John Turner: Destiny and determination to lead
From track star to Rhodes Scholar, destiny seemed to have paved a golden path for John Napier Turner. Born with good looks and charisma to spare, the bilingual lawyer entered politics in the 1960s touted as Canada's answer to John F. Kennedy. But it would take more than two decades and a self-imposed political exile before he would have a chance to claim his crown as prime minister.
Long before he entered politics in the early 1960s, John Turner was developing an impressive resumé. A varsity athlete at the University of British Columbia, he scored a spot on the Canadian Olympic sprinting team and went on to study law at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He credited much of this drive to his mother, a single mother and high-ranking economist in the federal government who believed hard work and conviction were the true paths to success.
• Charming, vivacious and exacting, she met and married gunsmith and journalist Leonard Turner in the late 1920s. They had three children over three years; John in 1929, Michael (who died shortly after his birth) in 1930 and Brenda.
• In 1932, Turner's father died from what was later determined to be an undiagnosed case of hyperthyroidism. Penniless and with no prospects, Phyllis Turner packed up her belongings and set sail for Canada with her two small children.
• For the next couple of years, the family lived in her childhood home in B.C., before Phyllis landed a job with the Tariff Board in Ottawa. In the winter of 1933-34, the Turner family lived on Phyllis's meagre wage in a tiny downtown apartment.
• The Turner family fortunes eventually improved. Phyllis moved up the ranks of the federal government, eventually becoming chief economist at the Tariff Board.
• The highest-ranking woman in the civil service and a widow, Phyllis Turner attracted attention from many eligible men including Prime Minister R.B. Bennett. According to the 1984 book John Turner: The Long Run, the bachelor PM courted her heavily and proposed to her in the late 1930s (she turned him down).
• As a young boy, John Turner played with Lester B. Pearson's children at a cottage in Wakefield, Que.
• Turner's mother was loving but demanding of her two children. According to a September 1984 profile in Saturday Night magazine, young John "was expected to stand at the top of his class. If he came home with nine A's and one B, his mother wanted to know about the B."
• "She wasn't domineering or oppressive," Turner's sister Brenda recalled in the article. "But Mummy believed in striving for excellence. Not for fame or money or ambition - which is rather déclassé, isn't it - but for excellence."
• In 1945, Phyllis married Frank Mackenzie Ross, a millionaire industrialist who would go on to become the lieutenant governor of British Columbia. The 16-year-old Turner and his sister were thrust into a world of privilege.
• The family moved into a Vancouver mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with neighbours that included businessman Garfield Weston and artist Lawren Harris.
• In 1945, Turner enrolled in UBC. He immersed himself in college life, scoring a spot on the track team and a reporting job for the student newspaper, The Ubyssey.
• His sports column, Chalk Talk, by "Chick" Turner, featured his singular cryptic style. "Klahowya freshies," he wrote in a 1947 piece about a swim meet. "Two weeks ago the Tacoma splash artists played the benign hosts to our own Blue and Gold mermen."
• In 1950, he enrolled in Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar in law.
• After a year spent learning French at Paris's Sorbonne in 1953, Turner moved back to Canada where he took a job in Montreal with the young law firm, Stikeman, Elliott.
• Turner came to national attention in the summer of 1958, during a Canadian visit by 27-year-old Princess Margaret. The guest of Turner's stepfather in B.C., Turner was coaxed into entertaining her.
• Turner attended a gala in late July, and spent the entire evening at her side.
• The news generated headlines across Canada, England and New York.
• "Princess Margaret sat in the moonlight last night in an intimate tête-à-tête with a young bachelor-lawyer," the Toronto Telegram reported. "Hardly anyone noticed the couple as they chatted, laughed, sipped drinks and smoked cigarettes."
• After flying to Ottawa to accompany her to a ball at Government House the two called off their blossoming friendship, reportedly because of a royal command from Buckingham Palace.
• The two remained good friends. Turner was the only non-governmental Canadian guest invited to her 1960 wedding.
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: June 16, 1984
Guest(s): Egan Chambers, Erna Coombes
Reporter: Sheila MacVicar
Photo: Library and Archives Canada R.A. Munro/Raymond Alan Munro Collection (PA-137024)
Last updated: May 3, 2012
Page consulted on March 12, 2013
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