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When John Turner died last year, most news reports focused on the fact that he was prime minister for only a very brief time. For Turner, there is much more to him than his time as prime minister and in many ways, he led a life more interesting than many prime ministers who served for much longer.
Born on June 7, 1929 to Leonard Hugh Turner, an English journalist, and Phillis Gregory, a Canadian economist, in Richmond, England, John Turner was the first future prime minister since Sir Mackenzie Bowell to be born outside of Canada.
When he was four, his father suddenly died, so his Canadian mother moved the family back to Canada in 1932 and settled in Ottawa. His mother would work as a senior federal civil servant, thanks to the appointment by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
In 1941, he would hear Sir Winston Churchill speak in Ottawa since his mother knew Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and they were able to stand outside the House of Commons. He would say years later, quote:
“I could hear every word because there were loudspeakers outside so we could listen. The speech is remembered for that line, but it also mobilized Canadian public opinion in the unity of the Commonwealth. I probably did not recognize its importance at the time, but I certainly did later in life.”
As Churchill came down the steps, Turner’s mother introduced Turner to him. According to Turner, Churchill said, quote:
“Good of you to be here, good luck!”
Years later, he would say, quote:
After attending private schools in Ottawa, Turner moved with his stepfather Frank Ross and his mother to British Columbia, to the mountain town of Rossland near the end of the Second World War.
In British Columbia, his parents would both achieve prominence. His stepfather would become the Lt. Governor of British Columbia in 1955, while his mother would become the chancellor of the University of British Columbia.
Turner would enroll at the University of British Columbia in 1945, at the age of only 16, and quickly set himself apart not only as an excellent student, but one of the best sprinters in all of Canada.
In 1947, he set a Canadian record in the 100-yard dash at 9.8 seconds, and in qualifying for the 1948 Olympics, he ran 9.6 seconds.
Turner would say of that race, quote:
“The best race I was ever in was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1948. Must have been 100,000 people in the stands. My time was about 9.6 but never officially recorded because I did not win. Geez, it was phenomenal to be in that race.”
Unfortunately, Olympic glory would have to wait as he injured his knee in a car accident.
Awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, Turner attended Oxford and earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1951, then a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1952, and finally a Masters in 1957. While he did well in school, he once again showed himself to be a skilled runner.
While at Oxford, he ran on the track and field team and was a teammate of Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. He was also a friend of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, both of whom would go on to become prime ministers of Australia.
From 1952 to 1953, he pursued his doctorate at the University of Paris. Following his time at the university, he would return to Canada.
It was around this time that Turner nearly took a different turn in life. While he would not have become prime minister, he would have become a member of the Royal Family, if the rumours are true.
On May 19, 1959, while attending a party that his stepfather was hosting to open the new British Columbia Government House, Turner began to dance with Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II. At the time, she was one year younger than him and this dance would bring Turner significant press within Canada as many speculated about if Turner and Princess Margaret were a couple.
According to letters obtained by the Daily Mail, the relationship was quite serious and in one letter written in 1966, Princess Margaret wrote that she nearly married Turner. The issue was that Turner was a Roman Catholic and to marry Turner, Princess Margaret would have to forfeit her place in the line of succession.
According to Brenda, the sister of Turner, there was a definite attraction between the two, but Turner was not interested in being royalty and he would not give up being a Roman Catholic.
In May of 1960, when Princess Margaret married Antony Armstrong-Jones, who was a roommate of Turner at one point, Turner was the only Canadian unofficial guest of the wedding. Turner and Margaret would remain friends for the rest of their lives and he would often meet with her whenever he was in England, or she was in Canada. In 2002, he attended the funeral of Princess Margaret.
For Turner, he would eventually find love with Geills McCrae Kilgour, a systems engineer with IBM and the great-niece of John McCrae, the author of In Flanders Field. The couple would have a daughter Elizabeth, and three sons, David Michael, and Andrew.
With his degrees behind his name by this point, Turner began to practice law in Montreal, working for the firm of Stikeman Elliott. At this point, he was beginning to make a name for himself and several prominent politicians were noticing him.
In 1957, he was recruited by C.D. Howe, who had served under William Lyon Mackenzie King, to help organize a Liberal re-election campaign. This would be the first taste of federal politics for Turner.
Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who had an eye for talent, would recruit Turner to run in the 1962 federal election.
In his first election campaign, Turner would win 51.9 per cent of the vote, defeating the Progressive Conservative incumbent, Egan Chambers, who had served in the riding since 1958. In the media, he was called “Canada’s Kennedy.”
For the next several years, he would serve on the backbench and slowly grow his prominence.
In 1965, he would be vacationing in Barbados and he saw John Diefenbaker, the former prime minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, who was at the same hotel, struggling with the undertow in the water. Turner, who had spent time as a competitive swimmer, jumped in and was able to bring Diefenbaker to shore, and out of danger.
Turner would say of the incident, quote:
Under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Turner proved himself, in the words of a colleague, to be exceptionally loyal and respectful when dealing with other senior ministers.
That loyalty was rewarded in December of 1965 when he was appointed the cabinet, serving in various capacities, including as the Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs.
Turner would speak about his job, comparing it to that of a hockey player. He would say quote:
“Tonight, you scored a goal and you’re a hero, tomorrow you let a goal in and you’re a bum. And that’s politics.”
Turner was greatly liked in the House of Commons on all sides. He would often play squash with members of the Official Opposition and once he went across the House of Commons floor to comfort a New Democrat member who had just confessed to having a serious criminal record.
Following the resignation of Lester B. Pearson in December of 1967, Turner decided to run for leadership of the party. Turner put himself forward as an anti-establishment candidate who wanted to lower the voting age and improve skills training for young Canadians.
He would tell the convention, quote:
“My time is now and now is no time for mellow men.”
There were 12 candidates, including Pierre Trudeau, and Turner was the youngest of all of them. Turner would do surprisingly well. On the first ballot, he took 277 votes, and increased that total to 347 votes on the second ballot. On the third ballot, he dipped to 279 votes and on the fourth ballot, he finished third with 195 votes, as Pierre Trudeau took over as leader.
Those 195 delegates who stuck with Turner were rumored to form the 195 Club, a group of political organizers who were waiting for the next leadership campaign for Turner.
Paul Martin Sr. had run against Trudeau and Turner and with that loss, he knew his chance at becoming prime minister was over. According to his son, Paul Martin Jr., his father was filled with anguish. The evening of the loss, Turner called Martin and invited him and the entire family out to brunch. Paul Martin Jr. would say later, quote:
“He didn’t have to do that, but he did.”
Also, in 1967, Turner would talk about the importance of moving up through the ranks in politics. He would say quote:
“The most unfortunate thing to happen to anybody is to come in at the top in politics. The apprenticeship is absolutely vital. And yet, the longer the apprenticeship, the more the young politician risks tiring the public. So that by the time he is ready, the public may be tired of him.”
Trudeau, recognizing this, appointed him as the justice minister in July 1968, a position he held until 1972. It was in this role that he would sponsor the immense Criminal Code reform that decimalized homosexuality, broadened abortion rights, and allowed for easier divorces. Turner’s work on the new Criminal Code was instrumental in implementing the vision that Trudeau called a quote: “Just Society.” At the same time, he created the Law Reform Commission, strengthened the rights of individual defendants on trial, brought greater efficiency to the justice system, and selected highly professional judges.
Ed Lumley, a cabinet minister at the time, stated that Turner offset the political weaknesses of Trudeau, stating quote:
“As a team, they were terrific.”
During the Official Languages Act debate, which would make Canada an official bilingual nation, he led the government’s position. During the October Crisis, he would take control with Pierre Trudeau, bringing in the War Measures Act, the only time it was used during peace time. Turner would report, as Justice Minister, that using the act, 497 people had been arrested, 435 of which were released, 62 were charged and 32 were accused of crimes that were so serious the Quebec Superior Court refused them bail.
In 1972, Trudeau moved Turner to the Minister of Finance, where he would serve until 1975. In this new role, Turner would face several challenges including the 1973 oil crisis that created a global financial crisis, the slowing of economic growth, and growing deficits in the country. He also served as the main economic interlocutor with the White House. He would play tennis with George Schultz, the American Treasury Secretary and often had dinner with Richard Nixon where he would iron out bilateral issues.
As Finance Minister, his positions tended to be more conservative than Trudeaus and the two began to grow apart. The final break in his first stint in the House of Commons came after the 1974 federal election. In that election, the Liberals attacked the Conservatives over the platform of implementing wage and price controls to deal with the economic situation. Trudeau stated that the government would not implement those controls, but in 1975, those controls were implemented. Turner soon resigned from the cabinet, and many speculated if the reversing of the controls position was related to it. He would not say why until 2013 when he confirmed he resigned because he refused to implement wage and price controls after campaigning against them only the year before.
Trudeau would write in his own memoirs that Turner resigned as Finance Minister because he was tired of politics and wanted to go back to being a lawyer.
There were other issues for Turner at the time as well. He could see the mood of the voters was changing, and he also saw that he had no possibility of taking over as leader as Trudeau was still going strong as the leader of the party.
Trudeau discussed the matter with Turner and told him to take on a different cabinet post and to remain in the government for another year. In September 1975, the two met again to discuss the matter. On Sept. 9, 1975, he submitted his letter of resignation.
The resignation of such a prominent cabinet minister was a huge story in Canada. Those who supported Trudeau saw Turner as being disloyal, while others saw Turner as the one who was wronged. The media tended to be on the side of Turner, praising his work in justice and finance.
For the Liberal Party, his resignation hurt the party and its image in Canada. Rumours swirled that Turner would make a run for the leadership of the party or try and make a bid to be the leader of the Progressive Conservatives.
Instead, Turner quit politics in February 1976 and joined a Toronto law firm, while also serving on various company boards.
In 1979, after Trudeau briefly resigned, Turner decided not to put his name forward. Four years later, Trudeau announced his retirement and Turner decided it was time to try for leadership.
In the 1984 leadership convention, Turner went up against future prime minister Jean Chretien. On the first ballot, he finished with 1,593 votes, and on the second ballot won with 1,862 votes. Chretien, whose own turn would come, was 500 votes behind Turner.
On June 30, 1984, Turner became the 17th Prime Minister of Canada. This is unique because at the time, Turner was neither a senator nor an MP and if he summoned Parliament, he could not have appeared on the floor of the House of Commons. He could have announced that he would run in a by-election, but instead chose to run in the next general election in a riding in Vancouver. This was unusual because typically in Canadian history, the new leader would run in a safe seat, allowing the newly elected leader to get a chance to serve in Parliament. The seat he was going after was also currently held by the Progressive Conservatives. There was a reason for this for Turner, he wanted to rebuild the Liberal Party in Western Canada, which had no seats west of Winnipeg.
While not required to call an election until 1985, he saw Liberals leading in the polls and decided to call an election for Sept. 4, 1984. He would have the Governor General dissolve Parliament on July 9, only nine days after he was sworn in.
In his speech calling for the election, he would state, quote:
“It is my view, and I so indicated to Her Excellency, and indeed to The Queen, that an election is necessary at this time. One million four hundred thousand Canadians are unemployed and need jobs.”
After talking about the public debt, unemployment, and the international financial situation, he would state, quote:
“This Parliament has run its course and I sense that the people of Canada want and should have a choice and an opportunity to clear the air.”
The election campaign was not a good one for Turner, and the Liberals were trailing the Progressive Conservatives by 20 points. The Conservatives were caught off guard by the decision to call an election. They had believed Turner would tour Canada through the summer first, accompanying Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II, both of whom were touring the country that year. His proposal to create jobs with work projects was seen as outdated, and his campaign style was also seen as something from the past. Another issue was when he was caught on camera patting Liberal Party president Iona Campagnolo on the posterior. He defended it as a friendly gesture, but many saw it as being condescending to women.
Turner also failed to cancel the appointment by Trudeau of 200 Liberals to government patronage posts as senators, judges, executives on Crown Corporation Boards and more. On top of not canceling the appointments, he also added more than 70 of his own. This caused outrage in Canada.
During the debate, he was attacked by Brian Mulroney over it. Turner responded that he had no option but to let them stand.
Another issue, one of the biggest, was the fact that Turner was leading the Liberals, who were heavily associated with Trudeau and for many, his legacy at the time was anything but positive.
In the 1984 election, the Liberal Party was reduced to 40 seats, losing most of its seats in Quebec. Turner was able to keep his own seat but resigned as prime minister on Sept. 17. In the election, the party would lose 11 cabinet ministers. It was the worst defeat for the Liberals since 1958. He then took on the role as the Leader of the Official Opposition.
For the next four years, Turner worked to rebuild the Liberal Party and by 1987 the Liberals were leading in the polls. This was a huge turnaround because in 1984, Turner and the Liberals polled lower than even the NDP, who had 30 seats. Many felt that the Canadian Liberals would soon fade into oblivion, but that would not be the case. The Liberals and Turner proved to be highly effective as the Official Opposition. They had control of the Senate, which allowed them to stall the legislation of Mulroney, and a new group of Liberal MPs including Sheila Copps and Brian Tobin, who were called the Rat Pack, were pestering Mulroney constantly in the House of Commons. Despite these inroads, there were rumours that the party was unhappy with Turner and there was the belief that Chretien would soon take over.
With the new election now looming, the main issue of the election was the free trade agreement with the United States, known as NAFTA. The agreement would see the abolishment of most tariffs on the border, and a new process for dealing with trade disputes would be created. Labour unions, many Canadians and the arts community opposed it, while corporations wanted the agreement.
Turner would accuse Mulroney of selling out Canada to the United States over the agreement. In their debate, Turner was ready for Mulroney this time, and would not be caught off guard as had happened in 1984. In regard to NAFTA, he stated, quote:
“With one signature of a pen, you turned Canada into a colony of the United States, because when the economic levers go, the political independence is sure to follow.”
Most commentators felt that Turner had been the better of the two men in the debate. This raised his poll numbers, and the Liberals began to hope they may even win a majority.
In the election, The Liberals doubled their seats to 83, but Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives still won the majority in the election.
In 1990, Turner resigned as the Leader of the Liberal Party and was replaced by Jean Chretien.
Turner remained in the House of Commons until 1993, the same year the Liberals returned to power using the foundation that Turner had built in the 1980s.
In 1990, he returned to his career as a lawyer, while sitting on company boards. He would voice his support for the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.
In 1994, he was presented with the Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2004, he was part of the Canadian delegation that monitored the Ukrainian presidential election runoff vote. That same year, he was inducted into the University of British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame. In 2012, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. In 2017, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
Turner was also highly involved in charitable organizations including serving as an honorary director of the World Wildlife Fund. He was well-known for his calls to protect the rivers and lakes of Canada. Turner would sit down with Ontario Premier Ernie Eaves, who led the province from 2002 to 2003, to persuade him to donate the lakebed of western Lake Superior to create the largest protected freshwater reserve in the world.
On Sept. 19, 2020, Turner passed away. A state funeral was held on Oct. 6, 2020 and he was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, joining Mackenzie King who is also buried there.
His political opponent, Brian Mulroney, would state upon Turner’s death that he was, quote:
“Destined for great success and a politician who never believed in the politics of personal destruction.”
The Department of Canadian Heritage would say quote:
“Through three decades of public service as a cabinet minister, Leader of the Opposition, and 17th Prime Minister of Canada, he was tirelessly devoted to upholding Canadian values and principles.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would state on Twitter, quote:
“John Turner was one of a kind. An honourable gentleman and an upstanding Canadian. John cared deeply about democracy, equality, and those he served. His optimistic outlook, energetic approach and tireless service inspired many, and our country is a better place for it.”
I will close out this episode with a quote from Turner, which he said to the Globe and Mail in 2009.
“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident; you’ve got to work at it.”
Information comes from The New York Times, Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC, Wikipedia, CTV News, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa Citizen, UBC, WWF, Everything Zoomer,