RIP John Turner, Canadian democratic politician of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s

Sep 20th, 2020 | By | Category: In Brief
John Turner as collegiate track star at the University of British Columbia in the late 1940s. PHOTO BY POSTMEDIA NEWS FILES.

RANDALL WHITE, TORONTO, SEPTEMBER 20, 2020 : John Napier Turner (June 7, 1929 — September 18, 2020) sat in the Canadian House of Commons for the Montreal electoral district of St. Lawrence-St.George, 1962—1968, for Ottawa-Carleton, 1968—1976, and finally for Vancouver-Quadra, 1984—1993.

He served as Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs in Lester Pearson’s Liberal cabinet, 1967—1968, and then as Solicitor General, 1968, Minister of Justice, 1968—1972, and Minister of Finance, 1972—1975 in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet.

John Turner was subsequently leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, 1984—1990, and during this period served briefly as the 17th Prime Minister of Canada, June 30, 1984 — September 17, 1984.

The CBC News site piece on his death in Toronto two days ago is headlined “John Turner, PM and Liberal leader who battled free trade with US, dead at 91.”

This strikes me as somewhat misleading. I did the media rounds promoting a free trade history book in the late 1980s, and I recall several interviewers’ noting privately that “everyone knew” the Bay Street business lawyer John Turner was not altogether serious in his opposition to Canada-US free trade.

L to r : Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, PM Lester Pearson, Jean Chrétien, 1967. Calgary Herald.

What someone on TV yesterday (Robert Bothwell perhaps?) did more aptly stress, I think, was Turner’s concern for Canadian political sovereignty in any Canada-US trade deal. (A problem at least significantly mitigated, it could be argued, with the North American Free Trade agreement, which included Mexico.)

I was most struck, however, by some TV punditry yesterday from the NDP commentator Tom Parkin. He recalled seeing John Turner on the Toronto subway. Parkin was with one of his children at the time. He pointed out that in our Canadian democracy the former prime minister was riding the subway just like everyone else!

This reminded me that I know others with stories about chance encounters with John Turner of this sort. One friend remembers seeing him in Yellowknife in the early 1960s. My wife saw him at Lake Louise around the same time.

John Turner and his wife, Geills, at the funeral of Pierre Trudeau in Montreal, October 3, 2000. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / OTTAWA CITIZEN.

I myself have three similar public sightings of Mr. Turner that stick in my mind. The first was on a now vanished staircase to the Queen subway station in Toronto, not long after Mr. Turner’s defeat in the 1984 election that ushered in Brian Mulroney’s government. I looked at his face, and thought he looked at mine. He seemed to recognize I had recognized him, and I had the no doubt wrong impression that the look on his face was a kind of apology.

I next saw John Turner in public several years later (possibly the mid 1990s?) at an annual mass militia bands concert to which my brother and I had been given tickets, as a memento of the world in which we had grown up. I was intrigued that Mr. Turner would attend such an event.

My final sighting took place only several years ago now, at my Toronto dentist’s office. (Strictly by chance I had an accomplished dentist with a number of such eminent patients.) By this point John Turner, in his late 80s, was using a walker. But no one was helping him. His attitude was “don’t bother about me : I’m fine.” But he also seemed concerned not to take up too much space with his walker in a cramped facility.

John Turner at 90 with PM Justin Trudeau, June 2019. Photo by Sam Garcia.

In some respects John Turner was an unambiguous member of some kind of Canadian establishment. His three sons attended Upper Canada College in Toronto. His stepfather was a Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. In his younger years he had some kind of brief involvement with Princess Margaret. And he once rescued former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker from some strong surf at a Barbados resort.

At the same time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement “on the death of John Turner” yesterday noted that “Mr. Turner was a humble man with a strong social conscience … deeply committed to the law and democratic process, bringing about much needed reforms to the Criminal Code.”

In his own unique way he was an authentic man of the people – which is why people like myself and my wife and my friend who met Mr. Turner in Yellowknife (and Tom Parkin and no doubt many others) have the memories of him we do. His career finally reminds us that you can make important contributions to Canadian democracy, even if you don’t serve as prime minister for any great length of time. Getting the top job is not finally what it’s all about.

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