John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister who spent decades in federal politics as a cabinet minister and Liberal Party leader during some of the most turbulent moments in modern Canadian history, has died at 91.
Turner led Canada for 79 days in the summer of 1984 — the second-shortest time in office of any prime minister.
Dubbed “Canada’s Kennedy” as a stylish, up-and-coming young MP in the early 1960s, Turner was Pierre Trudeau’s chief anglophone lieutenant in cabinet for years. Turner served as justice minister when the government decriminalized homosexuality and suspended civil liberties during the October Crisis in 1970, and was the finance minister as Ottawa struggled to control deficit spending and inflation during the oil crisis.
After a shock resignation from Trudeau’s government and a period of self-imposed exile on Bay Street, Turner eventually completed his climb to the Liberal leadership in the mid-1980s. But he inherited a party suffering from years of accumulated scandals and an electorate ready for change after more than two decades of nearly unbroken Liberal rule.
In the end, Turner’s most enduring moments in federal politics came once his short stint at 24 Sussex was over — namely, years of bitter battles waged with Brian Mulroney over free trade with the United States. They were fierce fights that Turner eventually lost, but the legacy of those debates continues to shape Canadian politics today.
WATCH | Turner represented the best of Canada, says Brian Mulroney:
On Saturday, Mulroney remembered Turner as a man “destined for great success” and a politician who “never believed in the politics of personal destruction.”
In a statement confirming his passing, the Department of Canadian Heritage called Turner “an accomplished lawyer and politician, [who] was recognized for his personal integrity and commitment to democracy.
“Through three decades of public service as a cabinet minister, Leader of the Opposition, and 17th Prime Minister of Canada (1984), he was tirelessly devoted to upholding Canadian values and principles.”
The statement said funeral information would follow.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement he had “learned with great sadness today of the death of the Right Honourable John Turner, former Prime Minister of Canada.”
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. pic.twitter.com/W7n9QsdRUy
Trudeau noted Turner served in numerous capacities before his stint as prime minister, including minister of consumer and corporate affairs, minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, minister of finance and leader of the opposition.
“He was deeply committed to the law and democratic process, bringing about much-needed reforms to the Criminal Code.
“Mr. Turner was a humble man with a strong social conscience. He supported many charitable organizations, including Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He was also an honorary director of World Wildlife Fund Canada and an ardent advocate for the protection of Canada’s lakes and rivers.”
Turner was born in the English town of Richmond upon Thames on June 7, 1929. When his father died just three years later, his Canadian-born mother moved the family to Canada, where they eventually settled in Ottawa’s posh Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood, surrounded by members of the country’s ruling political class.
After the Second World War, his mother remarried — to industrialist and future B.C. lieutenant governor Frank Ross — and the family moved west, where Turner attended the University of British Columbia. He became a track star, setting a national record for the 100-yard dash in 1947, and narrowly missed his chance to compete at the 1948 Olympics after smashing his knee in a car accident.
“Chick,” as the popular athlete became known, graduated from UBC in 1949 and received a Rhodes scholarship to study law at Oxford. He was called to the bar in London and started a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris, but he returned to Canada in 1953 before it was completed, joining the Montreal law firm Stikeman Elliott shortly thereafter.
WATCH | A look at Turner’s 1962 campaign race for a Montreal riding:
Turner’s first taste of national politics came when C.D. Howe, the storied “Minister of Everything” under Mackenzie King, recruited him in 1957 to help organize a Liberal re-election campaign.
The young lawyer’s profile swelled within the Liberal ranks as he started speaking at policy conventions, but it truly took off after he made headlines worldwide for dancing with Princess Margaret during a 1958 royal tour of British Columbia. Letters from the princess published in 2015 revealed she “nearly married him,” and it was reported the pair only broke up after Buckingham Palace ordered an end to the relationship.
In 1961, with the Liberals languishing in opposition and eager to recruit young talent, Turner was wooed into running for the party in the 1962 federal election.
The 32-year-old lawyer accepted, winning his Montreal riding and joining a cohort of rookie lawmakers — including Herb Gray and Gerald Regan — that Maclean’s magazine called “probably the brightest group of MPs ever to appear simultaneously in a Canadian Parliament.”
Turner married his wife, Geills McCrae Kilgour, in 1963, at a time when he was quickly rising within the Liberal caucus. By 1965, he had joined Lester Pearson’s cabinet as minister without portfolio, and by 1967 he was minister of consumer and corporate affairs.
When Pearson stepped down as prime minister in 1967, Turner eagerly entered the race to replace him on an anti-establishment platform that pledged to lower the voting age and improve skills training for young Canadians.
“My time is now and now is no time for mellow men,” Turner told delegates at the 1968 Liberal leadership convention.
Trudeau emerged the victor at that convention, but Turner hung on until the final ballot. The 195 delegates who stuck with him until the bitter end were rumoured to have subsequently formed the “195 Club,” a secretive cadre of well-placed political organizers quietly waiting for his next leadership campaign.
Trudeau heir apparent
The promising Liberal would soon be considered Trudeau’s heir apparent and the natural choice to continue the Liberals’ traditional anglophone-francophone leadership rotation.
Appointed justice minister in 1968, Turner championed key reforms to Canada’s Criminal Code that opened the door to LGBTQ rights and legal abortions. He also implemented, defended and eventually dismantled the controversial War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis and appointed Canada’s first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Bora Laskin.
Shuffled into the finance portfolio in 1972, Turner faced mounting economic pressures due to the global oil crisis. He also became the government’s main economic interlocutor with the White House, playing tennis with Treasury Secretary George Shultz and frequently ironing out bilateral issues over dinner with President Richard Nixon.
Successive Turner budgets prioritized low unemployment levels, but at the cost of double-digit inflation and soaring deficits. Still, some Liberals would later defend Turner as a voice of fiscal prudence at the Trudeau cabinet table, implementing the government’s policy in public but privately advocating restraint while other ministers clamoured for ever-bigger budgets.
In time, Turner and Trudeau developed a notorious rivalry, and after 10 years as a senior minister in the Trudeau government, Turner resigned from cabinet in 1975 with a terse, enigmatic letter.
Waiting in the wings
Turner formally vacated his seat in Parliament in 1976 and decamped with his wife and four children to Toronto. On Bay Street, he became a high-paid lawyer at McMillan Binch and joined the boards of some of Canada’s most powerful companies, including Canadian Pacific, Seagram’s and Holt Renfrew.
He remained in Toronto for the ensuing eight years, refusing to give interviews but maintaining a public profile as the Liberal Party’s leader-in-waiting.
Turner would also prove a thorn in the side for many former cabinet colleagues, pumping out corporate newsletters to clients that lambasted the Liberals’ economic policies. While Jean Chrétien, another of Turner’s bitter rivals, dismissed the newsletters as a “gossip column,” opposition MPs eagerly weaponized the missives in Question Period.
WATCH | Turner returns to public life:
After Trudeau’s second resignation in 1984, Turner finally won the top Liberal job, becoming leader and prime minister at a convention many saw as a coronation.
But he inherited a party sagging and scarred from too many years in power. Turner’s decision to move ahead with over 200 appointments proposed by Trudeau in his final days as prime minister cemented the party’s image as out of touch and too comfortable in power.
During the ’84 televised election debate, Mulroney eviscerated Turner when the Liberal leader unconvincingly argued he had “no option” but to follow through with the appointments. In one of the most iconic exchanges in modern Canadian politics, Mulroney replied: “You could have said: ‘I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada, and I am not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.'”
WATCH | Behind the scenes at the 1984 Liberal leadership convention:
In the end, the Liberals suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the Progressive Conservatives, receiving just 40 of 282 seats — at the time, the party’s worst-ever showing.
Turner had been prime minister for little more than 11 weeks. Only Charles Tupper held the country’s top job for less time — 68 days in 1896.
Turner hung on as Liberal leader, however, rebuilding the party and duelling with Mulroney over the Meech Lake Accord and, most memorably, Canada’s trading relationship with the U.S. — a battle he called “the fight of my life.”
He also weathered the firestorm created by Reign of Error, a searing biography by journalist Greg Weston that portrayed Turner as a heavy-drinking, hypocritical loose cannon. One CBC reporter said it was “written with acid.”
Fearing the impact Mulroney’s Free Trade Agreement would have on Canadian sovereignty, Turner made the controversial move in 1988 to instruct Liberal senators to block legislation that would have ratified the deal.
Turner was accused of misusing the powers of the unelected Senate, but he told CBC’s Bill Cameron at the time, “I believe if Canadians are given a choice to vote on this trade deal, people will reject it.”
WATCH | Mulroney battles Turner on free trade in 1988:
The decision triggered an election dominated by Canada’s trading relationship with the U.S., during which Turner, with the support of Canada’s labour unions and arts community, fiercely fought the future agreement. In another iconic live TV election debate, Turner told Mulroney “You’ve sold us out” with “one signature of a pen,” and argued the deal would “turn us into a colony of the United States.”
In the end, although the Liberals increased their share of the House of Commons to 83 seats, Canadians returned the PCs to power with a second majority. The FTA was successfully ratified in Parliament, and after surviving an attempted caucus putsch, Turner eventually retired as Liberal leader in 1990.
Retreat from public life
In an exit interview with CBC Radio’s Dale Goldhawk in 1990, Turner said the trade agreement was “a bad contract for Canada,” adding “history will prove me right.”
He also said that he wished he’d done more to create opportunities for education, protect the environment, promote gender equality and “[bring] Aboriginal people back into the mainstream.”
Turner retained his seat in the House until 1993 but largely retreated from public life after stepping down as Liberal leader.
In 1994, he was named a companion of the Order of Canada and, in 2004, led the Canadian delegation of election monitors in Ukraine.
After leaving full-time politics, he returned to practising law in Toronto but remained an outspoken advocate against the centralization of power in Ottawa, the manipulation of House of Commons debates and bills and the diminishing role of parliamentary committees in the legislative process. He also showed a particular interest in speaking about politics with young people.
“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident, you’ve got to work at it,” he told the Globe and Mail in 2009. “At the moment, Canadians are getting a little lazy about it, a little inattentive, and we’ve got to revive it.”
Turner is survived by his wife and four children.