John Turner, Briefly Its Chief however Lengthy a Drive in Canada, Dies at 91
John Turner, a Canadian politician who fundamentally reformed Canadian law, served briefly as prime minister, and then regained importance by leading the opposition to a free trade agreement with the United States, died on September 19 at his home in Toronto. He was 91 years old.
His death was confirmed by Marc Kealey, a former aide who serves as the family’s spokesman. No reason was given.
Mr Turner served as Prime Minister for only 79 days in 1984, the second shortest term of any of his predecessors. (The shortest was that of Prime Minister Charles Tupper – 69 days in 1896.)
Mr Turner led his country after taking a nine-year hiatus from a busy political career and then reluctantly yielding to calls from senior Liberal party members to join the race to replace retired Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
At the time, Mr Turner, whose down-to-earth manner contrasted sharply with Mr Trudeau’s reticence, was more popular in polls than the Prime Minister.
A respected attorney, Rhodes scholar, and accomplished sprinter who narrowly missed the 1948 Olympics, Mr. Turner had long been touted as a potential Prime Minister. However, after taking office, he was soon persuaded to hold general elections to build on his popularity.
The plan failed when the Liberals under Brian Mulroney lost to the progressive Conservatives in a combination of inaccurate polls, gawking campaigns and, most importantly, a national sentiment that had spoiled Mr. Trudeau.
It didn’t help that at the beginning of his campaign, television stations broadcast a video of Mr Turner patting the back of Iona Campagnolo, the party’s president, an act that alienated many women. In his television appearances, his choppy speaking style didn’t compare to Mr. Mulreey’s smooth delivery. And everywhere he went, Mr. Turner encountered anger at Mr. Trudeau’s legacy.
It all came together in one of the most famous television debates in Canadian politics. During the event, Mr. Mulroney asked Mr. Turner why he had complied with Mr. Trudeau’s outbound request to appoint 200 Liberal Party supporters to the unelected Senate, the Canadian bank, and various government and state-owned companies.
Mr. Turner replied that he had no choice.
“You had an option, sir,” replied Mr. Mulroney. “You could have said, ‘I won’t do it, that’s wrong for Canada.'”
It was a decisive blow. Mr. Turner was obviously nervous. And although he retained his seat in the House of Commons, the Liberals as a whole were devastated.
John Napier Wyndham Turner – known to his friends as Chick – was born on June 7, 1929 in Richmond, England (now part of London). His mother, Phyllis (Gregory) Turner, was the daughter of a mining engineer. She had traveled to England on a scholarship from Rossland, British Columbia to do a PhD in economics. There she met Leonard Turner, who lived on the wealth of his family’s trading business. John’s sister Brenda was born in 1931. A year later, Leonard Turner died of pneumonia.
Back in Canada, Ms. Turner moved with her children to Ottawa, where she found work as an economist with the federal government. There she met Frank Ross, a Scottish-born industrialist who had volunteered to run Canada’s economy during World War II. At the end of the war, when Chick Turner was 16 years old, the couple married and the family moved to Mr. Ross’ mansion in an exclusive part of Vancouver, British Columbia.
After attending the University of British Columbia, Mr. Turner used his Rhodes Fellowship to earn a law degree from Oxford University. After returning to Canada, he began practicing in Montreal, Canada’s largest city and then the financial and corporate center of the time.
Mr Turner met his future wife, Geills McCrae Kilgour, during his first successful political campaign for Parliament in 1962. She worked as a data analyst. She survived him with a daughter, Elizabeth Turner; three sons, Michael, David and Andrew; and his sister.
After Mr. Trudeau was elected Prime Minister in 1968, he promoted Mr. Turner to high-profile cabinet positions. As Mr Trudeau’s successor as Minister of Justice, he led Parliament through comprehensive criminal law that legalized homosexuality and abortion and reformed divorce laws, among other things. Later, as finance minister, he dealt with so-called “stagflation”, a difficult time of both high inflation and high unemployment.
Paul Litt, historian and biographer of Mr. Turner, wrote that Mr. Turner’s work as Justice and Treasury Secretary was critical to realizing Trudeau’s vision of a “just society.”
“Trudeau inspired Canadians with his principled concerns, but it was often Turner who got them to work,” wrote Professor Litt in Elusive Destiny: The Political Call of John Napier Turner (2011). “More than any other Canadian politician, he translated the spirit of the 1960s into major changes to the country’s law.”
Ed Lumley, a cabinet secretary at the time, said that Mr. Turner corrected many of Mr. Trudeau’s political weaknesses. “They were great as a team,” he said. However, the partnership broke up in 1975 when Mr. Turner returned to practice as an attorney for nearly a decade.
In a statement, Justin Trudeau, the current Prime Minister and son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, called Mr. Turner “a gifted politician, lawyer and athlete” and a “humble man with a strong social conscience”.
The country was polarized at the time because of a free trade agreement with the United States that Mr. Mulroney had negotiated with the Reagan administration. While the pact enjoyed strong business support, there were widespread concerns that factories would close and jobs would disappear if American goods poured into the country. Mr Turner said the deal posed a threat to Canadian sovereignty.
“With the signature of a pen,” he said, Mr. Mulroney had made Canada a colony of the United States, because if economic levers go, political independence will certainly follow. “
Although many commentators thought that Mr. Turner had improved Mr. Mulroney in the debate, the Liberals lost the election. But they have reversed many of their losses from four years earlier, largely thanks to Mr Turner’s efforts to rebuild the party’s fundraising and campaigning machinery.
Mr Turner later said he had no regrets about speaking out against the trade deal he called “the struggle of my life”.
As he predicted, despite the Reagan-Mulroney trade pact and its successor, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the United States repeatedly took action against Canadian exports.
“I’m a free trader, but I want mutual free trade,” Turner told The Globe and Mail in 2012. “As it was negotiated with the United States, only Canadian jobs were at stake.”