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Louis St. Laurent


Louis St. Laurent

The Right Honourable
Louis St. Laurent
12th Prime Minister of Canada
In office
15 November 1948 – 21 June 1957
Monarch George VI
Elizabeth II
Governor General Viscount Alexander of Tunis
Vincent Massey
Preceded by W. L. Mackenzie King
Succeeded by John Diefenbaker
Personal details
Born Louis Stephen St-Laurent
(1882-02-01)1 February 1882
Compton, Quebec
Died 25 July 1973( 1973-07-25) (aged 91)
Quebec City, Quebec
Resting place Saint Thomas d'Aquin Cemetery, Compton, Quebec
Political party Liberal Party of Canada
Spouse(s) Jeanne Renault
Children 2 sons; 3 daughters
Alma mater St. Charles Seminary, Université Laval
Profession Lawyer
Religion Roman Catholic

Louis Stephen St. Laurent, PC, CC, QC (Saint-Laurent or St-Laurent in French, baptized Louis-Étienne St-Laurent), (1 February 1882 – 25 July 1973) was the 12th Prime Minister of Canada, from 15 November 1948 to 21 June 1957. He was a Liberal with a strong base in the Catholic francophone community, from which base he had long mobilised support to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. His foreign policy initiatives transformed Canada from an isolationism with little role in world affairs to an active "middle power." St. Laurent was an enthusiastic proponent of Canada's joining NATO in 1949 to fight Communist totalitarianism, overcoming opposition from some intellectuals, the far left, and many French Canadians.[1] The contrast with Mackenzie King was not dramatic – they agreed on most policies. St. Laurent had more hatred of communism, and less fear of the United States. He was neither an idealist nor a bookish intellectual, but a “eminently moderate, cautious conservative man....and a strong Canadian nationalist.”[2]

Early life and career

Louis St-Laurent (French pronunciation: ​) was born on 1 February 1882 in Compton, Quebec, a village in the Eastern Townships to Jean-Baptiste-Moïse Saint-Laurent, a French-Canadian, and Mary Anne Broderick, an Irish-Canadian. He grew up fluently bilingual. His English had a noticeable Irish brogue, while his gestures (such as a hunch of the shoulders) were French.[3]

He received degrees from St. Charles Seminary (B.A. 1902) and Université Laval (LL.L. 1905). He was offered, but declined, a Rhodes Scholarship upon this graduation from Laval in 1905. In 1905 he married Jeanne Renault (1886–1966) with whom he had two sons and three daughters.

St-Laurent worked as a lawyer from 1905 to 1941, also becoming a professor of law at Université Laval in 1914. St-Laurent practised corporate and constitutional law in Quebec and became one of the country's most respected counsel. He served as President of the Canadian Bar Association from 1930 to 1932.[4]

St-Laurent's father, a Compton shopkeeper, was a staunch supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada and was particularly enamoured with Sir Wilfrid Laurier. When Laurier led the Liberals to victory in the 1896 election, 14-year-old Louis relayed the election returns from the telephone in his father's store. However, while an ardent Liberal, Louis remained aloof from active politics for much of his life, focusing instead on his legal career and family. He became one of Quebec's leading lawyers and was so highly regarded that he was offered a position in the Cabinet of the Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen in 1926 and was offered a seat as a justice in the Supreme Court of Canada.

It was not until he was nearly 60 that St-Laurent finally agreed to enter politics when Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King appealed to his sense of duty in late 1941.

Member of Mackenzie King Cabinet

Minister of Justice

Following the death of his Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe, in November 1941, King was well aware of the need for the government to have a strong, well respected member of cabinet to serve as a new deputy for Quebec to help deal with the volatile conscription issue. King had been in his political infancy when he witnessed the Conscription Crisis of 1917 during World War I and he wanted to prevent the same divisions from threatening his government.

No Quebec or francophone members of King's cabinet or government were willing to step into the role, but many recommended St. Laurent to take the post instead. On these recommendations, King recruited St. Laurent to his World War II cabinet as Minister of Justice, Lapointe's old post, on 9 December. St. Laurent agreed to go to Ottawa out of a sense of duty, but only on the understanding that his foray into politics was temporary and that he would return to Quebec at the conclusion of the war. In February 1942, he won a by-election for Quebec East, Lapointe's old riding.

St-Laurent supported King's decision to introduce conscription in 1944, despite the lack of support from other French Canadians (see Conscription Crisis of 1944). His support prevented more than a handful of Quebec Liberal Members of Parliament (MPs) from leaving the party, and was therefore crucial to keeping the government and the party united.

Minister of External Affairs

King came to regard St-Laurent as his most trusted minister and natural successor. He persuaded St-Laurent that it was his duty to remain in government following the war in order to help with the construction of a post war international order and promoted him to the position of Secretary of State for External Affairs (foreign minister) in 1945, a portfolio King had previously always kept for himself. In this role, St-Laurent represented Canada at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference and San Francisco Conference that led to the founding of the United Nations (UN).

At the conferences, St-Laurent, compelled by his belief that the UN would be ineffective in times of war and armed conflict without some military means to impose its will, advocated the adoption of a UN military force. This force he proposed would be used in situations that called for both tact and might to preserve peace or prevent combat. In 1956, this idea was actualized by St-Laurent and his Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson in the development of UN Peacekeepers that helped to put an end to the Suez Crisis.

Prime Minister (1948-1957)

Louis St. Laurent, 7 August 1948

In 1948, King retired, and quietly persuaded his senior ministers to support St-Laurent's selection as the new Liberal leader at the Liberal leadership convention of August 1948. St-Laurent won, and was sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada on 15 November, making him Canada's second French-Canadian Prime Minister, after Wilfrid Laurier.

The Canadian economy was one of the strongest in the world in the period immediately following the end of the war. The prosperity lasted for more than a decade, significantly expanding the Canadian national infrastructure.[3]

In the George Drew. The Liberals won 190 seats—the most in Canadian history at the time, and still a record for the party.

His reputation as Prime Minister was impressive. He demanded hard work of all of his MPs and Ministers, and worked hard himself. He was reputed to be as knowledgeable on some ministerial portfolios as the ministers responsible themselves. To that end, Jack Pickersgill (a minister in St-Laurent's cabinet) said as prime minister St-Laurent had: "as fine an intelligence as was ever applied to the problems of government in Canada. He left it a richer, a more generous and more united country than it had been before he became prime minister."

St-Laurent led the Liberals to another powerful majority in the 1953 federal election. While the Liberals lost several seats, they still had 111 more seats than the Tories, enabling them to dominate the Canadian House of Commons.

Foreign policy

St-Laurent and his cabinet oversaw Canada's expanding international role in the postwar world. His stated desire was for Canada to occupy a social, military and economic 'middle power' role in the post-World War II world. In 1947 he identified five basic principles of Canadian foreign policy and five practical applications regarding Canada's international relations. Always highly sensitive to cleavages of language, religion and region, he stressed national unity, insisting, "that our external policies shall not destroy our unity....for a disunited Canada will be a powerless one." He also stressed political liberty and rule of law in the sense of opposition to totalitarianism.[5]

Militarily, St-Laurent was a leading proponent of the establishment of the United Nations (U.N.) in the Korean War and committed the third largest overall contribution of troops, ships and aircraft to the U.N. forces to the conflict. Troops to Korea were selected on a voluntary basis. In 1956, under his direction, St-Laurent's Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B. Pearson, helped solve the Suez Crisis in 1956 between Great Britain, France, Israel and Egypt, bringing forward St-Laurent's 1946 views on a U.N. military force in the form of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) or peacekeeping. It is widely believed that the activities directed by St-Laurent and Pearson could well have avoided a nuclear war. These actions were recognized when Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.

St-Laurent was an early supporter of British Prime Minister Head of the Commonwealth as a means of allowing India to remain in the international association once it became a republic.

Domestic policy

St-Laurent's government was modestly progressive, fiscally conservative and run with business-like efficiency. Robertson says, "St Laurent's administrations from 1949 to 1956 probably gave Canada the most consistently good, financially responsible, trouble-free government the country has had in its entire history."[7]

It took taxation surpluses no longer needed by the wartime military and paying back in full Canada's debts accrued during the World Wars and the Great Depression. With remaining revenues, St-Laurent oversaw the expansion of Canada's social programs, including the gradual expansion of social welfare programs such as family allowances, old age pensions, government funding of university and post-secondary education and an early form of Medicare termed Hospital Insurance at the time. This scheme lay the groundwork for Tommy Douglas' healthcare system in Saskatchewan, and Pearson's nationwide universal healthcare in the late 1960s. Under this legislation, the federal government paid around 50% of the cost of provincial health plans to cover "a basic range of inpatient services in acute, convalescent, and chronic hospital care." The condition for the cost-sharing agreements was that all citizens were to be entitled to these benefits, and by March 1963, 98.8 of Canadians were covered by Hospital Insurance.[8] During his last term as Prime Minister, St-Laurent's government used $100 million in death taxes to establish the Canada Council to support research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

In addition, St-Laurent modernized and established new social and industrial policies for the country during his time in the prime minister's office. Amongst these measures included the universalization of old-age pensions for all Canadians aged seventy and above (1951),[9] the introduction of old age assistance for needy Canadians aged sixty-five and above (1951),[10] the introduction of allowances for the blind (1951) and the disabled (1954),[8] amendments to the National Housing Act (1954) which provided federal government financing to non-profit organisations as well as the provinces for the renovation or construction of hostels or housing for students, the disabled, the elderly, and families on low incomes,[8] and unemployment assistance (1956) for unemployed employables on welfare who had exhausted (or did not qualify for) unemployment insurance benefits.[11]

In 1949, the former lawyer of many Supreme Court cases, St-Laurent ended the practice of appealing Canadian legal cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, making the Supreme Court of Canada the highest avenue of legal appeal available to Canadians. In that same year, St-Laurent negotiated the British North America (No. 2) Act, 1949 with Britain which 'partially patriated' the Canadian Constitution, most significantly giving the Canadian Parliament the authority to amend portions of the constitution. Also in 1949, following two referenda within the province, St-Laurent and Premier Joey Smallwood negotiated the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation.

When asked in 1949 whether he would outlaw the Communist Party in Canada, St-Laurent responded that the party posed little threat and that such measures would be drastic.[12]

In 1952, he advised Queen Elizabeth II to appoint Vincent Massey as the first Canadian-born Governor-General. Each of the aforementioned actions were and are seen as significant in furthering the cause of Canadian autonomy from Britain and developing a national identity on the international stage.

In 1956, using the Constitutional taxation authority of the federal level of government, St-Laurent's government introduced the policy of "Equalization payments" which redistributes taxation revenues between provinces to assist the poorer provinces in delivering government programs and services, a move that has been considered a strong one in solidifying the Canadian federation, particularly with his home province of Québec.

The government also engaged in massive public works and infrastructure projects such as building the Trans-Canada Highway (1949), the St. Lawrence Seaway (1954) and the Trans-Canada Pipeline. It was this last project that was to sow the seeds that led to the downfall of the St-Laurent government.

St-Laurent was initially very well received by the Canadian public, but by 1957, "Uncle Louis" (as he was sometimes referred to) began to appear tired, old and out of touch. His government was also perceived to have grown too close to business interests. The 1956 Pipeline Debate led to the widespread impression that the Liberals had grown arrogant in power. On numerous occasions, the government invoked closure in order to curtail debate and ensure that its Pipeline Bill passed by a specific deadline. St. Laurent was criticized for a lack of restraint exercised on his minister C. D. Howe, who was widely perceived as extremely arrogant. Western Canadians felt particularly alienated by the government, believing that the Liberals were kowtowing to interests in Ontario and Quebec and the United States. (The opposition accused the government of accepting overly costly contracts that could never be completed on schedule. In the end, the pipeline was completed early and under budget.) The pipeline conflict turned out to be meaningless, insofar as the construction work was concerned, since pipe could not be obtained in 1956 from a striking American factory, and no work could have been done that year.[3] The uproar in Parliament regarding the pipeline had a lasting impression on the electorate, and was a decisive factor in the Liberal government's 1957 defeat at the hands of the PCs, led by John Diefenbaker, in the 1957 election. Because the Liberals were still mostly classically liberal, Diefenbaker promised to outspend the incumbent Liberals, who campaigned on plans to stay the course of fiscal conservatism they had followed through St-Laurent's term in the 1940s and 1950s.

St-Laurent was the first Prime Minister to live in the present official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada: 24 Sussex Drive, from 1951 to 1957, the end of his term in office.

CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, Heavy Icebreaker

Defeat in the 1957 election

By 1957 St. Laurent was 75 years old and tired. His party had been in power for 22 years, and by this time had accumulated too many factions and alienated too many groups. He was ready to retire, but was persuaded to fight one last campaign.[13] In the 1957 election, the Liberals won 200,000 more votes nationwide than the Progressive Conservatives (40.75% Liberals to 38.81% PC). However, most of those votes were wasted with huge majorities in Quebec. Largely due to dominating the rest of the country, the Conservatives took the greatest number of seats with 112 seats (42% of the House) to the Liberals' 104 (39.2%). Some ministers wanted St. Laurent to stay on and offer to form a minority government, arguing that the popular vote had supported them and the party's long years of experience would make them a more effective minority.

Another option circulated within the party saw the balance of power to be held by either the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and their 25 seats or Social Credit Party of Canada with their 15 seats. St-Laurent was encouraged by others to reach out to the CCF and at least four of six independent/small party MPs to form a coalition majority government, which would have held 134 of the 265 seats in Parliament—50.1% of the total. St. Laurent, however, had no desire to stay in office; he believed that the nation had passed a verdict against his government and his party. In any case, the CCF and Socreds had pledged to cooperate with a Tory government. It was very likely that St. Laurent would have been defeated on the floor of the House had he tried to stay in power with a minority government, and would not have stayed in office for long even if he survived that confidence vote. With this in mind, St. Laurent resigned on 21 June 1957—ending the longest uninterrupted run in government for a party at the federal level in Canadian history.[14]

Supreme Court appointments

Statue on grounds of Supreme Court of Canada

St-Laurent chose the following jurists to be appointed as justices of the Supreme Court of Canada by the Governor General:


201 Grande-Allée, residence of St-Laurent in Quebec City for sixty years

After a short period as Leader of the Opposition and now more than 75 years old, St- Laurent's motivation to be involved in politics was gone. He announced his intention to retire from politics. St-Laurent was succeeded as Liberal Party leader by his former Secretary of State for External Affairs and representative at the United Nations, Lester B. Pearson, at the party's leadership convention in 1958.

After his political retirement, he returned to practising law and living quietly and privately with his family. During his retirement, he was called into the public spotlight one final time in 1967 to made a Companion of the Order of Canada, a newly created award.

Louis Stephen St-Laurent died from natural causes on 25 July 1973, in Quebec City, Quebec, aged 91 and laid to rest at Saint Thomas d'Aquin Cemetery in his hometown of Compton, Quebec.[15] He is survived by granddaughter Louise Mignault and grandson Louis St-Laurent II.

St. Laurent was ranked #4 on a survey of the first 20 prime ministers (through Jean Chrétien) of Canada done by Canadian historians, and used by J. L. Granatstein and Norman Hillmer in their book Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders.

The house and grounds in Compton where St. Laurent was born were designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1973.[16] St. Laurent's residence at 201 Grande-Allée Est in Quebec City is protected as a Recognized Federal Heritage Building.[17]

Order of Canada citation

St. Laurent was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada on 6 July 1967. His citation reads:[18]

Former Prime Minister of Canada. For his service to his country.

See also


  1. ^ James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada: volume 4: Growing Up Allied (1980) pp 54-62
  2. ^ Donald Creighton, The Forked Road: Canada 1939-1957 (1976) 159
  3. ^ a b c Mr. Prime Minister 1867-1964, by Bruce Hutchison, Toronto 1964, Longmans Canada publishers.
  4. ^ Canadian Bar Association: Past CBA Presidents
  5. ^ Hector Mackenzie, "Shades of Gray? 'The Foundations of Canadian Policy in World Affairs' in Context," American Review of Canadian Studies (2007) 37#4 pp 459-473.
  6. ^ James Eayrs, In Defence of Canada: volume 4: Growing Up Allied (1980) pp 58-62
  7. ^ Gordon Robertson (2000). Memoirs of a Very Civil Servant: Mackenzie King to Pierre Trudeau. U of Toronto Press. p. 100.  
  8. ^ a b c The emergence of social security in Canada by Dennis Guest
  9. ^ Gray agendas: interest groups and public pensions in Canada, Britain, and the United States by Henry J. Pratt
  10. ^ Facts of life: the social construction of vital statistics, Ontario, 1869-1952 by George Neil Emery
  11. ^ In pursuit of the public good: essays in honour of Allan J. MacEachen by Tom Kent and Allan J. MacEachen
  12. ^
  13. ^ Patricia I. McMahon (2009). Essence of Indecision: Diefenbaker's Nuclear Policy, 1957-1963. MQUP. p. 7.  
  14. ^ McMahon (2009). Essence of Indecision: Diefenbaker's Nuclear Policy, 1957-1963. p. 8.  
  15. ^ "Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada - Former Prime Ministers and Their Grave Sites - The Right Honourable Louis Stephen St. Laurent". Parks Canada. Government of Canada. 20 December 2010. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  16. ^ Louis S. St. Laurent National Historic Site of Canada. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  17. ^ Louis S. St-Laurent House. Canadian Register of Historic Places. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
  18. ^


  • Granatstein, J.L. and Norman Hillmer. Prime Ministers: Ranking Canada's Leaders (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1999), pp. 114–126. ISBN 0-00-200027-X.
  • Mackenzie, Hector. "Shades of Gray? 'The Foundations of Canadian Policy in World Affairs' in Context," American Review of Canadian Studies (2007) 37#4 pp 459–473. online
  • Thompson, Dale C. Louis St. Laurent: Canadian (Toronto, Macmillan Canada, 1967)
  • Thompson, Dale C. "The Political Ideas of Louis St. Laurent," in Marcel Hamelin, ed. The Political Ideas of the Prime Ministers of Canada (1969) 139-153

Primary sources

  • J. W. Pickersgill. My years with Louis St. Laurent: a political memoir by J. W. Pickersgill (1975)

External links

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