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As a scholar, a lawyer and a Liberal cabinet minister, he was a golden boy who seemed like he could do no wrong. As Canada’s 17th prime minister, he led the party to disastrous defeat

June 16, 1984: John Turner raises his arms triumphantly at the Liberal convention in Ottawa that selected him as Pierre Trudeau's successor as prime minister.The Canadian Press

John Turner, who became Canada’s 17th prime minister on June 30, 1984, was once “the golden boy” of the federal Liberal Party. His career, which began with great promise and propelled him to the highest office in the land, eventually became tinged with pathos as he led his party to its worst defeat in the 20th century a few weeks later.

Mr. Turner died at the age of 91 on Sept. 19, 2020.

In his early years, Mr. Turner was a success in whatever he attempted. As a high-school student, he was at the top of his class; at university, he set records in track and field and qualified for the 1948 Olympics Games. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, the most prestigious educational award in the Commonwealth. Then it was off to the Sorbonne to improve his French and back to Canada as a lawyer, all launching pads for what appeared to be a charmed and fulfilling life, until he reached the top, after a successful bid for the leadership of his party on his second try.

'A principled and passionate defender of democracy’: Public figures react to death of former prime minister John Turner

Mr. Turner was a charismatic politician, conventionally handsome with piercing blue eyes. He was a feel-good, back-slapping extrovert with a bulging Rolodex. He boasted that he knew more people on a first-name basis than anyone else in Canada and he kept in touch. A politician of the old school, he was unfailingly courteous, even to his political enemies, and saw public service as a duty for those who had been given much by society.

His was a meteoric career that first soared but then fizzled downward after the 1984 defeat. He struggled in politics as leader of the opposition for almost six years, a tenure marked by disloyalty in his caucus, a determined attempt to dump him through the leadership-review process and finally, a coup attempt in the middle of the 1988 election campaign. His reputation and possibly his party were saved only by a 90-second exchange with then-prime minister Brian Mulroney during the televised leaders debate in 1988. It changed the course of the “Free Trade” election and prevented a Liberal rout.

John Turner and Brian Mulroney spar over free trade during a 1988 election debate.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

When he announced a few months later that he was bowing out of politics, his departure marked, in the words of prominent authors Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson, “the demise of the old Liberalism and some might say, the old Canada. … John Turner was virtually the last man standing who still believed in the Liberal alliance that Mackenzie King put together, Louis St. Laurent refined, Lester Pearson extended and Pierre Trudeau ostensibly destroyed.”

Mr. Turner first entered Parliament with great fanfare in 1962 and when he resigned from then-prime minister Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet in frustration 13 years later, he was at the top of his game – the last minister of finance to bring in a surplus before more than two decades of soaring deficits. But in terms of personality and approach, he had always been the polar opposite of Mr. Trudeau and critical of his overly intellectual approach to politics.

When Mr. Turner returned to electoral politics, almost a decade later in 1984, the political environment that greeted him had been fundamentally altered, especially by the 24-hour television news cycle, and a decline in the salience of Parliament. In his previous term, he had gained a reputation as a “House of Commons man” steeped in its traditions while defending the importance of the individual MP. When he returned to Parliament, he was appalled by the lack of respect for the institution. As Ms. McCall and Mr. Clarkson said, Mr. Turner “didn’t seem to realize the world had altered and Canada, the Liberal Party included, had to adjust.”

Mr. Turner was never able to make the adjustment. His rustiness and discomfort first surfaced in the leadership contest with his former cabinet colleague Jean Chrétien. Although he won and succeeded Mr. Trudeau as prime minister, Mr. Turner dissolved Parliament almost immediately and triggered what turned out to be a disastrous election. As a result, his term as prime minister lasted only 79 days.

His tribulations as leader of the Liberal Party obscured his earlier accomplishments as a reform-oriented minister of justice who pushed legislation to protect human rights and the Official Languages Act through Parliament, as a minister of consumer and corporate affairs who stuck up for the little guy versus big business and as a prudent minister of finance. During the October Crisis of 1970, when Quebec separatist radicals kidnapped a British diplomat and murdered a provincial cabinet minister, it fell to Mr. Turner as attorney-general to trigger the War Measures Act, a draconian suspension of civil liberties. But Mr. Turner was the most reluctant of all of the ministers surrounding Mr. Trudeau on the security and intelligence committee to suspend Canada’s democratic norms and he moved quickly to replace the War Measures Act with the Public Order (Temporary Measures) Act, a much less drastic law.

John Turner, about a year old.United Press Canada

John Turner was born in Richmond, Surrey, England, on June 7, 1929. His mother, Phillis Gregory, an economics graduate student, had interrupted doctoral studies in Philadelphia to marry Leonard Turner, a somewhat mysterious English adventurer and gunsmith, and moved to England. But shortly after his sister Brenda was born two years later, his father died suddenly. His mother, then 29 and penniless, packed up the family and returned to her family home in Rossland, a mining town in the interior of British Columbia.

From there, she applied for and won a job as an economist on the newly created Tariff Board in Ottawa and eventually the brainy and beautiful widow became the most senior female civil servant in the federal government. Prominent politicians and bureaucrats gathered regularly in her living room and they made a big impression on the young John, imbuing him with the lofty calling of public service.

At the age of 16, John entered the University of British Columbia, where he excelled as an athlete, wrote a sports column called “Chalk Talk, by Chick” for the student newspaper and became a dedicated fraternity brother and party animal at Beta Theta Pi. He found enough time for his textbooks, however, to win the scholarship to Oxford, where he studied jurisprudence and civil law at Magdalen College.

Mr. Turner in 1947, when he was assistant sports editor of the Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia's student newspaper.The Canadian Press

Although Phyllis Turner was a strong-willed and generous mother, Mr. Turner grew up conscious of the void left by his father’s death. That may explain his attachment to some of his teachers and mentors at St. Patrick’s College in Ottawa, where he seriously considered joining the priesthood.

Oxford was an intellectual wakening for Mr. Turner and, for the first time, he came up against people who were brighter and more eloquent than he was. His friends included four-minute-milers Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway, as well as Australians Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, who both became prime minister of their country. Also in Mr. Turner’s circle was Jeremy Thorpe, who went on to become the leader of the Liberal Party of Britain.

Mr. Turner was called to the English bar in 1953, but his plan to get a doctorate in law at the Sorbonne was cut short when his stepfather, industrialist Frank Ross (who became B.C. lieutenant-governor) summoned him back to Canada to do “real work” and helped him land a position with one of Montreal’s up-and-coming law firms, Stikeman Elliott.

Mr. Turner embraced law and the social life of Montreal, but he was still considering the priesthood. Senior partner Heward Stikeman told author Jack Cahill that Mr. Turner “talked to me about it as if I was his father. He seemed to be in need of a father figure and I guess I was one of them.”

Over a bottle of Burgundy at the Mount Royal Club, Mr. Stikeman talked him out of the priesthood. He praised Mr. Turner’s ability as a lawyer to analyze a situation and then come up with the right solution. “If he had an Achilles heel, it was that he was used to adulation and he wanted to be loved. … I didn’t know if he would be tough enough to make it in politics.”

Personable, competent and bilingual, Mr. Turner soon became president of the Montreal Junior Bar, a group of legal high flyers. He was also a much-sought-after bachelor on the social scene. As Ms. McCall wrote in Grits, “he was the sexiest thing on the squash courts, the handsomest man at the balls, escorting the prettiest and most eligible girls.”

Mr. Turner’s fun-seeking was offset by community service. He took on the presidency of Harterre House, which helped mentally and emotionally troubled children with learning disabilities, and became legal counsel for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

It was also during this period that he met Princess Margaret, who was visiting B.C. and staying with his mother and stepfather. Mr. Turner flew out from Montreal for the lieutenant-governor’s ball and literally swept the princess off her feet. Princess Margaret had just been forced to break off her relationship with a divorced Royal Air Force officer and the British tabloids went into overdrive.

When the Princess came to Government House in Ottawa for another ball, Mr. Turner was again her escort. But then the Queen ordered her sister to skip a third ball in Montreal to dampen the romance speculation. Mr. Turner remained friends with the princess until she died.

John Turner and Princess Margaret in 1959.The Associated Press

But public service was always in the Turner consciousness, so at 32, he was persuaded to challenge Egan Chambers, war hero and former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in the ethnically and linguistically mixed St. Lawrence-St. George riding.

With help from his young lawyer friends and dozens of Montreal’s prettiest and smartest young women, the Turner campaign produced unprecedented dazzle. Even though the election coincided with university exam time, many of the young female students opted for campaigning over studies. As one observer put it, “every one of them would rather be a Mrs. John Turner than a BA.”

Mr. Turner won handily in what was considered a major upset. Indeed, it was the catalyst for persistent media speculation. “There was always this aura about him that he would be prime minister some day,” wrote Mr. Cahill, one of Mr. Turner’s biographers.

One of his attractive campaign workers was Geills Kilgour, a systems engineer with IBM. She introduced computers into the campaign, a breakthrough at the time. They fell in love and were married the next year.

June 25, 1968: Turner and his wife Geills, right, chat with prime minister Lester Pearson and his wife, Maryon, outside an Ottawa polling station.The Canadian Press

When Mr. Turner got to Parliament, then-prime minister Mr. Pearson, another father figure, made the ambitious and precocious newcomer learn the ropes on the back benches. But in 1965, he was appointed registrar-general and then minister of consumer and corporate affairs. In December 1967, Mr. Pearson announced he was stepping down, triggering a race for the leadership of the Liberal Party unlike anything that had been seen before. There were eight candidates, including Mr. Turner. The race was eventually won by the dashing, enigmatic law professor and intellectual Mr. Trudeau, but not before a marathon of vote-trading and deal-making.

When it came down to a contest between the two front-runners, Mr. Trudeau and pro-business candidate Robert Winters, Mr. Turner came under intense pressure to join the opponents to Mr. Trudeau. He refused all entreaties and 195 of his supporters stuck with him on the final ballot. They became the 195 Club that formed the basis of his political organization for the rest of his career.

In his major speech to the convention, Mr. Turner denied he was running only to raise his profile. “I’m not bidding now for your consideration at some vague [future] convention when I’ve mellowed a bit. My time is now and now is not a time for mellow men.”

His speech was the talk of the convention. Journalist Martin Sullivan wrote that “he bit into his monosyllabic words with an angry rhythm that evoked the Kennedys.” He emerged with a new stature in the Liberal Party and in Canada as a whole, Mr. Sullivan wrote.

Oct. 19, 1968: Turner sits for a candid portrait after being sworn into office as justice minister.Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail

In the cabinet shuffle after the Trudeau sweep a few weeks later, Mr. Turner became minister of justice and attorney-general where he initiated a far-reaching overhaul of Canadian jurisprudence. Indeed, when reflecting on his accomplishments for an extensive documentary broadcast on the Stornoway iChannel in 2006, he cited the reforms he made as minister of justice as the highlight of his career.

Because of his economic differences with Mr. Trudeau, his association with Bay Street financiers and his eventual opposition to the Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Turner acquired a reputation for being pro-business. But he was originally on the centre-left of the Liberal Party and spoke forcefully about the need to constrain the powers of the state versus the individual.

As minister of justice, Mr. Turner implemented Mr. Trudeau’s pledge to take the state out of the bedrooms of the nation. The reforms legalized homosexual acts between consenting adults and made provisions for legal abortions subject to approval from a hospital. Both measures brought Mr. Turner, the devout Catholic, into conflict with the church’s hierarchy, as well as prompting a lot of personal soul-searching.

He also brought in legislation to facilitate unions and created the first Law Reform Commission. As a young lawyer, Mr. Turner had called for a system of legal aid and when he became minister, he provided federal money to establish it. Weaker members of society should not be at the mercy of those who could afford expensive lawyers, he said.

May 8, 1972: Turner, then finance minister, heads to the House of Commons to present his first budget as prime minister Pierre Trudeau looks on.The Canadian Press

Mr. Turner was appointed minister of finance, the second most powerful post in the government, just before the 1972 election in which Robert Stanfield and the Progressive Conservatives came within two seats of toppling Mr. Trudeau and forced the Liberals into a minority government.

Mr. Turner brought in major tax cuts offset by a package of subsidies and other goodies to secure the support of the NDP. The economy boomed, but the NDP decided to vote against his second budget and force the 1974 election. The NDP lost its gamble and Liberals easily regained their majority.

But inflation and interest rates were skyrocketing and Mr. Turner was concerned with mounting debt and deficits, because he thought they threatened social programs in the long run. Mr. Turner tried to persuade businesses and unions to accept voluntary wage and price limits, to no avail, and by the summer of 1975, he had become disenchanted with his situation in the Trudeau cabinet. So he asked for a meeting with the prime minister.

There has always been mystery surrounding that meeting, but it ended with Mr. Turner submitting his resignation. He said little at the time but later indicated that he felt he was in an impossible position when “the Prime Minister doesn’t support his finance minister.”

It might have ended differently. Mr. Turner was at the time the best-known and most-liked Canadian politician, second only to Mr. Trudeau. According to Carleton University historian Paul Litt, another Turner biographer, the finance minister was a big factor in keeping the Liberals credible in English-Canada, bailing Mr. Trudeau out of the 1972 minority and in general assuaging fears that Mr. Trudeau was mismanaging the economy.

“Maybe if he had seen himself as the Anglo senior partner in one of those historic French-English alliances, he would have stayed. But Trudeau didn’t want to share the glory in this way and that started a blood feud in the Liberal Party that can be traced down to today,” he wrote in 2007.

Barely a month after Mr. Turner’s resignation, the prime minister announced a reversal of his 1974 campaign promise not to impose wage and price controls. The Liberal Party began a decline that ended four years later with its defeat by the Progressive Conservative Party led by Joe Clark.

When Mr. Turner left Ottawa for law firm McMillan Binch in Toronto, prosperity came quickly. He became a fixture with his own table at Winston’s, then one of the spiffiest corporate hangouts, in an era when he could still smoke Monte Cristo cigars with his post-café brandy. Theoretically, he was out of politics.

In his book, One-Eyed Kings, Ron Graham wrote that Mr. Turner was “Prince Valiant in exile,” and there was no doubt his continuing prominence was due in part to the expectation that some day he would be back in power.

August, 1979: Turner on a family canoe trip on the Burnside River, during his years out of politics.

Mr. Turner ducked the first opportunity when, after the 1979 defeat by the Progressive Conservatives, Mr. Trudeau announced his intention to step down. He was enjoying the good life, still had children in expensive schools and universities, and concluded that he had put politics behind him.

Politics seldom follows a linear path, however, and within weeks of the Trudeau resignation announcement, the Clark government lost a budget vote in Parliament leading to another election. Mr. Trudeau was persuaded to withdraw his resignation and lead the party into the 1980 election. The electorate returned the Liberals to power and Mr. Trudeau to 24 Sussex Dr. as prime minister for another four years.

The next time Mr. Trudeau announced he was quitting, in February of 1984, the pressure on Mr. Turner was overwhelming. As he commented in a memoirs-type interview on the Stornoway iChannel in 2006, “I had my arms twisted right out of their sockets.”

Still, he was hesitant. He had refused to allow supporters to begin organizing until Mr. Trudeau made his announcement, in part because he didn’t want to be seen as trying to force the prime minister out. “I think he was very much of two minds, but he did it because to some degree he thought there was still another service to give,” according to Richard Alway, president of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, a member of Mr. Turner’s inner circle. “Despite the locker room jargon and so on, I’ve always thought of him as the eternal Boy Scout.”

But this lack of preparation and his nine-year absence from politics showed in the subsequent leadership and election campaigns. He appeared out of touch, out of date and unsure of himself. There were five candidates vying to replace Mr. Trudeau, but the fight came down to a choice between Mr. Turner and Mr. Chrétien. Mr. Turner won on the second ballot, 1,862 to 1,368. But then-party president Iona Campagnolo uttered a line that was a harbinger of the difficulties to come. Mr. Chrétien was second on the ballot, she told the packed Ottawa Civic Centre, but he “was first in our hearts.” It was the metaphor for the strife that bedeviled Mr. Turner’s next six years as the party refused to unite around his leadership.

Aug. 24, 1984: Turner addresses a group of non-partisan women at a Toronto lunch. The forks behind him are part of a banner reading 'Lunches with Leaders.'Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Turner was sworn in as prime minister June 30, 1984, along with his cabinet that was mostly composed of former Trudeau ministers. The new/old cabinet then passed orders in council appointing the remaining members of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet and a clutch of other Liberal stalwarts and hangers-on to patronage posts, handing new Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney a ready-made issue.

The Turner election campaign lurched from disaster to disaster, which illustrated how uncomfortable and unprepared the new Liberal leader was. As Mr. Graham described it: “From nervous worry and excessive adrenaline, he was always clearing his throat, adjusting the knot of his tie, licking his lips, barking at his own jokes, chewing a breath mint and scrunching his eyes.”

Then a television camera caught Mr. Turner patting Ms. Campagnolo’s behind. Although Ms. Campagnolo did not complain, the fuss underlined how the old locker-room humour and bum-patting was no longer acceptable in 1984. As biographer Mr. Litt put it, the incident “dramatically supported accusations that he was yesterday’s man – he’d missed out on one of the most significant cultural shifts of the previous decade.”

In the televised leaders debate, Mr. Turner unwisely raised the issue of political patronage, leaving himself open to a withering response from Mr. Mulroney about the raft of appointments he had just made. “I had no option,” Mr. Turner stammered, claiming he had been forced to make what were actually Trudeau appointments. In the most memorable exchange of the 1984 debates, Mr. Mulroney responded: “You had an option, sir. You could have refused.”

The Liberals were reduced to 40 seats from the 147 that Mr. Trudeau had won four years earlier. With more than 100 grumpy defeated MPs, gaffes in the House of Commons and sabotage from Liberals still loyal to Mr. Chrétien, the next four years as leader of the official opposition were hell for Mr. Turner.

In the leadership-review vote at the Liberal’s 1986 convention, Mr. Turner faced a vigorous campaign by his detractors, but he counterattacked and won the confidence vote with 76.3-per-cent approval.

But two years later, with an election in the wind, Mr. Turner again was faced with a revolt in his caucus. But he rallied to oppose the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, which the Mulroney government had negotiated with the United States. Describing it as “the cause of my life,” Mr. Turner used the Liberal majority in the Senate to hold up the agreement and force an election. He favoured free trade but argued that the agreement did not provide it. In a withering critique, Mr. Turner argued that Canada had given up all of its options while the U.S. retained all of its punitive trade measures.

The theme carried over into the televised leaders’ debate when an animated Mr. Turner weighed in: “We built a country east and west and north. We built it on an infrastructure that deliberately resisted the continental pressure of the United States. For 120 years, we have done it. With one signature of a pen, you’ve reversed that, thrown us into the north-south influence of the United States and will reduce us, as I am sure, to a colony of the United States, because when the economic levers go, the political independence is sure to follow.”

The exchange produced one of those magical moments of television and touched a chord in the electorate. Conservative support began to plummet even before the debate had finished. Tory pollster Allan Gregg’s numbers showed the largest 24-hour drop in a party’s standing that he had ever experienced.

The crucial 90 seconds provided the adrenalin to push the Liberals into the lead. After their initial panic, Progressive Conservative campaign advisers decided they had to break the linkage between Mr. Turner and the Tories’ unpopular trade policy. In what became known as the “bomb the bridge” tactic, the Tories commissioned a saturation television ad campaign to attack Mr. Turner personally and stressed the disunity in the Liberal ranks. The strategy worked and Mr. Mulroney won the election, albeit with a much-reduced majority. Liberals doubled their strength in the Commons, and although the agreement became law, more Canadians had voted for parties opposed to the deal than had voted for the Progressive Conservatives.

As he reminisced later, “If we had had a unified party, we might have won.” Despite the many frustrations and defeats, Mr. Turner stepped away from politics finally in 1990 confident that he had made a worthy contribution to Canadian political life: “First there is the satisfaction of having represented the country in three different provinces over a period of 20 years. There is the satisfaction of being recognized by one’s peers as a fairly good parliamentarian. There’s the satisfaction of having crystallized in the minds of Canadians, our uniqueness and identity as a nation on the trade debate.

"And there is the satisfaction of being right on Meech Lake [a Mulroney proposal to entice Quebec to sign onto the 1982 Constitution by recognizing Quebec as a “distinct society” and transfer some federal powers to the provinces], the best accommodation that could have been made to reasonable propositions made by Quebec.”

Reflecting on his career for the Stornoway iChannel documentary, Mr. Turner said: “one of the most unfortunate things to happen to anybody is to come in at the top of politics – tonight, you score a goal and you’re a hero, tomorrow, you let one in and you’re a bum. That’s politics.”

True to his prediction, Mr. Turner had became more mellow as his political career faded into history. He concluded: “I’ve enjoyed political life. All in all, I’ve been a very lucky person.”

Mr. Turner leaves his wife, Geills McCrae Turner (née Kilgour); sister, Brenda Norris; children, Elizabeth, Michael, David and Andrew; and eight grandchildren.

Hugh Winsor was a parliamentary correspondent and columnist at The Globe and Mail for 30 years.

Editor’s note: (Sept. 21, 2020): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Lester Pearson announced he was stepping down in 1968, when in fact it was December 1967. This version has been corrected.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

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