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My own greatest Canadians Print-ready version

by Martin O'Malley
CBC News
June 11, 2004

It may appear on the surface a boring, safe, predictable choice – another dead white politician – but Lester Bowles Pearson is the greatest Canadian who ever lived.

That's my pick. Good ol' Lester B., he of the charming lisp, our littlest prime minister, the one U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once lifted in the air by his lapels and shouted in his face: "You pissed on my rug!" All because the day before, in a speech in Philadelphia, Pearson had told the world the U.S. should get out of Vietnam.

It doesn't hurt that Pearson also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work as a diplomat, coming up with the idea that soldiers could serve as peacekeepers in global hot spots. And during Pearson's tenure as prime minister we got a new Canadian flag, and the Canada Assistance Plan, the Canada Pension Plan and medicare were introduced. Pearson also can take credit for introducing official bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada.

The clincher for me – though I can't officially verify Pearson did it alone – was the invention of "martini baseball." Pearson was a mighty baseball fan, having played the game at the semi-pro level, and when he worked for the Canadian civil service he took part in the game of martini baseball, which consisted of placing pitchers of martinis at every base, the rule being that every player who reached any of the bases had to gulp down a martini and play on.

Rest of the list:

2. Marshall McLuhan, the Edmonton-born genius who grappled with the impact of media on us, coining such terms as "global village" and "the medium is the message."

3. Northern Dancer, the tiny bay colt that won the Kentucky Derby in 1964, then the Preakness, only to finish third in the Belmont (shades of Smarty Jones). He spent most of the rest of his life happily impregnating other thoroughbreds, his filly having to stand in a trench because he was such a short little fella.

4. Margaret Atwood, our prolific author who keeps winning important global awards. I've read maybe half her books, I'm not a huge fan, but she tops the list of significant Canadian writers.

5. Terry Fox, who once said, "Somewhere the hurting must stop." He raised money for cancer research by trying to run across Canada on one leg, his right leg having been amputated above the knee because of bone cancer. He didn't make it across Canada but he achieved his dream of collecting $1 from every Canadian for cancer research, raising $24.17 million.

6. Romeo Dallaire, the gallant Canadian general who served with dignity in Rwanda amid the atrocities of genocide and later wrote an impassioned account of the ordeal in a book titled: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

7. Frederick Banting, who along with assistant Charles Best gave the world insulin, saving untold millions of lives.

8. Louise Arbour of the Supreme Court of Canada, who has distinguished herself as a world-class legal mind and soon will serve as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She also was wise enough to stick up for Saskatchewan's Percy Schmeiser in her minority report this year in the Supreme Court decision on Percy Schmeiser vs. Monsanto.

9. Wayne Gretzky, hockey player. How can we not have the best hockey player in the world on this list? It would be like not including Shakespeare in a list of the 10 greatest Brits.

10. Santa Claus. It's time we boasted of having one of the world's most iconic roly-poly figures whose only goal is to bring joy to the world. He lives at the North Pole, doesn't he? That's ours, he's one of us.

Sorry Tommy Douglas, you'll have to come 11th because with Lester Bowles Pearson we've already got a dead white politician on the list. Same for you, Norman Bethune. Maybe if you'd stayed with Frontier College here in Canada and not spent so much time in China you might have had a crack at it.

I'm tempted to crawl up and substitute singer/poet/artist Joni Mitchell for Margaret Atwood, but, alas, Joni never won the Booker.

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Added to Library on June 11, 2004. (2688)


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