Former prime minister John Turner dead at 91

Former prime minister John Turner, whose odyssey from a "Liberal dream in motion" to a political anachronism spanned 30 years, has died at the age of 91.

Marc Kealey, a former aide speaking on behalf of Turner's relatives as a family friend, says Turner died peacefully in his sleep at home in Toronto on Friday night.

"He's in a much better place, and I can say on behalf of the family there was no struggle and it was very, very peaceful," Kealey said.

Smart, athletic and blessed with movie-star good looks, Turner was dubbed "Canada's Kennedy" when he first arrived in Ottawa in the 1960s. But he failed to live up to the great expectations of his early career, governing for just 79 days after a difficult, decades-long climb to the top job.

"The most unfortunate thing to happen to anybody is to come in at the top in politics," Turner said in 1967.

"The apprenticeship is absolutely vital. And yet, the longer the apprenticeship, the more the young politician risks tiring the public. So that by the time he's ready, the public may be tired of him."

His words were prophetic.

Despite his missteps, Turner guided the Liberals through some of their darkest days in the 1980s. His right-of-centre contribution to party policy would help pave the way for fiscally conservative prime ministers Jean Chretien — his longtime rival — and Paul Martin.

Turner's journey began as a dashing young politician with the world at his feet and ended nearly 30 years later when he could no longer overcome his image as a relic of the past.

There was a dichotomy to Turner's life. He was a jock who studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, a staunch Catholic who defended the decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality and a Bay Street lawyer who campaigned against free trade — describing it as the fight of his life.

"There were two Turners. There was the thoughtful, intelligent John Turner who was kind of an intellectual," former aide Ray Heard said in an interview several years ago.

"But there was another side to him. ... There was John the jock, who used to love watching NFL football with us, who sometimes drank too much, who used to put on his red cardigan and sit in his office having a good time," he said.

"So there was these two Turners, and sometimes these two Turners were in conflict with each other."

Born in England, John Napier Wyndham Turner emigrated to Canada in 1932 after the premature death of his father Leonard.

An Olympic-calibre track star, Turner graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1949, winning the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University. After studying law, he went to Paris to work on a doctorate at the Sorbonne.

Turner moved to Montreal to practice law but was lured into politics by Liberal cabinet minister C.D. Howe, who asked him to help in an election campaign. Turner won a seat in 1962, representing the Quebec riding of St-Laurent-St-Georges.

He would later hold seats in two other provinces, Ontario and British Columbia, a feat unmatched since William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Turner spent nearly a decade as a corporate lawyer on Bay Street before returning to politics after Pierre Elliott Trudeau resigned.

He won the 1984 Liberal leadership race, a divisive contest that pitted Turner against Jean Chretien. The rift their rivalry created within the Liberal ranks plagued Turner for the rest of his career.

Turner triggered an election just nine days after being sworn into office, forgoing the chance — some say foolishly — to host a visit by the Queen and another by the Pope that would have given the new prime minister golden opportunities for glowing, wall-to-wall media coverage.

The campaign was a disaster. The party wasn't prepared to run a campaign and was mired in organizational problems. Chretien's supporters were staging caucus revolts. And Trudeau's parting gift — patronage appointments — would be Turner's undoing.

© New West Record

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