Louis St. Laurent

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Louis Stephen St. Laurent
Order: 12th
Term: November 15,1948
June 21,1957
Predecessor: Mackenzie King
Successor: John Diefenbaker
Date of Birth: February 1, 1882
Place of Birth: Compton, Quebec
Spouse: Jeanne Renault
Profession: lawyer
Political Party: Liberal Party of Canada

Louis Stephen St. Laurent CC, PC (Saint-Laurent or St-Laurent in French) (February 1, 1882July 25, 1973) was the twelfth Prime Minister of Canada from November 15, 1948 to June 21, 1957.



He was born in Compton in Quebec's Eastern Townships to a French-Canadian father and Irish mother and grew up fluently bilingual.

Education and marriage

He received degrees from St. Charles Seminary (B.A. 1902) and Laval University (LL.L. 1905). He was offered, but declined, a Rhodes Scholarship upon this graduation from McGill in 1905. In 1908 he married Jeanne Renault (1886-1966) with whom he had two sons and three daughters.

Legal career

St. Laurent worked as a lawyer from 1905 to 1914, at which point he became a professor of law at Laval University. St. Laurent practised corporate and constitutional law in Québec and became one of the country's most respected counsels. He served as President of the Canadian Bar Association from 1930 to 1932.

Involvement in Liberal politics

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. Louis St. Laurent inherited his father's political affiliations but, while a Liberal supporter, remained aloof from active politics for much of his life focussing 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 eloquent Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Meighen in 1926.

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.

Appointment to the Mackenzie Cabinet

Needing strong ministers from Quebec, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King recruited St. Laurent to his wartime Cabinet as Minister of Justice following the death of his Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe. St Laurent agreed to go to Ottawa on the understanding that his foray into politics was temporary and that he would return to Quebec at the conclusion of the war.

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.

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 in 1945, a portfolio King had previously always kept for himself. In this role, he represented Canada at the Dunbarton 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 put an end to the Suez Crisis.

Party leadership

As he saw the end of his own tenure as leader of the Liberal Party approaching, King persuaded St. Laurent that it was his duty to succeed himself as party leader and prime minister to ensure the unity of the party and country. It would also maintain the Liberal Party's tradition of alternating between anglophone and francophone leaders.

As prime minister

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 became leader of the Liberal party and Prime Minister of Canada.

In the 1949 federal election that followed his ascension to the Liberal leadership many wondered, including Liberal party insiders, if this shy, reserved, dignified, grandfatherly man would appeal to the post-war populace of Canada. On the campaign trail, St. Laurent's image was developed into somewhat of a 'character' and what is considered to be the first 'media image' to be used in Canadian politics. St. Laurent chatted with children, gave speeches in his shirt sleeves, and had a 'common touch' that turned out to be appealling to voters. At one event during the 1949 election campaign, he disembarked his train and gravitated to, and began chatting with, a group of children on the platform. A reporter submitted an article entitled "'Uncle Louis' can't lose!" and earned him the nickname "Uncle Louis" in the media. With this common touch and appeal, he subsequently led the party to victory in the election against the Progressive Conservative Party led by George Drew.

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.

Foreign policy

St. Laurent and his cabinet oversaw Canada's expanding international role in the postwar world. Canada supported the United Nations in the Korean War and committed troops, ships and aircraft to the conflict. Troops to Korea were selected on a voluntary basis, thus avoiding the French-English conflict that had plagued Canada's contribution to the two World Wars.

Under his leadership the country also proposed, helped establish and joined the North Atlantic treaty Organization in 1949, marking a departure from King who had been reticent about joining a military alliance. St. Laurent was an early supporter of British Prime Minister Clement Atlee's proposal to transform the British Commonwealth from a club of white dominions into a multi-racial partnership. The leaders of the other "white dominions" were less than enthusiastic. It was St. Laurent who proposed the formula of recognizing King George VI as Head of the Commonwealth as a means of allowing India to remain in the international association once it became a republic.

Lester Bowles Pearson, St. Laurent's Secretary of State for External Affairs, helped solve the Suez Crisis in 1956, bringing forward St. Laurent's 1946 views on a UN military force in the form of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) or Peacekeeping for which Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Domestic policy

St. Laurent's government was modestly progressive and fiscally conservative, taking taxation surplusses no longer needed by the wartime military and paying back Canada's debts accrued during World War II. With remaining revenues, St. Laurent oversaw the expansion of Canada's social programs, including establishment of the Canada Council to support the arts, and the gradual expansion of social welfare programs such as family allowances, old age pensions and an early form of Medicare (Canada) termed 'Hospital Insurance' at the time, that lay the groundwork for Pearson's universal healthcare in the 1960s.

In 1956, using the Constitutional taxation authority of the federal level of government, St. Laurent's government introduced the policy of "Equalization payments" which redistribute taxation revenues between provinces to assist the poorer provinces in delivering government programs and services. 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" and his government began to appear tired, old and out of touch. The government was percieved 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 when the government invoked closure on numerous occasions in order to curtail debate and ensure that its Pipeline Bill passed by a specific deadline. Western Canadians felt particularly alienated by the government, believing that the Liberals were kowtowing to interests in Ontario and Quebec. The ensuing uproar in Parliament had a lasting impression on the electorate, and was a decisive factor in the Liberal government's defeat at the hands of John George Diefenbaker in the 1957 election. Diefenbaker, the conservative, 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.

Defeat in the 1957 Election

The defeat in the 1957 was marked by controversy within the Liberal party and the Parliament. The Liberals had actually won more popular support (actual votes cast) than the Progressive Conservatives (40.75% Liberals to 38.81% PC), but the Conservatives took the greatest number of seats with 112 PC candidates elected to serve out of the House of Commons 265 seats (42% of the House). The Liberals took 104 seats (39.2%). Some ministers wanted St. Laurent to stay on and offer to form a minority government, following the logic that the popular vote had supported them and even though their Parliamentary minority was smaller than the Conservatives, the Liberals more recent governmental 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 Canadian Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and their 25 seats or Social Credit Party of Canada with their 15. St. Laurent was encouraged by others to reach out to the CCF and at least 4 of 6 independent/small party MPs to form a coalition majority government, which would have held 134 of the 265 or 50.1% of the seats in Parliament. St. Laurent, however, decided that the nation had passed a verdict against his government and his party and he resigned as Prime Minister rather than be seen as clinging to office.


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, and he announced his intention to retire from politics and as Liberal leader. St. Laurent was succeeded as Liberal Party Leader by his former Secretary of State for External Affairs and representative at the United Nations, Lester 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 in the public spotlight one final time in 1967 on the inception of the award, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada the highest civilian honour for which Canadians are eligible.

Louis Stephen St. Laurent died on July 25, 1973, in Quebec City, Quebec and was laid to rest at St. Thomas Aquinas Cemetery in his hometown of Compton, Quebec.

External links

Preceded by:
Mackenzie King
Prime Minister of Canada
Succeeded by:
John Diefenbaker
Preceded by:
William Lyon Mackenzie King
Liberal Leader
Succeeded by:
Lester Pearson

Template:End box Template:CanPMpl:Louis St. Laurent pt:Louis St. Laurent


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