The Independent View: Lester Pearson and the triumph of progressive change in Canada

Canada flag License Some rights reserved by archer10 (Dennis)For many progressives, America’s northern neighbour Canada has long been associated with progressive social change, with successive governments of the past century introducing such policy innovations as universal family allowances, supplementary pensions, and free health care. 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the election of the innovative Liberal government of Lester Pearson. Holding office from 1963 to 1968, the Pearson Government implemented a programme of social reform that not only led to the emergence of Canada’s contemporary welfare state, but arguably cemented Canada’s reputation as a leader of innovative social change.

Lester Pearson’s government came to office when Pearson’s Liberal Party (an ideologically diverse party of the centre) had come to be dominated by its reform wing, and when public opinion was supportive of measures aimed at expanding social programmes. Over the next five years, Pearson’s government introduced a broad range of reforms aimed at meeting public expectations for greater activism on the part of the federal government.

In 1964, for instance, youth allowances were introduced for the parents of 16 to 17-year olds who had attended school or university but were unable to continue to do so due to serious illness. The Canada Pension Plan of 1966 built on the existing old-age pension system by introducing index-linked retirement, survivor, disability, and death benefits, while a guaranteed minimum income scheme for low-income seniors was implemented a year later.The Canada Assistance Plan of 1966 introduced a national system of social assistance that not only provided a broad range of social services such as family counselling and childcare, but a financial safety net for those with little money and disabled persons who were unemployed.

Laws on divorce and homosexuality were liberalised, while a rural development fund was set up to support rural regions facing problems of low income and economic adjustment. In addition, public housing construction was greatly accelerated.

For those in education, a student loans programme was introduced to provide financial support to post-secondary students, while members of the workforce benefited from manpower training measures, the introduction of collective bargaining rights in the public service, and a national labour code that introduced a 40-hour work week and a fortnight’s holiday for all workers.

In the field of health, Pearson’s government passed the revolutionary Medical Care Act of 1966, establishing a system of free health care for all. Since 1957, the federal government had provided public insurance to subsidise the costs of inpatient hospital care, but the 1966 Act went further by universalising access to all forms of treatment, effectively making healthcare a badge of citizenship.

The lesson that progressives today can learn from the record of the Pearson Government is that a party with a comprehensive reform programme, and the desire to implement it, can affect much in the way of positive change. For progressives at a time of austerity, the Pearson reform programme is not only an inspiration, but a model to aspire to.


Photo by archer10 (Dennis)

* Vittorio Trevitt has written for Respublica, Democratic Audit, Catch 21, Fabian Society and Compass. He has also done voluntary work for the Labour Party, including campaigning on behalf of local candidates, carrying out research for speeches, and writing articles to raise awareness of important social issues. He believes in British socialists and liberals working together to achieve progressive ends, united by their commitment to equality, freedom, and justice.

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  • A review of Canadian political history might note that its politics are now dominated by a “Conservative Party” which is the merger of a UKIP-style right-wing populist party with the collapsed remnants of Canada’s “Tories” (the former Progressive Conservatives). This bleak scenario is not an impossible one for the UK.

  • The Liberals have picked up since Trudeau took over last year, they lead in most national polls, coming from a shock third place at the last General, but it is close and will probably be a hung parliament whoever wins. They recently won the British Columbia and Quebec provincial elections, think there is one in Ontario this week,the polls are all over the place with this one, mind you they were all forecasting an NDP win in British Columbia.

  • Its nice to read peoples’ comments on my article. I took great pleasure in writing it.

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