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Prime Minister John Turner

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.

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By the mid-1980s John Turner was living a comfortable life as a successful corporate lawyer and dedicated family man. That all changed when Prime Minster Trudeau announced his rumoured resignation in 1984, luring Turner back into the public eye and a heavily publicized return to power. This CBC Television documentary looks at how his eight years out of the spotlight changed Turner, both as a man and a prime minister.

Prince Valiant in exile, the Prime Minister from central casting, handsome enough to illuminate a million television screens - these are just a few of the media comments that helped to keep Turner's leadership hopes alive during his political exile. But to some, his new Bay Street connections and his near decade away from the hustle of politics were to prove a liability. 
• Following his resignation in 1975, Turner stayed on as an MP before leaving politics completely in February 1976. He devoted himself to his law career, buying a large home in a tony Toronto neighbourhood and accepting a job at the law firm MacMillan, Binch.
• It would take eight years - and two resignations by Pierre Trudeau - to convince Turner to return to politics.

• Turner's new life proved extremely profitable, with companies lining up to have him serve as an adviser. He sat on the boards of many high-profile Canadian companies including: Canadian Pacific, Seagram's, Holt Renfrew, MacMillan Bloedel and Massey Ferguson.
• His associates included Conrad Black, Charles Bronfman and Hal Jackman and he played roles in several megaprojects, such as the James Bay hydroelectric project and Alberta's Syncrude tar sands.

• "He's a good scout, you know," Black said in 1984. "Anybody who meets him likes him. He was able to bring people together because he has such an understanding of people."
• During this time Turner wasn't shy about criticizing his old party. Less than a month after leaving politics, he spoke to the Ontario Economic Council and claimed the Trudeau government was fumbling the economy.

• "Suddenly, everything seems to have come unstuck," he said. The government "is trying to cover up the economy's boils with pancake makeup."
• Turner's critiques reached a peak in the 1978, when he released a series of subscriber-only newsletters that targeted Liberal economic policy. In one, he alleged Trudeau had undermined the 1977 budget by forcing a series spending cuts.
• Parts of the newsletter were read in the House, sparking an angry, dismissive response from Finance Minister Jean Chrétien.

• He called it "a gossip column that you can have for fifteen cents at any newsstand in Toronto."
• The Conservative Party said Turner had violated government guidelines that forbade ex-ministers from profiting from their term in office.
• During his exile Turner denied any rumours of a political return, citing his business commitments and his family.

• His status as prime minister-in-waiting refused to go away. In June 1978, the Moncton Transcript ran an informal poll of women to find out who they thought was "The Sexiest Man in Canada." Turner landed in the Number 1 spot - Francis Fox was second, and Trudeau placed third.
• In November 1979, following an election loss to Joe Clark's Tories, Trudeau announced his surprise resignation. Speculation was widespread that Turner would step back into public life and seek the Liberal leadership, but three weeks later he squelched the rumours.

• In a press conference, he told a throng of reporters that he would not run. "After deepest reflection," he said. "I have not changed my mind."
• After the Clark government was defeated on a vote of no confidence, Trudeau was coaxed back to lead the Liberals. He was re-elected prime minister in February 1980.
• Following four tumultuous years in power, Trudeau decided to step down once and for all in March 1984. Turner held a press conference on March 16 to announce he would run to replace his old rival as Liberal leader.

• To watch Turner's announcement, go to our additional clip Back in the running.
• Following a three month race, Turner was elected leader at the in June 1984 Liberal convention in Ottawa. It took him two ballots to secure 1,862 votes and defeat his closest contender, Jean Chrétien.
• Two days later, he returned to the House of Commons as Canada's 17th prime minister, but without a seat in Parliament. To watch Turner's return, go to our additional clip John Turner: King of the Hill.

• Three weeks later Turner called a general election for September, setting up a contest against Tory leader Brian Mulroney and NDP leader Ed Broadbent.
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: June 25, 1984
Guest(s): Lloyd Axworthy, Ron Graham, William Macdonald, Ian Sinclair, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner
Reporter: Hugh Winsor
Duration: 5:59

Last updated: November 19, 2012

Page consulted on July 10, 2014

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