During the 15 years that Pierre Elliott Trudeau was in power, there was a brief gap in 1979 and 1980 when he was in the Official Opposition, the only time he was ever Leader of the Opposition. It was in that gap that Joe Clark came in as the 16th Prime Minister.
For me, Joe Clark holds a special place. He is the only prime minister I have ever interviewed, which I did when I was the editor of the High River Times, a paper that his father started and he worked at, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Born to Charles and Grace Clark on June 5, 1939, his father started the High River Times.
In 1956, Clark won a Rotary Club public speaking scholarship in grade 11 and he won a trip to Ottawa. Instead of going to museums, he went to the House of Commons and met Conservative leader George Drew and waited for hours for the chance to meet John Diefenbaker. As a young man, Clark was an admirer of John Diefenbaker, who was rising on the national stage and would soon be the prime minister of Canada.
While at the House of Commons, he was able to witness the Pipeline Debate and the Liberals invocation of closure to end objections from the Opposition. This would leave an impression on Clark, who would return home feeling that the government needed a strong and effective Opposition.
In 1958, he met Brian Mulroney at a national Young Progressive Conservatives meeting, introducing him to yet another rival that would come into his life later. That same year, he also worked for Alan Lazerte, who was campaigning to become the leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.
While at university, Clark pursued journalism and politics, two areas that greatly interested him. He would serve as the editor of The Gateway, the student newspaper, and was the National Progressive Conservative Student President. With the University of Alberta Debate Society, Clark would often have heated debates with Preston Manning, who would be a future political rival, and was the son of Ernest Manning, premier of Alberta.
Along with his time working at his father’s newspaper, Joe Clark would also work for CBC, the Calgary Herald, and the Edmonton Journal. For one summer, he worked for the Canadian Press in Toronto and seriously gave thought to becoming a journalist, but instead looked to law and politics.
He would attend Dalhousie Law School but spent more time on the Dalhousie Student Union and with the Dalhousie Gazette rather than working on his law studies. He would then go to the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law but was unsuccessful in pursuing his law studies.
With his eye firmly on politics, Clark went to France to become fluent in French, while also taking French courses. Eventually, he would become comfortable speaking and answering questions in French.
In 1962, Clark would work on the re-election campaign of Diefenbaker.
Clark, at the age of 28, would become the director of organization for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party but was defeated in the 1967 provincial election. It should be noted that he ran against the Social Credit candidate who was also the speaker of the house. Considered a suicide seat, Clark came within 462 votes of winning. After the loss, he would serve as the chief assistant to Peter Lougheed, who was the current opposition leader but would soon be elected and arguably become the best premier in Alberta history.
He would then serve on the Ottawa staff of E. Davie Fulton, who was an MP in the House of Commons. He then spent three years as the executive assistant to Robert Stanfield, the leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party.
In 1972, Clark was elected to the House of Commons in the Rocky Mountain riding.
As a young politician, his ideas and views were sometimes at odds with the party. He was the first Canadian politician to take a stand for the decriminalization of marijuana in Canada, and for a guaranteed minimum income for everyone. Many felt that his social liberalism was as bold in the 1970s as Pierre Trudeau’s were in the 1960s. For the right-wing members of the Conservative caucus, they saw Clark as a renegade within the party and many would confront him openly about it, even when he was leader.
In 1973, he married Maureen McTeer and the couple would have one child, Catherine. The couple had met when Clark hired her to work in his parliamentary office. Maureen had been a political organizer since her early teens and has gone on to become a well-known author and lawyer. One odd bit of controversy at the time though was the fact that she chose to keep her maiden name, which was unusual for the time.
In February of 1976, Clark essentially came out of nowhere to win the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservatives, replacing his former boss Stanfield. He was up against several notable Conservatives, not the least of which was Brian Mulroney. On the first ballot, Claude Wagner took 531 votes, while Mulroney took 357 and Clark took 277. Amazingly, on the second ballot Clark moved ahead of Mulroney for second place, behind Wagner. On the third ballot, Clark tripled the votes of Mulroney and was only 50 behind Wagner by this point. On the fourth ballot, Clark edged ahead of Wagner, to claim the leadership of the party. One reason for this huge upset was Flora MacDonald, who was the favourite to win but she did worse than Clark on the first ballot. She dropped out on the second ballot and encouraged her supports to get behind Clark, which began to push him ahead.
With that leadership win, Clark became, and still is, the youngest-ever leader of a major federal party in the history of Canadian politics.
Clark was so unknown in Canada that many gave him the nickname, Joe Who? Cartoonists would also take shots at him due to his tall and slim figure, often portraying him as a walking candy apple, with an enormous head and floppy ears.
While many considered Clark to be unprepared to go up against someone as confident and intellectual as Trudeau, he quickly made a name for himself in Parliament for his ability to attack the Trudeau government, and his hiring of experienced staffers who would help shape his policy and help his office run well. Some saw him as, to put it in the words of the time, a square. The truth was that he had a biting wit. One of the most famous examples of this was when he said, quote:
Clark also gave the party a focus in four areas, the control of government spending, the development of energy self-sufficiency, the advancement of freedom of information and the strengthening of federal and provincial relations. Clark would say in February of 1976, quote:
“We will not take this nation by storm, by stealth or by surprise. We will win it by work.”
Before long, the Progressive Conservatives were rising in the polls and Clark was gaining the respect of Canadians, as well as those in his own caucus who may have doubted him.
In January of 1979, Clark embarked on a world tour that was meant to show his handle on international affairs. Unfortunately, some incidents would instead portray him in a different light. The most famous was the fact that Clark’s luggage was lost in the Middle East. Also, on the same tour, during an inspection of a military honour guard, Clark turned too soon and nearly bumped into a soldier’s bayonet. One TV reporter on the tour would say, quote:
“Phileas Fogg went around the world in 80 days in a balloon filled with hot air. Joe Clark has managed the same feat in 10 days, minus the balloon. The Conservative Party of Canada has spent more than $30,000 so Joe Clark could learn about the world. Unfortunately, the world has learned about Joe Clark.”
In the spring election of 1979, Clark ran on a platform of tax and mortgage breaks, and a proposal to privatize Petro-Canada, which had been created by the Liberals and was federally owned. While Clark focused his campaign on slogans such as, “Let’s get Canada working again” and “It’s time for a change, give the future a chance.”, the Liberals focused their campaign on the perceived inexperience of Clark, with the slogan “There is no time for on-the-job training”.
In the election, Clark and the Conservatives defeated Trudeau and the Liberals, forming a minority government with 136 seats, to the Liberals and their 114 seats. Despite being bilingual, Clark and the Tories were unable to gain headway in Quebec, which would have given them a majority government rather than a slim minority. While the party did well in Toronto, they were only able to pick up two seats in Quebec and were six short of a majority. The Conservatives were able to pick up 38 seats, while the Liberals lost 19. The New Democratic Party and the Social Credit Party picked up 26 seats total, and their support was needed if Clark was going to hold onto power. Clark’s win ended 16 years of Liberal power, dating back to 1963, when Diefenbaker was prime minister. Diefenbaker would die only a few months after the Progressive Conservatives came to power, and after another election win himself, ending his 39 years in the House of Commons.
On June 4, 1979, Clark was sworn in as the 16th Prime Minister, one day prior to his 40th birthday. To date, he is the youngest prime minister in Canadian history, and the first to be born in western Canada.
Unfortunately, Clark went about governing as if he had a majority government. While he was able to lure Richard Janelle over from the Social Credits to the Progressive Conservatives, he was still five short of a majority. He also chose to refuse to grant the Social Credit Party official party status, as they were below the 12 seats needed, and he did not pursue a coalition with them or co-operate with them in any way. This would cause him significant problems when it came to serious issues such as energy, the mortgage interest credit bill and Quebec separatism.
One of the first things that Clark and his government did was introduce the Freedom of Information Act, which established a broad right of access to government records. The Act made second reading and was referred to a Standing Committee, but the legislation would die when the government fell, but would come back in a different name under the Liberals.
In June, Clark would travel to the G7 Summit in Tokyo, where he would meet with President Jimmy Carter. In the coming election, Carter would even phone Clark to wish him good luck.
In the summer of 1979, Clark appointed Flora MacDonald to the post of Secretary of State for External Affairs, making her the first woman to hold the post.
Clark and the Conservatives were criticized for how it handled the moving of Canada’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Clark had promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but it went back on that promise over fears of a possible economic fallout. David MacDonald, the communication minister, told his colleagues, that there was a company that was concerned about its contract in Saudi Arabia if the move were made. Decades later, in 2017, CBC would report that the concerned company was Bell Canada.
When the decision not to move the embassy came about, the minutes of a cabinet meeting on Oct. 29, 1979 stated, quote:
“The Prime Minister agreed with the view expressed by other ministers that his statement should avoid reference to commercial considerations and should be confined to a brief but frank exposition of the government’s policy on the location of the embassy.”
The Social Credits abstained when Clark introduced his budget bill on Dec. 13, 1979. The budget introduced a gas tax that would cost Clark the support of Premier Bill Davis of Ontario. While Clark had said he would cut taxes to stimulate the economy, he proposed a four-cent per litre tax on gasoline to reduce the budget deficit. John Crosbie, the Finance Minister, said that the budget was short term pain for long term gain. When it went to the House, it caused a non-confidence vote that toppled the government.
After the defeat of his government, Clark would state, quote:
He would finish his speech, stating quote:
“My colleagues and I very much wanted this 31st Parliament to work for Canada…Unfortunately from the first day, opposition parties showed no interest in making Parliament work. Instead, they have systematically obstructed its business. Now they have brought it to a complete halt. The opposition parties refused to make this minority Parliament work. I remain committed to the mandate Canadians gave us last May. My party and I intend to get on with governing Canada.”
Clark was criticized for failing to predict the outcome of the budget bill, which was not helped by the fact that three of his own MPs were away, one was sick and two were away on official business. The Liberals, knowing the importance of the bill, had their entire caucus except for one person.
In a Gallup poll, it was found that Clark’s popularity had fallen from 36 to 28 per cent since the summer, and the Conservatives were 19 points behind the Liberals.
The Conservatives were also quickly caught off guard when Trudeau, who had announced he would step down, instead rescinded his resignation, and would lead the Liberals in the new election.
For the 1980 election campaign, the Liberal shifted their tactics and reduced the amount of time Trudeau was seen on camera, while also refusing to have a televised debate. Clark would campaign on the same platform he had the previous spring, with the slogan “Real change deserves a fair chance.”
On Feb. 18, the Liberals swept to victory with a majority government, ending the time of Clark as prime minister. Serving only nine months, Clark served the fourth shortest time as prime minister in Canadian history, and the shortest for any elected prime minister. Crosbie would state of Clark’s time in office, quote:
“Long enough to conceive, just not long enough to deliver.”
Now, while it may seem that Trudeau and Clark did not get along due to the two election campaigns in only one year, that is not the case. Trudeau would comment in his memoirs that Clark was tougher and more aggressive than Robert Stanfield, and that he respected him as a leader. He also felt that Clark was a better leader than Brian Mulroney.
For the next three years, Clark would sit as the Leader of the Official Opposition.
Even with the loss, Clark still received strong support and in the 1983 leadership review vote, he received 70 per cent of the vote. Despite this, Clark said this was not enough and a leadership contest would be called where he would be a candidate.
During the leadership convention, there were many who were against Clark staying on as leader. In December 2007, Karlheinz Schreiber, a German Canadian businessman, told a House of Commons Ethics Committee that he and other Germans, gave significant contributions to Quebec delegates to vote against Clark.
In 1982, Brian Mulroney appeared at a press conference with Clark stating he was not seeking the leadership of the party. By 1983, that seemed to no longer be the case as Mulroney and Crosbie had been laying groundwork for a campaign for quite some time.
On the first ballot, Clark was in the lead with 36.5 per cent of the vote, compared to Mulroney with 29.3 per cent. On the second ballot, Clark had 36.7 per cent, but Mulroney had come closer with 34.6 per cent of the vote. On the third ballot, Joe Clark had 35.8 per cent, while Brian Mulroney had reached 35.1 per cent. Finally, on the last ballot, Clark had 45.6 per cent of the vote, while Mulroney won with 54.4 per cent of the vote. There were several reasons for this upset, including the fact that the party’s right wing found Clark to be too progressive, and others who thought that since Mulroney was from Quebec, he could help take away the province from the Liberals. As well, several candidates followed ABC, or Anybody but Clark.
Even though Clark had lost, he urged the party to unite behind Mulroney and he agreed to serve under Mulroney as well.
Looking back, many wonder why Clark did not just accept that he had two-thirds of the party’s support and not call for a leadership review. In fact, in 1987, Clark met Prince Charles at Rideau Hall, and the Prince asked Clark, quote:
“Why wasn’t two-thirds enough?”
The answer came in 2003 when Maureen McTeer, who would write her autobiography that year. In it, she stated that for Clark, anything less than 75 per cent was not enough of a clear mandate to forge onwards with the party. He was worried that with 34 per cent against him, they would become more vocal in the next election and that it would fracture the party.
With Mulroney as leader, Clark would remain in the government, which was now in power with a huge majority. Over the next six and a half years, Clark would sit as the Secretary of State for external Affairs, and he would steer the Canadian foreign policy. Clark, along with Arthur Meighen, is one of only two former prime ministers to return to prominent roles in Parliament. In his role, Clark would bring about several bold moves. In 1984, he became the first developed nation foreign minister to land in Ethiopia to lead the Western response to the terrible famine there. Canada’s response to the crisis was so large, it led the United States and the United Kingdom to respond in a similar manner.
He would also take a strong stance against apartheid and pushed for economic sanctions, even though the United States and the United Kingdom opposed the sanctions. He also pushed the government to accept refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, and he steered the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations to a final agreement. Clark would arrange for 50,000 Vietnamese refugees to be accepted into Canada. The program he initiated had the government agree to sponsor one refugee for each one sponsored privately.
In April of 1991, Clark was named the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, which would give him one of his greatest tasks, patching together an agreement with the provinces for constitutional renewal after the total failure of the Meech Lake Accord.
In July 1992, Clark and nine premiers announced they had reached a deal, but the deal was met poorly by Mulroney and the Quebec caucus of the Progressive Conservatives. In August, Clark and the premiers tried once again, delivering the Charlottetown Accord but this was rejected in a referendum. I will go into greater detail about this in my episode about Brian Mulroney.
With the failure of the Accord, and feeling exhausted, Clark stated he would not run in the next election. As it turned out, that was a good idea as the Progressive Conservatives would suffer the worst defeat in Canadian history on the federal level soon after.
That may have been the end for Clark, but he would come back into the national spotlight Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest stated in the spring of 1998 that he was moving to the Quebec provincial Liberals.
In the 1998 Leadership Convention, Clark took 48.5 per cent on the first ballot and 77.5 per cent on the second ballot, becoming leader of the party once again.
This time, instead of coming to a party on the rise, Clark was in a party that was at its lowest point. It was the fifth party in the House of Commons, was $10 million in debt and had nearly no power. Clark also had to get re-elected back into Parliament, something that would not happen for two years.
In September 2000, Clark won a by-election in a riding in Nova Scotia and was re-elected two months later in a general election as the MP for Calgary Centre.
Under Clark, the party improved but only won 12 seats, remaining in fifth place, but still hanging onto its official party status.
From 2000 to 2002, Clark was yearly selected as the most effective opposition leader, and Chretien would often refer to Clark as the Leader of the Official Opposition, even though he was not as the Canadian Alliance was the actual opposition. Both Chretien and Clark had a mutual respect, dating back to the 1970s. Clark would see his popularity rise during those years, while the Liberals began to lose support. Clark was able to take the party from the fifth-place party to the fourth-place party thanks to defections from other parties. During the toughest years for the Progressive Conservative Party, many felt that Clark was able to sustain its relevance, even while other populist parties were on the rise.
In 2002, Stephen Harper became the leader of the Canadian Alliance and wanted to merge with the Progressive Conservatives, which Clark refused. MacKay stated he would not merge with the Alliance, but soon after, went back on the decision and the two parties merged to create the Conservative Party of Canada.
In 2002, Clark resigned as the leader of the Progressive Conservatives once again and he was succeeded by Peter MacKay on May 31, 2003.
In June of 2004, Clark retired from the House of Commons. By this point, he was sitting as an independent, having refused to join the new Conservative Party of Canada, which had been created by a merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives.
On his last day as an MP, he would state, quote:
“I’m very troubled by the disappearance of my party.”
In retirement, Clark has kept busy. He would lead international observer teams overseeing elections in Pakistan, the Dominican Republic, Cameroon, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, and Nigeria. In 2006, he took a position as a Professor of Practice for Public-Private Sector Partnerships at McGill University.
He has also served as the vice-chairman of the Global Leadership Foundation, which consists of former heads of state and diplomats who offer discreet advice and mentoring on governance to developing nation governments.
In November 2007, a man came up to Clark on a street in Montreal and asked him if he was the former prime minister. Clark said he was, and the man punched him and fled. In the incident, Clark sustained a bloody nose.
In 2013, Clark would publish How We Lead: Canada In A Century of Change.
In 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Clark as a special envoy for Canada’s bid for a UN Security Council seat.
Clark has been honoured throughout Canada. He was awarded the Order of Canada and is a member of the Alberta Order of excellence. He is an honorary chief of the Samson Cree First Nation, and was the first recipient of the Vimy Award, given to Canadian citizens who have made outstanding contributions to the security of Canada and the preservation of its democratic values.
In a 1999 survey of the first 20 prime ministers, Clark finished 15th.
Ecole Joe Clark School in High River is named for Clark.
The boyhood home of Clark, located in High River, is currently registered as a Provincial Historic Resource.
Information comes from Maclean’s, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Alberta.ca, Collections Canada, The Canada Guide, Library and Archives Canada,