Prime Minister Pearson stands up to de Gaulle
United Nations peacekeeping. Canada's first Nobel Peace Prize. The Maple Leaf flag. Official bilingualism. The Canada Pension Plan. These are a few of the achievements that can be credited to Prime Minister Lester Bowles Pearson during his 40 years in public service. But the passionate and pragmatic Pearson was also a sportsman, intellectual and war veteran who defied easy definition.
• He had fought two federal elections in three years (1963 and 1965) and managed to win only minority governments both times.
• Two years earlier he had managed to push through approval for a new Canadian flag and new national anthem despite fierce and seemingly endless debate in the House of Commons.
• In 1967 Canada was celebrating its 100th year of confederation. Pearson presided over the preparations for Expo 67 in Montreal with care, and had planned a luncheon and state dinner for de Gaulle in Ottawa.
• His plans were scuttled, however, after the French president delivered his apparently impromptu comment to a gathered crowd outside Montreal's City Hall on July 24, 1967.
• The notorious speech not only encouraged French separatists but delivered a striking insult to English Canada. De Gaulle had originally used a similar phrase, "Vive la France libre," in a radio address to Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War.
• While some French Canadians welcomed the words, the majority of English Canada were united in their disapproval of his comments.
• Opinion was divided over what the government's official response should be. Some thought that de Gaulle should be "shipped back to France" while others, including Tommy Douglas, thought Pearson shouldn't make too much of the words.
• In the end, after a heated cabinet meeting and numerous rewrites, Pearson delivered his response to de Gaulle via television and radio on July 25.
• His brief speech stopped short of expelling the president and referred only to "certain statements" that were unacceptable.
• During his speech Pearson didn't hold back when to came to defending his country, saying "the people of Canada are free. Every province of Canada is free. Canadians do not need to be liberated."
• Shortly after the speech aired de Gaulle cancelled the balance of his visit and returned to France. He had been scheduled to board a train for Ottawa the day after the Montreal speech, and was to be met by Pearson and various dignitaries.
• Pearson's original toast to de Gaulle, written in both French and English, was never delivered. A 1970 collection of his speeches and essays called Words and Occasions, shows Pearson had taken pains to address the dual French-English heritage of Canada.
• The undelivered text spoke of the "long and common history" of Canada and France, and boasted that "we have been partners and friends in peace and war."
• De Gaulle's speech was a large, but rare, smear during Canada's Centennial Year.
• Parliament received nearly 1,000 telegrams and hundreds of phone calls about the comments and an Ottawa radio station received a call from a man who claimed he had engineered a plot to kill the French president.
• Residents who lived on De Gaulle Blvd. in Ottawa even drafted a petition and had the name of their street changed.
Broadcast Date: July 25, 1967
Host: Bruce Rogers
Reporter: Peter Loucks, Stan Rantin
Last updated: May 2, 2012
Page consulted on July 24, 2014
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