Poor John Turner. Despite high hopes, his prime ministership was both the shortest and most inconsequential of the 20th century. Entirely dominated by a disastrous election campaign, John Turner literally did nothing with Canada’s highest office except lose it.
Though he was born in England, Turner left the country as a toddler and was brought up in a well-connected Canadian family and educated at all the best schools. Handsome and charming, he made the traditional transition from law to politics, where he was viewed as a rising star in the Liberal Party. Elected to Parliament in 1962, he held high-profile cabinet posts in the governments of Lester Pearson (1897-1972) and Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), but quit politics in 1975 after clashing with Trudeau one too many times.
Out of Ottawa, Turner became more popular than ever, happily embracing life as a much-sought consultant and corporate director. Seen as a moderate, fiscally conservative Liberal at a time when Trudeau’s government was drifting ever more leftward, he was soon sought as a man who could lead the party in a fresh direction once Trudeau inevitably resigned. When Trudeau did just that in 1984 Turner was quickly appointed to replace him.
Despite his personal popularity, however, Turner inherited the Liberals at a time when the party was polling at record lows. For whatever reason, the new prime minister called a snap election anyway, and was soundly clobbered by Brian Mulroney’s (b. 1939) Progressive Conservatives in the biggest landslide in Canadian history. The Turner in ’84 campaign is now infamous among Canadian political junkies for being one of the country’s most incompetent, plagued by near-constant gaffes, errors, and embarrassments.
Turner remained as Liberal leader for most of the Mulroney administration, and ran for prime minister again in 1988, mounting an incredibly vigorous (but unsuccessful) crusade against the Prime Minister’s plan for free trade with the United States. He left politics for good in 1990, though for the rest of his life he would occasionally make public appearances to support Liberal candidates. He passed away in 2020 at age 91, making him the most recent former Canadian prime minister to die.