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Reflecting on 60th anniversary of Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize

As Canada looks to reclaim a prominent role in peacekeeping, we can look to the example of Lester B. Pearson, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway 60 years ago this month. 

Pearson was awarded the 1957 Nobel for his contribution in defusing the Suez Canal crisis. In his capacity then as Canada’s Minister of External Affairs and Representative to the United Nations (UN), he initiated a resolution for the establishment of the UN Emergency Force — the first large-scale international peacekeeping mission in a conflict zone, and a foundation for the establishment of the modern-day Blue Berets. 

His contribution to international peacekeeping, and the recognition that came with the peace prize, launched Canada’s reputation as a major contributor to UN peacekeeping and a leader in conflict resolution. Over the years, our self-image as a global peacekeeper has grown larger than the “boots on the ground” would warrant. But peacekeeping today is more than that and it is appropriate to recalibrate Canada’s contribution to the UN and global relations. 

It is unlikely that Canada will ever return to its leadership position as an international peacekeeper, at least not in the conventional sense of material contributions to peacekeeping operations. The situation has changed significantly since 1957, not just in terms of the types and severity of conflicts, but also in the much enlarged capacity and willingness of some UN member countries to contribute to peacekeeping operations. 

That is why the significance for Canada of Lester Pearson’s Nobel lecture on Dec. 11, 1957 rests not so much on his advocacy of UN peacekeeping, but on his broader ideas about peacemaking in the world. Entitled the “Four Faces of Peace,” Pearson’s lecture rings true even today. His warning also against erecting trade barriers is as relevant now as it was in the late ’50s.

“ … Excessive economic nationalism, erecting its reactionary barriers to the international division of labour, is far more anomalous and irrational now than it was when the enlightened minds of the nineteenth century preached against it …”

He was a champion of diplomacy in resolving international conflicts, not based on a naive belief in its efficacy, but from a sober recognition that the alternatives were too wretched to contemplate. He was referring to the Cold War in his Oslo speech, but are circumstances today — with nuclear weapons under the control of rogue leaders — much different?

“What is needed is a new and vigorous determination to use every technique of discussion and negotiation that may be available, or, more important, that can be made available, for the solution of the tangled, frightening problems that divide today, in fear and hostility, the two power blocks and thereby endanger peace.”

Yet, even diplomacy is not enough. Pearson recognized that lasting peace is not about patched-over differences and grudging compromises; it is about the mutual empathy that comes with a deep understanding of the other side and the long- term investment that has to go into developing such mutual understanding.

In his Nobel lecture, he said, “How can there be peace without people understanding each other, and how can this be if they don’t know each other?”

These lines inspired what is arguably one of the former prime minister’s most enduring legacies, Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific in Victoria. Opened in 1974, and the only United World College in Canada, Pearson and its 16 fellow UWCs worldwide bring together students from over 100 countries for a rigorous two-year program that is explicitly modelled on the notion of education as a force for peace. It is Canada’s school for the world and, in many ways, bringing young people from across the globe together in their formative years is a contribution to peace-building that is as important as sending peacekeepers to conflict zones.

If Canada is to reinvent its role in international peacekeeping and global affairs, a good place to start would be a re-reading of our former prime minister’s Nobel Peace Prize speech. There are indeed multiple faces of peace, and Canada should look to all of them.

Published in the Vancouver Sun