The prime ministership of Joe Clark is one of the great “what-ifs?” of Canadian history. Serving the shortest term of any elected prime minister, Clark barely accomplished anything in office before he was promptly thrown back out.
Born in Alberta, Clark became a member of the Progressive Conservative Party while in college, and sought a career in politics from a young age. Working as a staffer and advisor for the PCs, he was elected to Parliament in his own right in 1972, and then staged a surprise upset to win the party leadership four years later.
Clark was only in his 30s, largely unknown and unaccomplished, and awkward in his speech, manners, and appearance. The press called him “Joe Who?” and the nickname stuck. Yet as the economic situation in Canada soured, Clark proved an effective populist, and in the 1979 federal election he managed to unseat Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), and win an incredibly narrow minority government, despite losing the popular vote. Humiliated, Trudeau said he would retire from politics.
In power, Clark’s administration delayed resuming Parliament for as long as possible, and when it did, Clark introduced a harsh austerity budget that advocated, among other things, raising gasoline taxes. A successful non-confidence vote forced another election, and Trudeau cancelled his retirement plans to lead the Liberals back to power.
It was Clark’s turn to be humiliated, but he didn’t retire. Remaining a high-profile Progressive Conservative, he would go on to serve as foreign minister under Brian Mulroney (b. 1939). In 1998 he was once again elected leader of the PCs, though by this point the party had collapsed to fringe status. Turning quite left-wing in old age, Clark strongly opposed the 2003 creation of the Conservative Party of Canada, and was a strong critic of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (b. 1959), who he refused to endorse. For Canadians nostalgic for the politics of Canada’s liberal 1970s, he remains a beloved figure.