This Week in History


They called him "Uncle Louis"

For the week of Monday November 14, 2005

On November 15, 1948, Louis Stephen St. Laurent became Canada’s 12th Prime Minister, despite Liberal Party concerns that his quiet reserve and regal manner might turn off Canadians. However, during the 1949 general election he surprised everyone with his "common touch" and his calm rapport with young people. He even invited the media into his home and posed for photos with his grandchildren, a first for a sitting prime minister. The image of "Uncle Louis" was born, and the election victory was assured.

With his grandchildren at family gathering
© Herbert L. McDonald / Library and Archives Canada / PA-125907
Louis St. Laurent was born on February 1, 1882, in Compton, Quebec. Fluently bilingual, he was extremely proud of his blended French-British ancestry and culture. Always an excellent student, at Laval University the aspiring lawyer easily mastered both the French Civil Code and British Common Law. In 1912, St. Laurent burst upon the national stage when he defeated corporate giant Canadian Pacific in court. Later, his high profile in constitutional law brought him to the attention of Prime Minister Mackenzie King and, in 1941, King convinced the reluctant St. Laurent to enter politics.

As justice minister, St. Laurent was responsible for several initiatives including the controversial Conscription Bill (1944), where his staunch support prevented the collapse of King’s government and the war effort. As external affairs minister, St. Laurent formulated a unique Canadian foreign policy simply based on a respect for all nations. Through active membership in the British Commonwealth, NATO and the UN, he promoted Canada’s middle power and mediator status. St. Laurent was the first advocate of a permanent UN peacekeeping force, supported Canada’s role in the Korean War (1950-53) and actively supported External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson’s successful effort to deploy the first UN peacekeeping force to mediate the 1956 Suez Canal crisis.

Prime Minister St. Laurent during impromptu 1948 campaign stop
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-123988
Defeated in the bitter 1957 general election,  "Uncle Louis" retired in 1958 and returned to his law practice. His leadership during Canada’s "Golden Decade" led to the appointment of Canadian-born Vincent Massey as Governor General, Newfoundland’s admission as the tenth province, the building of both the Trans-Canada Highway and the St. Lawrence Seaway, the inauguration of the Canada Council for the Arts, and the establishment of social programs like family allowances, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and university funding.

For his vital role in building Canadian unity and his promotion of a unique and autonomous Canadian international identity, Louis Stephen St. Laurent was designated a National Historic Person in 1973.

For additional information on Louis St. Laurent’s early years, please visit The Louis S. St. Laurent National Historic Site.

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