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John Turner, the contender

The Story

It's 1967 and John Turner has been a professional politician for five years. A junior minister in Lester B. Pearson's cabinet, the ambitious 37-year-old is itching to move up in the ranks like fellow Liberal Pierre Trudeau. This CBC Television clip catches Turner the working politician, as he chats with secretaries, signs autographs and discusses his future in the Liberal Party.By the time this TV documentary aired, John Turner was a minister without portfolio in the Liberal government. Described as a leadership contender that is "full of kinetic energy and bored by abstraction," Turner talks frankly about his career ambitions and frustrations. He would soon get a chance to move up: Pearson announced his intention to resign at the end of 1967. 

Medium: Television
Program: Twenty Million Questions
Broadcast Date: March 30, 1967
Guest: John Turner
Don Gordon, Charles Lynch
Duration: 11:46
Photo: Libraries and Archives Canada (PA-046363)

Did You know?

• In 1962, John Turner got off to a brash start in Parliament after he used his first speech as an MP to attack the Conservative government on the failing Canadian dollar. This brashness soon gave way to dissatisfaction, as he grew frustrated with his role as a backbencher.
• As he recalled in John Turner: The Long Run, Pearson wanted him to "be in 'the kitchen' of government for a while…he thought I was impatient, especially when I saw some of the klunks he was promoting, and he advised me to be patient."
• That patience would be tested in 1965, when Turner, Trudeau and a young Jean Chrétien were drafted for the Liberal cabinet. While Turner and Chrétien became ministers without a portfolio, Trudeau landed the prestige post of justice minister.
• The move angered Turner and sparked a rivalry between the two that would last the rest of their lives.
• Turner stuck it out until 1967, when he was appointed registrar general. In 1968 he rose to minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs.
• As a minister Turner was well liked by all MPs, regardless of their political affiliation. He played squash with opposition members (as seen in this clip) and, in one stunning instance, walked across the House of Commons to comfort an NDP member who had just confessed to having a serious criminal record.
• He was especially close with John Diefenbaker, who regarded Turner with a surprising fondness. The source of this can be traced back to a chance encounter between the two in the mid 1960s.
• In the winter of 1965, Turner and Diefenbaker had, by chance, booked their summer vacations at the same resort in Barbados. The pair, who had first met two years previous in Tobago, were sitting next to each other on the beach reading.
• Suddenly, Turner looked out to sea and noticed a man bobbing up and down in the ocean. Recognizing the man as Diefenbaker, Turner dove in the water, and pulled the leader of the Opposition to shore through a rough undertow.
• Turner quickly flipped Diefenbaker on his side to empty water from his lungs, when he began to convulse. But before he could begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the Tory leader suddenly sat up and said "Thanks John."
• Though they never spoke about the incident the two remained close – if unlikely – friends for the next 20 odd years. When Diefenbaker died in 1979, Turner was the only Liberal named as a pallbearer.
• Though popular among his colleagues and journalists, many members of the press gallery were critical of Turner in his backbencher days. The ambitious lawyer was branded a "glamour boy" and a political lightweight.
• When the Ottawa Journal's Douglas Fisher recommended him as part of Pearson's new cabinet in 1965 Fisher described Turner as "a man with almost every talent, except humility."
• Despite the criticism, Turner was perfectly positioned as a contender for the Liberal leadership when Pearson announced he would resign at the end of 1967.


The Long Run: The Political Rise of John Turner more