John Turner, PM and Liberal leader who battled free trade with U.S., dead at 91

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:

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney told CBC News that he has great admiration for John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister who has died at the age of 91. 9:08

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.”

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.”

Early life

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:

A look at rookie Liberal candidate John Turner’s 1962 campaign race for a Montreal riding. 2:55

Meteoric rise

Turner’s first taste of national politics came when C.D. Howe, the storied “Minister of Everything”…

Read More: John Turner, PM and Liberal leader who battled free trade with U.S., dead at 91

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