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How Joe Clark became PC party leader at age 36

A grassroots campaign wins Clark the Progressive Conservative leadership on the fourth ballot on Feb. 22, 1976.

Alberta MP was everyone's safe second choice

Stiff competition for the kid from High River

47 years ago
Duration 0:50
Mulroney, Wagner, MacDonald and more were Clark's competition for PC leader in 1976.

Joe Clark's competition was not to be underestimated.

Running against the 36-year-old Alberta MP for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in 1976 were Quebec judge and MP Claude Wagner, former Liberal Paul Hellyer, MP Flora MacDonald — "the first female serious contender," according to CBC reporter Larry Stout — and six others.

And then there was Brian Mulroney, a Montreal lawyer "with the Robert Redford image" who had never been elected to anything.

Some 5,000 Tories gathered at the Ottawa Civic Centre on the weekend of Feb. 22, 1976, to choose a replacement for leader Robert Stanfield, who had led the national party without electoral success since 1967.

Four ballots to victory

47 years ago
Duration 2:13
As the convention continues, candidates throw their support to Clark -- or don't.

'Clark bandwagon was rolling'

"I like the fact he's a relatively young man. I think we can win with him," said Sinclair Stevens, an Ontario MP who asked his supporters to vote for Clark when he bowed out after the first ballot.

It was MacDonald's turn to do the same after the second ballot.

Joe Clark, and his wife Maureen McTeer, raising their arms in acknowledgement as delegates to the Progressive Conservative convention cheer Clark's victory in the leadership race, February 22, 1976. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"The Clark bandwagon was rolling," said Stout.

But there was a bump in the road: John Diefenbaker, the grand old man of the party who led it to victory in 1958, was in favour of front-runner Claude Wagner.

The third ballot came down to Clark, Wagner and Mulroney, who had a choice to make when he placed third and dropped out. 

"Brian Mulroney could have been the kingmaker," said Stout. "He endorsed neither Clark nor Wagner, and allowed his delegates their free choice."

It was a two-man race, and when the fourth ballot was counted, Clark came out on top with 1,187 votes to Wagner's 1,122.

From the floor, Clark said he was delighted with the outcome and praised Wagner's "vigorous, effective" campaign.

The dark horse had won. But, as Stout explained, he was perceived as a compromise candidate

"The country is asking: 'Who is Joe Clark?'" 

An unknown from the West

Joe Clark greets media after becoming PC leader

47 years ago
Duration 1:41
At 36, Joe Clark is the youngest person to lead a national political party.

The morning after his win, Clark occupied the office of the Leader of the Opposition to meet reporters.

He had spent much time in that office but, as he noted, always on the other side of the desk. (Clark spent three years as Stanfield's executive assistant.)

"A lot of Canadians don't really know you, sir," said a reporter, tossing a newspaper onto Clark's desk.

It was that day's Toronto Star with a cover story headlined "Joe Who?"

"How are you going to overcome this identity problem?" he asked.

"Well, I think the fact that so many of you fellows are here today will be a step in that direction ... I shouldn't have said 'fellows,' should I?" he replied, stopping himself and looking around.

Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield (left) takes a walk down the streets of Ottawa along with staffer Joe Clark (at right) in April 1968. (Canadian Press)

"Oh, good," he said, gesturing at an unseen female reporter who could be heard saying "Thank you!"

Clark didn't think he'd be "Joe Who?" for long.

"I think publicity, a national personality, perhaps notoriety, attaches to the Leader of the Opposition just by the nature of the job," he said.

"One of the things that was important to my success ... was that ... I was pretty well known in the party."

Clark added that he hoped that familiarity within the party would expand to the country at large and bring him repeated success in the next election. 

It did — in May 1979 Clark was elected Prime Minister at age 39.

But it was a short-lived minority government that was defeated that December, forcing another election that the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau won.

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