of the Grit interpretation of Canadian history.

The core of the Grit interpretation goes like this. The innate capacities of the Liberals have been sound, proven administrative genius and overriding sense of responsibility towards the key Canadian problem – national unity.

No other party has had the men, the brains and the right attitudes to run the country competently or to keep it together.

From colony to nation; from a primitive economy to today’s rich diversity; from a small, patronage-ridden administration to the grand welfare state; to Canada as a world power . . . it has been a long Grit story.

A critic like myself would cavil more over this interpretation if it had more influence. In fact, the national unity theme so dear to Mr. St. Laurent, has been bypassed by events. As Claude Ryan, of Le Devoir, has put it: Duplessis’ ideas on Quebec’s distinctiveness and autonomy have eclipsed the St. Laurent conception of national unity. Indeed, all the substantial provinces today have stances and initiatives which seem outrageous in the 1945-1957 context.

More important – and this despite l0 years of further Grit government – the historical mission of the Liberal Party draws small current interest and seems to have little relevance. Its continuity and significance was shattered in 1957. Minority parliaments reflect this. So does the mammoth disinterest of younger Canadians in the past. Who really cares in the politics of today about the pipeline debate or Suez or the equalization formula of 1956?

Source: BY DOUGLAS FISHER, TORONTO SUN

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