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John Turner gives an interview in his room at the Chateau Laurier on June 4, 2009.The Globe and Mail

History? Who has time for history?

John Turner turns 80 tomorrow, and he's 25 years removed from his very brief stint as prime minister, the role for which he had prepared all his life. Yet the guy sitting in his cramped, cluttered 58th-floor Toronto law office refuses to dwell on the past, to grow old irrelevantly, to accept himself as the footnote that politics' all-or-nothing judges have made him out to be.

"That doesn't bother me," he says in the trademark clipped, gravelly tones that once seemed so uninspiring and unpersuasive next to Brian Mulroney's winning oratorical tricks. "I didn't go into this for the history, I went in to serve. And, frankly, let history take care of itself."

As another Liberal golden boy tries to outmanoeuvre Conservative attacks and convey his blueblood charm to the voters, John Turner's experience survives as a warning about the risks of entitlement. "Will Ignatieff be another Turner?" reads the headline.

"It's made him very wary, and very skeptical," says one of his lunch partners, former hockey czar Alan Eagleson.

"I know it bothers him to hear this stuff."

In party circles, at least among the faithful supporters who saluted him at dinners this week, there's a feeling that he has been forced to the margins, as if he represented a bygone era good Liberals want badly to forget. But to view his career in this narrow frame of failure is to miss the bigger picture an 80th birthday offers: the brilliant example of his well-lived life.

History can wait. John Turner has other things on his mind at the moment, like the papers that have accumulated on his office desk while he has been canoeing the French River in the Canadian Shield country east of Georgian Bay.

After considerable shuffling through piles of legal work (friends say that he can't afford to retire), he finds a birthday greeting that has just arrived from his teammate on the Oxford University track squad, Sir Roger Bannister - the first man to break the four-minute mile.

It was on Mr. Turner's expert legal advice that Oxford officials properly surveyed their track, to confirm its exact measurements, and procured 10 certified watches from Cartier in London to corroborate Mr. Bannister's record time.

Mr. Turner, as you may suspect from his career, was a quick-twitch sprinter, not a calculating distance runner. At one time the Canadian record-holder for the 100 yards, Mr. Turner says his favourite race was a twilight showdown in front of about 60,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1948 when he finished a respectable fourth behind world-record-holder Mel Patton. But a bad knee kept him out of the Olympics that year.

Time has been unkind to the former sprinter: He uses a cane for balance, because of nerve damage in his legs. He walks with an awkward slowness, and admits there's now more camaraderie than actual canoeing on his river visits.

"I can paddle," he says. "It's getting in and out of the canoe that's hard. But it's all part of the aging process. I have no complaints. You keep doing what you can do. I can't ski any more, I can't play tennis. But you know, you reflect, you keep working - it keeps me out of trouble. I'm very relaxed and I consider myself to be a very lucky man."

History should be regarding John Turner with equal benevolence these days. The 17th prime minister of Canada may have spent only a short time in the top job, house-sitting Sussex Drive until the country's pent-up anti-Trudeau feelings could find release through Mr. Mulroney's overwhelming victory in September, 1984. But what's the blip of a mishandled election compared with a Hall of Fame career that began in 1962, culminated in the passionate free-trade debate of the 1988 election and was still going strong this April when he received a rousing reception from young Liberals at the party's Vancouver convention for demanding free votes in the House of Commons?

"He's most comfortable in the presence of young people," says former staffer Marc Kealey, who organized a birthday tribute Thursday in Ottawa, "and for some reason, there's a really good connection. He doesn't lecture, he doesn't talk down, he's not arrogant, and they get his integrity."

What was old seems new again - Mr. Turner, then one of Lester Pearson's reform-minded "Young Turks," made exactly the same radical statement in 1963 when speaking to a Montreal Kiwanis group. He was mocked in the 1984 campaign for being out-of-date and past his best, a bum-patting guy's guy incapable of adapting to a rapidly changing political and media world.

Critics dismissed him as a Bay Street stiff, whose years in high-paid exile after leaving the Trudeau cabinet in 1976 had put him out of touch with the average Canadian. And yet, more and more, just by remaining true to himself and his old-fashioned ideals of public service, he now comes across in a meaner and more selfish era as fresh, timely, even necessary.

A late-life conversation in his office could be a chance to settle old scores and win round the verdict of history. But John Turner doesn't work that way. It may be the dutiful Catholic in him, but he is extremely charitable toward political rivals who did his long-term reputation no favour. Of Jean Chrétien, whose supporters undermined Mr. Turner as leader of the opposition, the most he will say is, "His loyalty was not complete, let's put it that way." But then Mr. Chrétien also chose him to represent Canada at the funeral of Princess Margaret, his youthful flame - "a generous gesture," Mr. Turner says.

Of Brian Mulroney's recent tribulations, he offers little, although he is happy to quote the bon mot he delivered when their differences on free trade were pointed out. "I had an unfair advantage over Mr. Mulroney." Pause for effect. "I read the agreement."

As for Mr. Trudeau, whose last-minute patronage appointments as prime minister caused such problems for his obedient successor - "You had an option, sir, to say no," was the taunt Mr. Mulroney threw at him in the 1984 debate - Mr. Turner says simply: "We got along better than the public understood." Their Catholic faith was a strong bond few people glimpsed. Still, he feels compelled to add about the so-called Northern Magus that "I canoed a lot more rivers than he did. And I was in charge of my own trips." In Turner terms, that's a diss, even if it comes with his bark of a laugh.

Canoeing, in the greater scheme of things, may be the ultimate form of earthly existence for him. There are moments, in listening to him talk 58 floors above the money-makers' urban habitat, when you wonder whether he used politics simply as a way to tour the country and slip onto the nearest river. It's not just that at various times he represented ridings in Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver (in itself an unequalled political accomplishment) but that, in almost every job he held, he found ways to explore the wilds.

"I have never felt more Canadian than when alone with my thoughts in the remote northern vastness," he once said, an interesting observation for a man long caricatured as a back-slapping, hard-drinking people person. When he describes his wife, Geills, he uses phrases like "a wonderful companion" and "a sensational mother" but completes his description with the words "a fellow canoeist."

For Winnipeg-born Geills Turner, the great thing about canoeing may have been that it happened far from the political infighting and the media attacks that she came to loathe, particularly when her husband made his abortive return to politics in 1984 after a comfortable sabbatical with a Toronto law firm. It was a time of chaos, to put it kindly. Mr. Turner had missed his best chance when it appeared Mr. Trudeau was going to resign in 1979, only to return to office after Joe Clark's government fell. By 1984, the economy was in a free fall. "No Liberal could have won then," Mr. Kealey says.

The knives came out after Mr. Turner's crushing defeat. He was attacked personally, for his awkward speaking style, which didn't suit the now-omnipresent cameras, and at an organizational level for the chaos of his leadership.

"There was a huge learning curve for him," a former staffer says, "just as there was for Mr. Ignatieff when he returned from Harvard. The level of scrutiny had changed, during his eight years on Bay Street, and he wasn't prepared for it."

As the beleaguered opposition leader's wife, Geills had a thankless role without much of a purpose, certainly not the kind that would suit her artistic, intellectual side. People called her "difficult," as if she were supposed to be happy as the dutiful spouse. But as an athletic whitewater canoeist, away from it all, she could lead the way for her husband. "She was my bowman," he recalls. "She manoeuvred us through the rapids, she was first-rate."

For about 25 years, they and their four children regularly canoed the Northwest Territories to the point that, Mr. Turner notes proudly, "the leader of the legislative assembly up there said I'd canoed and walked more of the territory than any man or woman sitting in the legislature."

This restless, wide-ranging life isn't the usual existence for most Canadians, even if it fits some of the stereotypes.

But then John Turner's life has been far from typically Canadian. Born not in Canada but the London suburb of Richmond, he might have been raised in England had his journalist father, Leonard, not died when he was three.

His mother, Phyllis, who had been studying at the London School of Economics, took him back to Rossland, B.C., where her father was a mine-hoist operator. In 1934, she moved to Ottawa, and joined the Tariff Board as an economist, beginning an eventful civil-service career that saw her ascend to the post of administrator of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board by 1945.

His mother made sure young John went to the best Ottawa schools, and by the age of 7, he was spending his summers at Northeastern Ontario's physically demanding Camp Temagami, which specialized in canoe-tripping. When he was 16, she married Frank Ross, a millionaire industrialist then working pro bono for the government and later to become lieutenant-governor of British Columbia. His fortune and connections, coupled with Phyllis's ambitions for her son, made John's future success seem almost inevitable.

He entered the University of British Columbia at 16, becoming a popular athlete and earning the cool-cat nickname Chick. He also was a good enough student to win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he studied law, competed on the track and supposedly had steaks sent over from Canada to supplement his meagre college rations.

From Oxford, he took his time, studying law in London and Paris while smoothing off a few more rough edges. When he returned in 1953, the idea was to take up law in B.C., yet a short stay in Montreal persuaded him to launch his career there. Within a few years, his immense social skills, breezy intelligence, unbounded energy and ability to connect with the powerful made him an obvious choice for Liberal Party candidate. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Like Michael Ignatieff, the outwardly conventional John Turner stands out partly because he was so unsettled and so open to the wonders of new environments - a likeable quality too easily turned into a liability by political opponents, as when Mr. Mulroney made the crack: "When I was driving a truck, John Turner was dancing with Princess Margaret."

That was then, of course. Years later, when Mr. Mulroney's ride of choice was a limo, Mr. Turner could be seen riding the Toronto subway and gabbing with fellow passengers. For all that, one of his more appealing aspects is that he doesn't underplay his bouts of worldliness - in his view, a man doesn't have to apologize for the company he has kept. He's old-school discreet, shifting the conversation when you ask one question too many about Princess Margaret, but when he changes the subject, it's to the picture of her mother on his office wall.

"That's the Queen Mother down at St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and that's me beside her as a young political secretary. … Geills and I used to be invited up to Balmoral in Scotland where I used to shoot with the Prince. We'd come back and the Queen Mother would be waiting with the gin and the ice, and she'd say, 'What took you so long, John?' And I'd say, 'Prince Philip was in charge, ma'am.' On her 100th birthday, I wrote a note congratulating her, and I got a form note back, but with a personal P.S. 'Dear John: I knew you wouldn't forget. And I don't forget either. You still make the best martinis in the world.'"

You won't catch Mr. Ignatieff talking this way any time soon. Mr. Turner agrees that the Liberal Leader's extended absence from Canada "was certainly a handicap for him but it's something he'll overcome, and every year will help him overcome it" - an odd remark, given Mr. Ignatieff's squeezed political time frame, but understandable when you consider that Mr. Turner is inclined to take the longer view. After all, if you want to understand him, you have to take into account his monitoring of the 2004 Ukrainian election at Paul Martin's request and his bail reforms at the Justice Department as well as his time as Liberal leader.

"Democracy doesn't happen by accident, you've got to work at it," he says, repeating the reformist catchphrases that account for his long-term restlessness, and his unchallenged status as the best-travelled political leader the church basements and service clubs of this country have ever seen. "At the moment, Canadians are getting a little lazy about it, a little inattentive, and we've got to revive it."

If you take that as a critique of the Stephen Harper government, you'd be on the right track, but the parliamentary gentleman in John Turner prefers to attack the situation and not the individuals behind it.

"We've got to recognize our system is now overcentralized in the Prime Minister's Office, that cabinet doesn't have the individual authority it used to have, and members of Parliament have lost the right to intervene and initiate - party discipline is too heavy. … As for the tone of Question Period, … we have to control Parliament again and expel from the session any member who abuses decorum and propriety. I'm counting on the Speaker to control it, but we may need a new generation in Parliament if we're going to revive it."

"Decorum" and "propriety" sound like such throwback values in an age of attack politics, and yet in many ways that gentler, more humane approach to public life explains why the 80-year-old John Turner holds appeal - not least for the new generation that he's urging to take over Parliament the way he did when he first entered the House at 33.

His old rival, Mr. Mulroney, now finds himself stuck in a murky past of his own devising, but Mr. Turner seems better equipped to escape the minor historical role he has been assigned - if he cared more about his public image.

It's only with the greatest reluctance that he talks about himself, and even then his answers are often terse and almost proudly unforthcoming. In this respect, he seems more like a professional sportsman who regards ego-boosting media chatter as a distraction from real work.

"I've met very few elite athletes who appear to take themselves too seriously," says his Tory friend Roy McMurtry, a former Ontario cabinet minister and provincial Supreme Court judge. "John was a world-class sprinter, and one of the most likeable things about him is that he never takes himself too seriously."

He once said that he wasn't a kiss-and-tell guy. So you aren't ever likely to read the memoirs describing the wide-ranging historical presence of John Turner that day-to-day political coverage lost sight of. Yet a glance around his memento-filled office at Miller Thomson is a reminder of just how extensive, engaged and implicated the man has been.

There's a plaque from the Hockey Hall of Fame to mark his time as a director, which gets him talking about his time as legal counsel to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s, when he would share Forum seats with autocratic Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis.

Mr. Duplessis came into his world in typical Turner fashion. First, he's passing through Montreal on his way back to Vancouver after his postgraduate studies in Paris. He has pals there, and someone at the new firm of Stikeman Elliott offers him a job. One problem: He hasn't been to a Canadian law school, although he studied academic law at Oxford and was called to the bar in London. So he arranges for a private member's bill so he can bypass law school. As a result, he appears before the premier, who seems more impressed by the young man's Parisian French than anything else, gives his support, and ends up lunching with him after the bill is passed.

The office also has portraits of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and several Kennedys - Mr. Turner advised Bobby Kennedy on Canada during his presidential campaign, while serving as Mr. Trudeau's Kennedyesque justice minister.

Later, as finance minister, he became the prime minister's economic emissary to the United States. "Mr. Trudeau and Richard Nixon didn't get along, so I went down to the White House every three months to talk about Canada-U.S. issues …

"Nixon and I got to know each other pretty well, and in the middle of one dinner, he said to me, 'You're really taking a chance down here, Turner.' I said, 'Why is that, Mr. President?' He said, 'You've got no witnesses.' I said, 'If I thought I needed a witness, I wouldn't be here.' At that point, he gets up and gives me a big bear hug. He was the best-briefed head of state I ever dealt with."

As for much less huggable Mr. Trudeau, there's a picture of him standing in front of a solemn Mr. Turner dated Oct. 17, 1970, a day after the War Measures Act had been invoked and the same day the body of kidnapped Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte was found. "An unforgettable moment for both of us, and for Canada," reads the inscription, which is signed, "With warm regards, Pierre E.T."

The warmth of feeling between the two men has often been doubted, but Mr. Trudeau clearly found his more gregarious Anglo counterpart a useful ally. Even so, their partnership in the emergency legislation was a challenge, according to Mr. Turner, whose reputation as a reformer fighting for the rights of the individual against the state could have been compromised by his role in the crisis.

"The situation in Quebec was very volatile," he remembers. "There was a lot of almost hysterical opinion. Both [Montreal mayor Jean]Drapeau and [Quebec premier Robert]Bourassa were very excited, very excited. So we had to calm it down. Unfortunately, some of it was used to arrest political opponents. I was concerned about the War Measures Act, so we put a six-month time limit on it."

Mr. Turner has a tendency to channel his inner lawyer when the talk gets tricky - asked about reconciling his Catholic faith with the reforms in the areas of abortion and homosexual rights brought in when he was minister of justice, he veers off into a positively jesuitical justification that "we were not changing the law, just rendering it statutory."

But give him time, and soon he's the John Turner you want to hear. "I believe in married priests and bishops. I go back to the year 400, when they had all that. Most of the Apostles were married, for God's sake."

For God's sake. And then he's off and running, this almost-80-year-old who may not care for history but is completely at home in it, entirely a part of it. It's an anecdote about John Diefenbaker, that far-off Tory figure whose life he once saved on a Caribbean vacation (but that's a different story), who once said in the House that the young John Turner "knows more people in Canada by their first name than any other Canadian."

Mr. Diefenbaker is giving Mr. Turner a hard time about homosexual rights, but then Réal Caouette, leader of the long-lost Créditistes, jumps to his feet and says, "Mr. Speaker, I've known that young minister of justice there since he was my lawyer in Noranda … and all he's saying here is that it's okay, as long as you're a consenting Liberal in private."

Laughs all round. Years later, it was dissenting Liberals in public that Mr. Turner had to worry about. No wonder he misses Parliament's good old days. Those were his opponents talking, and they might as well have been his friends.

Globe and Mail feature writer John Allemang is a regular contributor to Focus.