Dubbed “Uncle Louis” for his gentle, square style, Louis St. Laurent was an icon of the relative peace and prosperity that defined post-World War II (1939-1945) Canada. Though his tenure is not widely remembered today, the St. Laurent years were actually a time of quite substantial foreign, domestic, and constitutional achievements.
St. Laurent came to politics late in life, and was specifically recruited by Prime Minister Mackenzie King (1874-1950) to serve as attorney general, and later foreign minister in his wartime cabinet. A respected French-Canadian lawyer with strong Anglo loyalties, during the war he sought to stem anti-Canadian sentiment in his home province of Quebec with mixed results. When King resigned in 1948, St. Laurent was his hand-chosen successor.
St. Laurent continued King’s agenda of securing greater ever-greater concessions of symbolic and political independence from Britain. In 1949 he ended Canadian legal appeals to the British House of Lord and 1952 appointed the country’s first-ever Canadian-born governor general. After elaborate negotiations, 1949 also saw Canada welcome the Dominion of Newfoundland as the country’s 10th province — making St. Laurent the first PM since Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919) to expand the nation’s borders.
A strong internationalist, St. Laurent sent over 26,000 soldiers to fight in the United Nations-led Korean War (1950-53) in order to repel a Communist invasion, but pointedly refused to support the British in the Suez War of 1956, instead siding with the neutral United States. His foreign minister, Lester Pearson (1897-1972), helped broker a peace settlement, and Canada gained a new reputation as a cautious and pragmatic “middle power.”
Canada’s post-war years saw a swelling Canadian bureaucracy which St. Laurent was happy to delegate power to, but near the end of his term criticism grew that the country was being increasingly governed by a small and arrogant elite of professional experts, perhaps best embodied by the bossy C.D. Howe (1886-1960), St. Laurent’s right-hand man and so-called “Minister of Everything.” His administration’s rushed attempt to approve an enormous Trans-Canada Pipeline without significant parliamentary consultation generated fiery outrage and conspiracy theories among the opposition, and helped shatter his bid for a third term in the 1957 election.