Former prime minister John Turner dies at 91

John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister, has died at the age of 91, according to multiple media reports.

Marc Kealey, a former aide speaking on behalf of Turner’s relatives as a family friend, told the Canadian Press that Turner died peacefully in his sleep at home on Friday night.

Turner governed for just 79 days in the summer of 1984 after a difficult, decades-long climb to the top job.

Born in 1929 in Richmond, England, Turner moved to Canada as a young child and grew up mostly in Ottawa, later moving to B.C.

A decorated athlete, Turner once held the Canadian record for the 100-metre dash and qualified for the 1948 Olympics while a student at the University of British Columbia. An injury kept him out of the Olympics, though his athleticism and scholarly acumen helped him win a Rhodes scholarship.

Most Canadians will remember Turner for his lengthy political career and relatively brief stint as Prime Minister, however.

He first entered politics in 1962, winning a Montreal seat for the Liberal Party. Under Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the young Turner was seen as the “golden boy” of Canadian politics and within three years he made it into cabinet. In 1967, he was named to his first prominent cabinet seat: minister of consumer and corporate affairs.

Turner ran for the Liberal leadership in 1968. Although he lost to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, he made a respectable showing for a 38 year old — by far the youngest person in the race.

Under Trudeau, Turner was named minister of justice, a portfolio he held for four years. In that role, he worked on the controversial Official Languages Act and the government’s response to the October Crisis in 1970.

Turner became minister of finance in 1972. He held the portfolio for three years, until he quit cabinet in 1975 amid rumours that he was butting heads with Trudeau.

He spent most of a decade working in a Toronto law firm before returning to politics.

Trudeau’s departure brought Turner back to Ottawa. Trudeau decided to resign in 1984, and once again, Turner threw his hat into the leadership ring. This time, he won, defeating then-cabinet minister and eventual prime minister Jean Chretien.

Trudeau didn’t leave a strong government for Turner, though. Just before his departure, Trudeau made over 200 patronage appointments.

Turner took office on June 30, 1984, without holding a seat in the House of Commons himself. He called an election just 10 days after being sworn in, on July 9. He ran for a seat in the riding of Vancouver-Quadra.

Although he won his seat, it was a disastrous election for the new prime minister.

He was sometimes seen as old-fashioned, sometimes even offensive: feminists weren’t happy to see the Liberal leader on television patting the bottom of Iona Campagnolo, the female president of the Liberal Party of Canada. A few days later, he did the same thing to another female Liberal official.

In his defence, Turner said, he was a “very tactile politician” and that the two women weren’t offended by the touch.

But Conservative leader Brian Mulroney brought the real knockout blow to Turner’s campaign during a debate — attacking the Liberal over the Trudeau patronage appointments.

Turner argued that he had no choice but to accept them. Mulroney disagreed. “You had an option, sir, to say ‘no’ and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party,” he said.

Mulroney’s Conservatives would go on to win the election with 211 seats to the Liberals’ 40. Before the election, the Liberals had 135 seats.

With the election defeat, Turner’s term as prime minister lasted only 78 days — the second-shortest in Canadian history, behind Sir Charles Tupper.

Turner stayed on as Liberal leader, leading the party through another election defeat in 1988. After that election, he decided to step down as leader, making the announcement in 1989 and officially resigning in June 1990. His successor was the man he had once defeated: Jean Chretien.

Turner stayed on as the MP for Vancouver Quadra for a few more years, eventually retiring from politics before the 1993 election.

He went back to work as a lawyer, and was named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1994.

—With files from The Canadian Press

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