John Turner

The Right Honourable John Turner

In office:
June 30, 1984  to  September 17, 1984

Born: June 7, 1929, at Richmond, Surrey, England

Political party:

 Alma mater:
University of British Columbia
University of Oxford
University of Paris



Roman Catholic

In his political career, Turner held several prominent Cabinet posts, including minister of justice and minister of finance, from 1968 to 1975. Amid a world recession and the prospect of having to implement the unpopular wage and price controls, he had a lot of work to do.

Turner served in Trudeau’s cabinet as Minister of Justice for four years. His achievements included strengthening the rights of individual defendants on trial, greater efficiency in the justice system, creation of the influential Law Reform Commission, selecting highly professional judges, and bringing a policy perspective to the Justice Department. He led the government’s position in the highly controversial Official Languages Act, and he took control during the October Crisis in 1970.

Queen Elizabeth II’s scheduled tour of Canada in the summer of 1984 posed a problem for Turner before the election. Her policy of non-interference in politics led to Turner making a visit to London to advise the Queen of a pending election call and to ask her to postpone her trip. Turner was also aware of papal non-interference policies, so the election also had to be timed around a planned visit of Pope John Paul II to Canada in the autumn.

He carelessly spoke of creating “make work programs“, a discarded phrase from the 1970s that had been replaced by the less patronizing “job creation programs“. He was also caught on television patting the bottoms of Liberal Party President Iona Campagnolo and Vice-President Lise St. Martin-Tremblay, causing an uproar among feminists, who saw such behaviour as sexist and condescending.

The last days of the campaign saw one Liberal blunder piled upon another. Turner continued to make gaffes that caused voters to see him as incompetent and a relic from the past.

At the time, it was the worst defeat ever suffered for a governing party in the federal parliament. Turner stepped down as prime minister on September 17. The election having been called just over a week after his being sworn in, Turner held the office of prime minister for two months and seventeen days, the second-shortest stint in Canadian history, ahead of only Sir Charles Tupper, who took office after dissolution of parliament. Turner, along with Tupper and later Kim Campbell, were the only PMs to have never faced a parliament and never implement any legislative initiatives.  Turner  is also the oldest living former Canadian Prime Minister.

His mother remarried in 1945 to Frank Mackenzie Ross, who later served as Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia, and the family relocated to Vancouver. On May 19, 1959, at a party hosted by his stepfather to celebrate the opening of Government House, Turner spent a considerable amount of time dancing with Princess Margaret, one year his junior. This was the first time that Turner received significant press attention in Canada: there was considerable speculation about whether the two would become a serious couple.


On a personal note:

One of the great sprinters in UBC history, Turner was one of the three fastest men in Canada between 1947 and 1949.

Turner was educated at Ashbury College and St Patrick’s College, Ottawa.  He enrolled at the University of British Columbia in 1945 at age 16, and was among Canada’s outstanding track sprinters in the late 1940s, qualifying for the 1948 Olympic team.   He held the Canadian record for the 100 metres, but a bad knee kept him from competing in the 1948 London Olympics.

Turner was married on May 11, 1963, to Geills McCrae Kilgour (born 1937) who was a great-niece of Canadian Army doctor John McCrae, the author of what is probably the best-known First World War poem In Flanders Fields, and sister of David Kilgour, a long-time Canadian Member of Parliament. The Turners have a daughter named Elizabeth and three sons: David, Michael, and Andrew.

In 1965, while vacationing in Barbados, Turner noticed that former prime minister and Leader of the Opposition John Diefenbaker, staying at the same hotel, was struggling in the strong surf and undertow and Turner, being a competitive swimmer during university days, jumped in and pulled Diefenbaker to shore.

He and his family reside at Deer Park, Toronto, Ontario.

CPAC’s Catherine Clark, for Beyond Politics, offers a interview with John Turner on YouTube.

An interesting note is that while vacationing in Barbados with his wife in 1965, Turner became aware of an older man, out for a swim, who appeared to be in serious trouble. Turner was aware of the powerful undertows, but, being a competitive swimmer during his university years, he plunged into the surf and was soon pulling the grateful man to shore. The man was former prime minister and leader of the Progressive Conservative party, John Diefenbaker. Had Turner failed in his rescue, Canada’s recent history may have been drastically different.

As Minister of Justice ( 1968-1972), he was instrumental in the Criminal Code Amendment (against hate propaganda), 1970; he appointed Bora Laskin as the first Jewish Justice of the Supreme Court, 1970; created the Law Reform Commission, 1971; and directed the Justice Department under the War Measures Act during the FLQ Crisis.

When Trudeau resigned in 1979, Turner had no interest to return to politics and declined nomination as party leader.

As the Liberal Party Leader, 1984-1990: when Trudeau retired once again, Turner was convinced to return. He was elected Liberal Party leader and, therefore, prime minister; Turner gambled and called an early election and the Liberals suffered an overwhelming defeat in the 1984 election.

As Leader of the Opposition, 1984-1990: Turner tried to rebuild the Liberal Party during his stint as Opposition leader and took advantage of the scandals which plagued the Conservative Party. In the 1988 election campaign, Turner condemned the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Unfortunately, he was unable to topple the Conservatives, and, after two defeats, Turner resigned from politics again in 1990 and returned to his law career.

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