Landon Pearson skipped three grades by the time she was 11-years-old. Her teacher at a private school in London, Ont., recognized the intelligence of the girl in class who was reading Greek and Nordic legends. “Every time I got bored, she would promote me to the next year,” says Landon.
During the Second World War, Landon’s father, Hugh Mackenzie, was too old to serve, while her two brothers were too young. Instead, Hugh became the general manager of Labatt Breweries, securing the job on the day of Landon’s birth. “We always considered me good luck,” she says. Her mother, Alice, was a painter, who painted sets for the local theatre company and murals for the officers’ mess at the nearby Elmer military base.
The Battle of Stalingrad, the bombing of Hiroshima—each watershed of the war reminded Landon of the distant fight happening overseas. Her mother worried about Canadian troops and meticulously followed the news. “She thought if she didn’t listen to the radio, things would get worse,” says Landon. Between newscasts, papers and posters, the media taught Landon to despise the Germans and Japanese. “You realize how captured you are by propaganda,” she says.
Landon was also captured by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. After graduating from Grade 13 at age 16, Landon studied philosophy and English at the University of Toronto. She also joined debate club, once competing at Yale University on the topic of women’s role in politics. (She had been born the year after the Privy Council declared women “persons” under the law.) “I’ve never relied on other people’s opinions,” she says. “I’m not easily persuadable.”
During university, Landon met Geoffrey Pearson, one of five sons to Lester B. Pearson. She followed him to Oxford when he went to do his master’s degree. They dated until she was 21 and he was 24. “We decided that was enough of that, and we got married,” she says.
When Geoffrey joined the foreign service, he and Landon moved to Paris, where three of their children were born. Their next home was Mexico, where another child was born, and later, India. Landon became fluent in French and Spanish. “I had a run at Hindi but didn’t get very far,” she adds. When the family moved to Moscow, she also learned Russian. “I’m endlessly curious,” she says. “The older I got, the more interesting my life became.”
In the 1980s, while Geoffrey was ambassador to the Soviet Union, Landon led Canada’s work for the International Year of the Child. She later published a book about childhood in the Soviet era and a book of letters she had sent home from Moscow. She headed the Canadian Council for Children and Youth and helped found the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. She explains her motivation: “It was a combination of having a happy childhood and thinking everyone else should have the same.”
In 1994, prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Landon to the Canadian Senate. She had never before held a salaried job. “I got my first regular cheque at the age of 64,” she says. She became known as both “the senator for children” and “the children’s senator,” speaking for them and bringing them to meetings (including at the United Nations headquarters) to speak for themselves. She focused on issues of sexual exploitation and violence, children’s health and, just as important, women’s health in pregnancy. As she said in a lecture at Carleton University, “none of us emerged like Venus from the sea or Minerva from the head of Zeus. Every one of us had a mother.”
Landon was one of 1,000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and was awarded the Order of Canada three years later. She describes her work as “an interest in humanity.” She left the Senate in 2005, and Geoffrey died in 2008, two months before their daughter, Katharine, passed away from breast cancer at age 52. Landon now lives in Ottawa, where she works with Carleton University at a resource centre that takes her name and propels her commitment to children’s rights. “I’m probably more consistent in my passion than others,” she says. “I started 60 years ago, and I’m still at it.” — Meagan Campbell
(Portrait by Blair Gable)