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John Turner: A surprise resignation

The Story

By 1975, the fact that John Turner and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau don't see eye to eye is a poorly kept secret. But that doesn't make Turner's September resignation from cabinet any less shocking. Known for his caution in both life and politics, Turner's sudden announcement shocks colleagues and leaves many Canadians wondering why the Liberal "Golden Boy" had stepped aside. This CBC Television clip gauges reactions and questions what was behind his "terse and enigmatic" move. 

Medium: Television
Program: Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: Sept. 11, 1975
Guests: Jean Chrétien, Sinclair Stevens, John Turner
Reporter: Ken Colby
Duration: 2:34

Did You know?

• From 1968 through 1975, John Turner had a front row seat to a historic era of change in Canadian society. As minister of both justice and finance, he oversaw the decriminalization of homosexuality, the appointment of the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and the implementation (and eventual dismantling) of the War Measures Act.
• But for reasons he would keep secret for years, he felt necessary to step away from his nearly two decades in politics for a return to the law.
• The ill will between the two began shortly after Turner became minister of justice in 1968, when he openly questioned the credibility of Bill C-150.
• The controversial omnibus bill, which Trudeau had championed as justice minister, proposed the decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality and loosening of the divorce laws.
• Turner was reprimanded by Trudeau, who told reporters "If Mr. Turner has grave reasons for changing it, I suppose we'll consider them."
• Turner backed the bill, pushing it through to a parliamentary vote where it was approved in May 1969. Listen to Turner's defence of the legislation.
• During his four years running the Justice Department Turner revolutionized the way it operated; drafting young legal talent and introducing computers to help keep better track of cases.
• He also did away with the tradition of Liberal patronage appointments for judges. Half the judicial appointments he made in his first six months were non-Liberals.
• In March 1970, Turner named Ontario lawyer Bora Laskin to the Supreme Court. The first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Laskin was named chief justice of Canada in 1973.
• Turner also played a critical role in implementing, and defending, the War Measures Act during 1970's October Crisis.
• Though proposed by Trudeau, it was Justice Minister Turner who defended the legislation in the House of Commons. Watch Turner defend the act with the press.
• Concerned about civil liberties, Turner insisted that the act expire on April 30, 1971. As that date approached Trudeau pressured the Justice Department to draft a replacement.
• Turner felt so strongly about the issue that he threatened to quit if the War Measures Act wasn't allowed to die as planned. Trudeau backed down and the law expired.
• In January 1972, Turner was appointed finance minister. Despite it being a key post, he accepted it reluctantly knowing that few politicians graduated from the tricky position to the prime minister's job.
• In addition, he was faced with a minority government, high inflation and soaring oil and gas prices, making any decision he made highly unpopular.
• On Sept. 10, 1975, he handed an unsuspecting Trudeau his letter of resignation from the cabinet.
• Turner would stay on as an MP, but would return to private life as a corporate lawyer in Montreal. Both the media and the public were stunned with the announcement, but neither Turner nor Trudeau would offer an explanation.
• According to a 1984 article by journalist Ron Graham, "the only unexpected thing John Turner has ever done was resign from the government in 1975 - which makes that act endlessly fascinating."
• Years later, Turner admitted that he was frustrated by Trudeau's attempts to undermine him on wage and price controls he was trying to implement.
• It was exacerbated when Trudeau accepted his resignation, but refused to offer him another portfolio in the cabinet.
• According to Christina McCall's 1982 book Grits: An Intimate Portrait of the Liberal Party, the ambitious 46-year-old Turner was devastated. It "was like a slap in the face ... Tempers rose, sharp words were exchanged, and at the end of the interview Turner emerged without a job, facing a life crisis."



The Long Run: The Political Rise of John Turner more