8 Lester B. Pearson’s Response to Quebec Separatism

Corey Safinuk


Since before the Confederation in 1867 Francophone-Anglophone relations have been a troubling issue in Canada. The Anglophone population of Canada outpaced their French-speaking counterparts by the 1850s, aided largely by the arrival of British Loyalists following the American Revolution in 1776. As they became a minority in British North America, the Francophone population came to view numerical disparity as a political and existential threat.[1] As a defence mechanism, Quebec turned increasingly inward, believing that it could protect its culture and distinct identity by embracing Catholicism, the French language, and a rural way of life. It frequently rejected much of what was happening in the rest of Canada and lamented that when its interests and objectives conflicted with English-speaking Canada, it was ignored, even by the federal government. In the period following the Second World War, Quebec underwent a significant transformation, generally referred to as the Quiet Revolution. The transformation led to demands for greater powers with the Canadian federation to manage its own affairs and then, by the 1960s, to an increasing demand for separation. It was a development that L.B. Pearson, Canada’s 14th Prime Minister, could not avoid.

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Toronto History, Lester Pearson at election campaign event. 9 May 1962

Toronto History, Lester Pearson at election campaign event. 9 May 1962

In his memoirs, Mike: The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson, Pearson describes the issue of national unity as “the most important issue of [his] career.”[2] There were several key issues that Pearson faced while attempting to bridge the gap between Quebec and Ottawa. Although Pearson’s efforts to provide representation for the French language seemed to be a clear effort towards solving the issue, many in Quebec viewed the new federal pension program as a federal overstep. Pearson’s efforts with the Fulton-Favreau Formula for repatriating the constitution were blocked by the Quebec government, and Quebec’s attempts to establish its own presence, threatened to split the nation apart. Add to this the actions of the terrorist movement, the Front de Libération du Québec which was formed in 1963, and it is easy to see why Pearson considered national unity to be so important. Pearson spent much of his career working as a diplomat and, undoubtedly, developed a talent for finding the middle ground between two conflicting sides.[3] Those issues — and how Pearson responded to and addressed them — provide a clear example of Pearson’s approach to a crisis.

Pearson went to considerable effort to promote the French language in Canada. This can be seen even before he was elected as prime minister. In a speech in December 1962, in the House of Commons, he argued that from the very confederation of Canada there was a misunderstanding between Francophones and Anglophones. He believed that French-speaking Canadians looked at Confederation as the creation of a bilingual Canada, but the Anglophones instead considered it an English-speaking Canada with a bilingual Quebec.[4] This lack of understanding of the importance in Quebec of the French language among English-speaking Canadians was what Pearson believed to be one of the issues plaguing Francophone-Anglophone relations. The misunderstanding had been the cause of such issues as the Manitoba Schools crisis and the tensions faced in Quebec during the First World War over conscription. Here, even before his election as Prime Minister, Pearson demonstrated his belief that Quebec and French-speaking Canadians were being treated unfairly and he believed certain compromises were needed by English-speaking Canada to improve relations between Anglophones and Francophones. He emphasized this point in his speech when he said: “The answer also depends, and I believe in greater degree, on English-speaking Canadians because we are in the majority. In managerial levels in industry, for instance, and in the federal public services, it is the English-speaking Canadians who must accept the changes which are required to make a reality of full partnership.”[5]

Such an attitude permeated Pearson’s approach throughout his time as Prime Minister. In his memoirs, Pearson described how, at the very first cabinet meeting of his government. he allowed any Minister who wished to speak in French to do so without fear of being misunderstood.[6] Such a step was an indicator of his willingness to accommodate Francophones both in his government and throughout the nation as a whole. Furthermore, Pearson emphasized the importance of the French language and encouraged its use throughout the federal government. It was encouraged in caucus and in the House of Commons, and Pearson even gave several broadcasts in French. Besides promoting French in the federal government, Pearson also expressed his concern over the lack of French education, summing it up in Words and Occasions to his own education in. His statement that, “II est deplorable qu’au Canada chaque enfant d’age scolaire n’ait pas au moins la possibilite d’apprendre la langue maternelle de pres du tiers de notre population” was succinct and eloquent.[7] By making use of his own deficiency in the French language, he argued for a more bilingual education and, therefore, for a more bilingual Canada.

While it was important to Pearson to show respect and offer dignity to French-speaking Canadians, he was careful to not alienate English-speaking Canadians. Some of his statements and actions in consideration of Quebec and its people caused tension among the rest of the Canadian population. They began to worry that Pearson was asserting Quebec’s interests and beliefs over that of the rest of Canada. Pearson responded to these concerns with confidence and patience. In a letter sent to a concerned citizen in April 1964, he wrote, “I have not and will not make any concessions to Quebec… which I do not feel are justified… Quebec [has] certain rights and privileges which are guaranteed by our constitution… this is not appeasement, but justice.[8] In those words, Pearson was expressing his understanding of Francophone-Anglophone relations. His concession towards the French language and the Quebec government were not an effort to promote the French language or the province of Quebec over the English language and the rest of Canada, but instead to provide them the just treatment long withheld from a member of the Canadian federation.

The most obvious example of Pearson’s efforts to respect the right of Francophones to promote and use the French language and culture was the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Pearson established the Commission in July 1963 to look into bilingualism and ciculturalism across Canada. The Commissions broad purpose was to thoroughly examine relations between “Canada’s two main language groups, with the purpose of recommending measures to establish a better relationship for the future.”[9] Chaired by Andre Laurendeau and Davidson Dunton and staffed by academics and experts, it was not until 1970 that the Commission issued its final report. In the meantime, the Commission undertook years of hard work and faced considerable opposition throughout. Some claimed that the existence of the Commission itself would create additional problems rather than offering solutions to the crisis of Canadian unity. The preliminary report, submitted by the commission in 1964, pointed towards the time and effort required to complete such a project. It also expanded the goals of the Commission, stating that it would be looking not only at the French language and culture “but also with the problems arising from the existence in Canada of two distinct societies, each with its own culture, linguistic majority, and the power to break up the country.[10]

The Commission continued its work and finally published its report in six books, most of which were released after Pearson had already left office.[11] The publication of the report led to Pierre Trudeau’s adoption of Canada’s multiculturalism policy[12]. The Commission recommended widespread changes throughout Canada with the most notable being in education initiatives adopted across the country as well as New Brunswick declaring itself officially bilingual. The report laid the foundation for bilingualism, as well as multiculturalism across Canada, and it served as proof that Pearson believed in equalising the relationship between the French and English languages and those who spoke it. Even though the effects of the Commission would not be implemented until after Pearson had left the office, the fact that Pearson appointed it almost immediately after assuming power, suggests Pearson’s commitment to national unity and resolving the animosities between the Francophone and Anglophone populations of Canada.

Despite Pearson’s efforts at promoting the French language and Francophone culture, the movement for Quebec nationalism and provincial autonomy continued to grow. That is evident in Quebec’s objections to Pearson’s proposed pension program, introduced in 1964. Pearson presented the plan to the provinces where it ran into serious trouble. The Premier of Ontario, John Robarts, made several objections to the plan at the federal-provincial conference in September 1963, and it had to be redrafted to take these into account. When Premier Jean Lesage of Quebec suggested that the next conference be held in Quebec City in late March, the federal government did not object. Jean Lesage had seemed cooperative at the September conference and being a Liberal himself had worked with Pearson for years before. They were even “cabinet colleague[s]” between 1953 and 1957[13].

However, the confidence of the federal government crumbled once Lesage presented his demands for the pension scheme. The provincial government of Quebec demanded widespread changes including collection of 25 percent of federal income tax, millions more in assistance from the federal government, and that Quebec be allowed to have its own separate pension plan.[14] This drastic change in relationship was part of a growing trend of Quebec nationalism from Lesage – to have greater autonomy for the Quebec provincial government within the federal arrangement. It is unclear as to whether the Quebec Premier adopted new beliefs of Quebec nationalism himself, or whether he was instead put under growing pressure by separatists both in and out of his government to adopt a harsher relationship with Ottawa.[15] Nevertheless, the result is the same: Jean Lesage and his provincial government could no longer be counted on to support Pearson and the federal government, especially if Pearson’s plans were to further centralize power in Ottawa. Despite this, Pearson and Lesage maintained an amicable relationship. They would meet up during their vacations and, in January 1965, Pearson even offered Lesage his pick of a cabinet position if he joined Pearson in his government in Ottawa.[16] Lesage declined, insisting he could not abandon Quebec, but the offer stands as evidence of Pearson’s dedication to reconciling with Quebec.

The objection to the pension program was part of not just the issue of Francophone-Anglophone relations but also an example of a continuous push by the provinces, especially Quebec, against Ottawa attempting to strengthen federalism. Matters of jurisdiction like this are a part of any nation, but in Canada, and especially in reference to Quebec, they have played a critical role. Quebec has a long history of fighting with the federal government over jurisdiction, as it believed that Quebec should be able to use its provincial powers to protect and promote its own distinct society. This created conflict between Quebec and Pearson’s government over the funding of higher education when the Prime Minister and his government attempted to address the growing expense of higher education with scholarships and grants. Quebec pushed back on such federal intrusion, considering the application of funding by the federal government a direct interference in education, which had always been under provincial jurisdiction.[17] Quebecs objections to the pension program and to funding higher education brought the issue of jurisdiction to national attention, and as Pearson would later say in reference to the disagreements between the federal and Quebec governments, “There was danger of a real rift.”[18]

Pearson was encouraged by those in his own government to go ahead with the pension plan in spite of the objections raised by Quebec but he decided to seek a compromise rather than risk a permanent split and further fracturing the country. Pearson met with Lesage in Quebec. The discussions were off-the-record, but Pearson describes them in his memoirs as “frank to the point of brutality.”[19] In the end the two sides were able to reconcile by making modifications to the pension plans so that they were almost equal in effect while still allowing Quebec control over its own pension scheme. Further, an opting-out plan was implemented for some of the other shared-cost programs that Pearson considered, allowing Quebec to pick and choose from these programs. These concessions show, once again, that Pearson was willing to compromise with the Quebec government if it meant preserving national unity. Even when others from many quarters, including within his own government encouraged him to ignore Quebec, he still chose to meet with Lesage directly and find middle ground that would leave both sides, if not entirely thrilled, at least sufficiently mollified.

Pearson was well suited to finding compromise, and this can be seen in his reaction to Quebec’s demands on a variety of issues and to how he navigated the complex world of Canadian federalism. Pearson believed that the federal government needed the tools to act in the nation’s interest and such protection of the consolidation of power in Ottawa when he felt it was necessary could see him labeled as a centralist. In his memoirs, he describes his view on centralization as one of need.[20] However, when faced with growing pressure from Quebec to preserve its own rights and powers, Pearson was accommodating. He was firmly under the impression that forcing Quebec into line would not strengthen the nation but rather weaken it. Instead, he adopted a policy of Co-operative Federalism wherein the provinces would participate with the federal government in shared efforts at time, and in other instances tailor their participation to meet both federal and provincial objectives. Pearson demonstrated that loyalty to one’s province and culture could coexist with loyalty to the nation. A person could be entirely loyal to Quebec and through the embrace of co-operative federalism, demonstrate their loyalty to Canada. This is demonstrated in his actions regarding the Canadian Pension Plan. When presented with a superior plan by Quebec, rather than ignore it and forge ahead, Pearson used the Quebec plan to improve what the policy he wanted for all Canadians.

Pearson’s term in office was ambitious, but he was hampered by the fact that his government was a minority in both his terms and he was not able to accomplish several of his goals. Several of these unaccomplished goals were halted due to a lack of cooperation with Quebec with perhaps the most obvious example being the patriation of the constitution. The British North America Act was created in a time when Canada was far from truly independent of the British Empire, but since the World Wars Canada had won greater autonomy from Britain. The fact that the constitution was technically an act of the British parliament was something that Pearson believed he could change.[21]

The Fulton-Favreau Formula was not the first attempt by the Canadian government to patriate the constitution, but it was one attempt that seemed like it would finally succeed. It was co-authored by a Conservative and a Liberal, and when it was presented at the Charlottetown federal-provincial conference in 1964, Pearson believed that they had finally found a solution to the long-running problem of Canada’s inability to change its constitution without the involvement of the British government. Pearson spoke to the premiers at the conference about the need to patriate the constitution, saying “we must acknowledge the strains imposed by our times on the national structure bequeathed to us; we must acknowledge them without being daunted by them. We must define them. And remove them.”[22] It is evident that the repatriation was something Pearson believed essential to continued political growth for Canada, but it was not something that he alone could accomplish.

Jean Lesage made a commitment during this conference to have the formula approved during the 1964 Charlottetown conference along with the other premiers. Despite his commitment, one year later Lesage expressed his concerns with the formula to Pearson during a holiday in Florida. Lesage said that while there was strong opposition to it in the government of Quebec, he was still hopeful of finding approval for the formula in Québec.[23] By 1966, however, Lesage had all but abandoned the Fulton-Favreau Formula. The government of Quebec could not pass the formula and Lesage placed blame on the two houses of the Quebecois government.[24] While the agreement might have received enough support in the Legislative Assembly, the Upper House had an opposition majority. Lesage attempted to remove this second house from the government of Quebec but was defeated in a general election before it could be achieved. With the withdrawal of Quebec from the constitutional process, patriation was not achieved. Pearson held back from expressing publicly his dismay towards Lesage, but from how Pearson spoke of the necessity of passing the Fulton-Favreau Formula this failure must have been discouraging. The repatriation was finally passed by Pierre Trudeau and only in 1982. Trudeau, much like Pearson, ran into trouble with Quebec when attempting to repatriate the constitution. Trudeau’s methods involved an aggressive stance against the government of Quebec, which was quite unlike Pearson’s more conciliatory and accommodative approach. If Pearson had chosen a more aggressive stance towards national unity and the Fulton-Favreau Formula, it is possible that it might have been passed, but in exchange for pushing it through relations with Quebec might have worsened. This is the third example presented of Pearson’s willingness to compromise and find a middle ground when faced with a crisis. At times that approach resulted in failure to solve a pressing issues but perhaps it helped to maintain national unity.

Throughout the national unity crisis during Pearson’s tenure at prime minister, there was not only political tension, but also violence and political extremism perpetuated by Quebec separatists. The Front de Libération du Québec or FQL was an extremist movement dedicated to Quebec independence from Canada. This insurgency began shortly before Pearson became Liberal leader and Prime Minister and would continue after he left office. FLQ actions were instigated against federal buildings and officials and, while not as lethal as other more infamous terrorism movements elsewhere around the world, would still result in five deaths and a great number of injuries.[25] The first attack occurred on the 7 March 1963, when four youths spray painted a wall and threw an incendiary device at the Royal Montreal Regiment Armoury. Many of the attacks that followed were similar and mostly involved bombings, but with a notable exception, discussed in further detail in the following chapter on the 1970 October Crisis. In total the FLQ committed more than 200 violent acts. While many of these attacks were directed at the federal government and its agencies, police and government response was left to Quebec. The RCMP was involved in investigations of FLQ attacks and during the 1970 crisis the army was called in to support, but Pearson did not consider this movement to be a serious consideration while he was in office. In his memoirs Pearson mentioned the actions of the FLQ only briefly, and even then, he chose to focus on the October Crisis of 1970 and Trudeau’s response rather than any actions he or his government took.[26] Pearson’s reflections on this affair are indicative of his policy towards Quebec. Where possible, Pearson gave Quebec the freedom to manage their own affairs. Only when the decisions made by Quebec threatened the stability of the nation, was he willing to step in directly.

There were some issues, however, where Pearson could not and would not compromise. The efforts by the government of Quebec to present itself as partner to Canada on the international stage was one such issue. As part of the growing Quebec nationalist movement, Quebec had begun reaching out to other nations, independently from the federal government. The ability to conduct negotiations and arrange agreements with other nations is one of the criteria that defines a nation. The recognition from foreign powers that a state is separate from any other and is regarded as an equal is how people are able to define a state as a nation instead of only being a part of a nation. This idea is one that Pearson understood and he saw clearly the threat posed by allowing Quebec to be seen as separate from Canada on the international stage.[27]

The Quebec government’s move towards international relations was followed both by Jean Lesage and his successor, a more extreme Quebec nationalist, Daniel Johnson.[28] The primary interest internationally for Quebec centered around French-speaking nations throughout the world with France itself playing a major role. Quebec sent delegations to Paris, an act that Pearson believed was not unusual in and of itself. What Pearson did not agree with was the Quebec delegation signing international treaties as if it was its own separate state. When Gabon, a French-speaking nation, called an international conference in 1968, it invited Quebec to attend as a separate or independent entity. Pearson and his government were angered by that invitation and suspended their relations with Gabon in response. Pearson was well aware of the risks being posed by such international arrangements. In his memoirs he states in no uncertain terms that “two political nations cannot exist within one country.”[29] Here is found the breaking point for Pearson’s compromises. He would not allow Quebec to present itself as an international entity, and this fact would cause tension with France and its leader Charles De Gaulle.

Relations with France and De Gaulle started off rather promisingly for Pearson. In 1964 Pearson travelled to Paris to meet with the French leadership directly. Pearson had promised to visit Paris and London during the 1963 election, but he had been delayed by other affairs. Despite this delay the meeting between Pearson and Charles De Gaulle during this trip went, in Pearson’s opinion, quite well.[30] However, relations between France and Canada deteriorated sharply. De Gaulle and Pearson clashed on several points of international affairs ranging from the purchase of American rather than French airliners,[31] Canada’s refusal to sell uranium to France without conditions,[32] and many other direct insults and military withdrawals.

De Gaulle’s belief in a “grand dessin[33] for Europe following the Second World War meant that he opposed American influence in Europe and believed that Canada was firmly under American sway. De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO military arrangements in March 1966 and, as part of such a decision, Canadian forces stationed in France were forced to leave.[34] This decision caused tension and was seen as an insult by many Canadians, including Pearson himself. To further aggravate this insult, the French government refused to participate directly in the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a battle that played a large role in defining Canada as an independent nation and one that continues to play a role in Canadian-French relations. This snub, which Pearson believed was caused by mismanagement of a guest, shows clearly the tension and deteriorating relationship between Canada and France.

The Canadian Press/Chuck Mitchell. JULY 24/67–Former French President Charles de Gaulle making his famous “vive le Quebec libre” speech at Montreal’s city hall.

Worse than the deterioration of relations between Canada and France, were the growing ties between France and Quebec. France was the key supporter for Quebec’s push for independence in international affairs, which De Gaulle believed would be useful for his own goals. France began favoring Quebec City over Ottawa in international communications and relations which only emboldened Quebec nationalists. The most extreme example came during De Gaulle’s visit to Canada in 1967. Rather than beginning the trip in Ottawa, De Gaulle went straight to Quebec City and from there to the Exposition in Montreal. Once in Montreal he gave an impassioned speech comparing Quebec with France during the Second World War and finished with the inflammatory statements,Vive Montreal! Vive le Quebec! Vive le Quebec libre! Vive le Canada francais et vive la France!”[35] This was a step too far for Pearson, and he responded aggressively in a speech. His sentiments are best expressed through this excerpt:

The people of Canada are free. Every province of Canada is free. Canadians do not need to be liberated. Indeed, many thousands of Canadians gave their lives in two world wars in the liberation of France and other European countries. Canada will remain united and will reject any effort to destroy her unity.[36]

De Gaulle took this as the reprimand it was meant to be and returned to France the next day without completing his planned visit.

With this example, it is clear that Pearson was unwilling to compromise when it came to Quebec participating separately in international affairs. Pearson’s unwillingness to compromise on this subject may seem to contradict his actions and statements regarding other Quebec affairs, but this is incorrect. The above example instead serves to prove that Pearson could have resisted any of the decisions made by Quebec in opposition to him. It is clear that positive relations between Francophone and Anglophone were important to Pearson and his actions show how far he was willing to go in order to promote a strong and unified relationship between Quebec and the federal government.


Pearson was prime minister during a trying time for Canada. The Quebec government and its Francophone population birthed a crisis in the form of Quebec nationalism. Pearson faced the crisis using the skills acquired through a long career in diplomacy. He promoted bilingualism and the French language to improve relations between Anglophones and Francophones. He reached a compromise with Lesage when Quebec refused to accept the federal pension program. He even yielded when it came to the patriation of the constitution, a problem that Pearson believed desperately needed resolution. When faced with the insurgency of the FQL, he allowed Quebec to handle it internally instead of stepping in directly. Despite these concessions, Pearson held firm when Quebec tried to present itself as a sovereign state to the international community. In summary, he conceded whenever possible in order to promote closer ties and rectify the long-standing issue of Francophone-Anglophone relations, but when he believed the integrity of Canada was threatened on the international stage, he refused to yield to Quebec’s aspirations. On that issue, Pearson held his ground and fought for a strong, unified Canada.

  1. Cameron I. Crouch, “Managing Terrorism and Insurgency, (London: Routledge, 2010), 32.
  2. Lester B. Pearson, John A. Munro, Alex I. Inglis, and Jean Chrétien, Mike : the Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson. Volume 3, 1957-1968. Edited by John A. Munro and Alex I. Inglis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015),236.
  3. Lester B. Pearson, John A. Munro, Alex I. Inglis, and Jean Chrétien, Mike : the Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Lester B. Pearson. Volume 2, 1957-1968. Edited by John A. Munro and Alex I. Inglis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).
  4. Lester B. Pearson, Words and Occasions an Anthology of Speeches and Articles Selected from His Papers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.),193.
  5. Pearson, Words and Occasions, 195.
  6. Pearson, Mike, 237.
  7. A rough translation would be: “It is deplorable that in Canada each child of school age does not have at least the opportunity to learn the mother tongue of around a third of our population” Pearson, Lester B. Words and Occasions, 208.
  8. Pearson, Mike, 244.
  9. Pearson, Mike, 240.
  10. Norman Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999), 84-85.
  11. G. Laing, and Celine Cooper, “Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed March 20, 2023.
  12. G. Laing and Celine Cooper, “Royal Commission”.
  13. Pearson, Mike, 244.
  14. Peter Stursberg, Lester Pearson and the Dream of Unity, 1st ed. (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1978),185.
  15. Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator, 74-75.
  16. Pearson would later deny this offer publicly, but confirm it later in his memoirs.
  17. Pearson, Mike, 248.
  18. Pearson, Mike, 248.
  19. Pearson, Mike, 248.
  20. Pearson, Mike, 238.
  21. Pearson, Mike, 252.
  22. Pearson, Words and Occasions, 235.
  23. Pearson, Mike, 252.
  24. Pearson, Mike, 252-253.
  25. Crouch, Front de Libération Du Québec, 33.
  26. Pearson, Mike, 242.
  27. Pearson, Mike, 259.
  28. Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator, 72
  29. Pearson, Mike, 238.
  30. Pearson, Mike, 261.
  31. Pearson, Mike, 263.
  32. Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator, 80.
  33. Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator, 79.
  34. Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator, 80.
  35. Hillmer, Pearson the Unlikely Gladiator, 79.
  36. Pearson, Mike, 268.


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Canada and the Challenges of Leadership Copyright © 2023 by Kelsey Lonie; Corey Safinuk; and Jonathon Zimmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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