Canada’s 17th prime minister was dedicated to public service and the democratic process
John Turner’s influence on Canada extends far beyond his time as Prime Minister. He served as a cabinet minister under two prime ministers and through the October Crisis and rapid inflation of the early 1970s. He also had an impact on Canada as leader of the Official Opposition for six years. Later in his career, Turner passionately advocated for water conservation and youth engagement in the democratic process.
Born in England, Turner immigrated to Canada as a toddler after the death of his father. He lived in Ottawa with his mother, Phyllis Ross, who served in senior roles in the federal public service, including chief economist for the Tariff Board.
“John had the belief that we should give back with the talents we are given. He knew he was talented and he knew he could achieve great things, and he wanted to give back to his country,” says his sister, Brenda Norris. “We grew up, not with politicians, but with people who made Ottawa’s civil service perhaps the best in the world. It was Mike Pearson and Graham Towers and Norman Robertson…. I think from that John developed a feeling that he wanted to serve his country.”
Turner won his first seat in the House of Commons in 1962 under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and over time served in more senior cabinet roles. A Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where he had received his law degree, he became a key figure in the cabinet of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
As Canada’s justice minister, he brought in the Official Languages Act, defended the government’s security measures in response to the 1970 October Crisis, saw through a series of important Criminal Code reforms, and proposed a national legal aid system. As finance minister, Turner stewarded Ottawa’s fiscal policy through the economic tumult of the 1970s.
In 1976 Turner left politics, deciding to return to private life and practise law in Toronto. But he re-emerged in politics in 1984, staging a triumphant comeback by winning the leadership of the governing Liberal Party over runner-up Jean Chrétien.
After Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won the ensuing election, Turner continued to serve in Parliament as Opposition leader. He later led his party through the 1988 campaign defined by the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, which Turner called “the fight of my life.”
Turner stepped down as Liberal leader in 1990 and continued to serve as an MP until 1993. Colleagues and fellow parliamentarians of all parties respected him for his dedication, integrity and fairness.
In a House of Commons speech in May 1989, after announcing his resignation, he called for ways to support more free votes and expression in the House by MPs. Citing the late Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, Turner offered a few words of advice to younger members: “Mr. Diefenbaker used to say don’t neglect this place. Spend your time here. It may take many years to build up a reputation in the House of Commons, but you can lose it in one day.”
Later in his career, Turner remained dedicated to Canadian politics and the democratic process. He practised law, served on several boards, advocated for water and environmental conservation and urged young people to become engaged. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” he often said. In 1994 Turner became a Companion of the Order of Canada and, in 2012, received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. Turner died September 19, 2020, at the age of 91.
Stamp honours public service contributions of Rt. Hon. John Turner (1929 – 2020)Available now