Summary: In the spring of 1966, in the midst of one of his government's biggest crises, prime minister Lester Pearson turned his attention to flying saucers.
In the spring of 1966, in the midst of one of his government's biggest crises, prime minister Lester Pearson turned his attention to flying saucers.
Cabinet documents from the time reveal the embattled prime minister was intrigued by repeated reports of unidentified flying objects in the night skies over southern Ontario, Michigan and other Great Lakes states.
The UFO sighting craze reached new heights when heavyweight boxer George Chuvalo, fresh from his famous "Battle of Toronto" match against Muhammad Ali, told reporters he and his wife saw unexplainable objects over Toronto the night after his March 29, 1966 loss to the world heavyweight boxing champion, then known as Cassius Clay.
At the time, Mr. Pearson and his government were licking their own wounds. For the preceding month, the Liberals and John Diefenbaker's Conservative opposition had been trading heavy blows in the Commons over the government's handling of the case of George Victor Spencer, a Vancouver postal clerk accused by the RCMP, but never charged, of being a low-level Soviet spy.
Under relentless questioning in the House by Mr. Diefenbaker and other critics, flustered Liberal justice minister Lucien Cardin lashed out by revealing the previously secret case of Gerda Munsinger, a German prostitute who had an affair with associate defence minister Pierre Sevigny during an earlier Diefenbaker government.
The parliamentary rancour that followed nearly brought the Liberal government to collapse and is considered by some historians to be one of the most noxious periods in modern Canadian parliamentary history.
Mr. Pearson told his cabinet it was "imperative" for the Liberals to end debate on the Munsinger issue, which threatened "to exacerbate an already dangerous and destructive Parliamentary situation."
He soon agreed to a royal commission into Canada's first Parliamentary sex scandal and a separate commission of inquiry into the handling of the Spencer case. Mr. Pearson also suggested a new debate on the death penalty, a hot subject as two Quebec separatists were on death row.
Mr. Cardin, who had been vehemently opposed to a Spencer inquiry, threatened to quit, taking with him other Quebec members of the Liberal caucus. There was media speculation that Mr. Pearson, too, would resign.
On the morning of April 5, 1966, with the espionage inquiries soon set to begin, Mr. Pearson met with his cabinet. But instead of discussing Mr. Spencer or Ms. Munsinger, he said he wanted ministerial briefings on the UFO phenomenon, according to newly uncovered cabinet meeting minutes at the National Archives.
Paul Hellyer was minister of national defence at the time. In an interview yesterday, he did not recall Mr. Pearson's UFO directive.
"It's quite possible that we provided him with a briefing or gave him the information that we had, which was not very extensive," he said. "If he followed up, that's what would have happened. But he sometimes raised things, then didn't bother following up. There were a lot of things cooking in those days."
Indeed. That very night, the Commons defeated a government motion to abolish capital punishment. The following day, Mr. Pearson unveiled a plan to make the federal public service bilingual.
© Copyright 2003 The Ottawa Citizen