Introduction of the Right Honourable John Napier Turner


3 April 2002

In late August of 1979, a man and his family crested a hill and looked out over the Arctic Ocean. They had canoed from the upper reaches of the Burnside River to its mouth, a journey of 210 kilometers through rapids, portages, unpredictable weather and the occasional immersion in frigid water. It was a satisfying moment. They had planned wisely, worked hard, and persevered. For John Napier Turner, this was fun.

Most Canadians associate John Turner with another hill - the one at the centre of our nation’s capital. It is there that he played a leading role in Canada’s political life, holding the most senior portfolios in government, including the office of Prime Minister, during a public career that spanned parts of four decades.

A sense of public duty was instilled in John Turner at a young age. His mother, widowed early in life, rose through the ranks to become the most powerful woman in Canada's civil service during the Second World War. A talented and dedicated public servant, she was a wonderful role model for her son. But she was not the only one. She introduced him to leading public figures in Ottawa and sent him to St Patrick’s, a Catholic high school run by Oblate priests. These formative influences imbued in John Turner a set of values rooted in religious faith and directed towards public service.

As a young man, he built impressively upon this solid background. While at UBC he won the 100 yard dash at the Canadian championships and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. By the time he was first elected to the House of Commons, he was uniquely qualified for Canadian political life. He had lived in Ontario, the West, and Quebec. A bilingual anglophone, he was the type of politician Canada needed on the national stage.

He also represented a younger generation that was eager for change. Knowing reform was necessary, he learned to use the system to change the system while rising in the ranks of Cabinet and serving in the senior portfolios of Justice and Finance. In 1973, an informal survey of Ottawa insiders concluded that he was the second-most powerful man in Ottawa. He was a member of a number of international bodies and served as chair of the Committee on Economic Policy of the International Monetary Fund, earning the respect and trust of some of the most influential leaders in world affairs.

John Turner also had a strong commitment to his family. In 1975 he withdrew from politics to devote more time to his young children and to practice law full time. Despite this retirement, he continued to be regarded as the natural choice to succeed Pierre Trudeau.

When he finally re-entered public life as Canada’s 17th Prime Minister, John Turner inherited what, on the whole, was a tired government that had become the focus of grievances accumulated during long years in power. The 1984 election resulted in a Conservative landslide. Our speaker was not surprised to be Leader of the Opposition and he took on the job with his customary commitment and vigour.

But it was the Free Trade election of 1988 that assured John Turner a prominent place in our history books. He saw serious flaws in the agreement and doubted it would protect Canada’s unique social programmes and cultural institutions, let alone her trade interests. (See, for instance, softwood lumber.) Animated by these concerns, he singlehandedly resurrected his party’s campaign with an exceptional performance in the nationally televised debate. The result was a doubling of Liberal seats which positioned the party for a future return to power.

Today, cynicism about politics is too often mistaken for sophistication. John Turner’s career might give the skeptics pause. Ask him what he values most about his accomplishments in public life and his answers are revealing. He mentions legal aid because he is proud of the role he played in making the justice system fairer and more accessible for all Canadians. He points to the changes he made to the system for appointed judges, reforms which put merit ahead of political connection. More privately, there were his own efforts to reconcile a strong personal religious faith with public service in a pluralistic society.

His greatest satisfaction, however, comes from having represented his fellow citizens in public life. In over 30 years in politics, he came to know more of his countrymen by name than perhaps any other Canadian. Besides Mackenzie King, no one else has been elected to Parliament from three different provinces - in three distinct regions of the country. John Turner will tell you that he was proud to sit in the House of Commons, proud to wrestle with the issues of our times - above all proud to be known as a House of Commons man.

But, in the end, what marks John Turner is not power or charm or the effect of personality. What has always attracted people to tonight’s lecturer is something he represents, something all of us as children reading the story of our country’s history learned to look for in our national leaders and have so rarely found - largeness of mind, unquestioned integrity, endless perseverance and, above all, an almost religious devotion to his country’s need.

When this evening's speaker started his public career in the 1960's, belief in government and its ability to act effectively for the common good was at its height. Today, political fashion has shifted dramatically.

Yet in the bedrock of his nature, John Turner remains the man he was then. Essentially a happy man, a positive personality with a gift for friendship, clinging to the concept that was never questioned in the time of our youth - the idea that there is progress in human affairs, the concept that in the end life turns out to be something, something good, and with luck better than anything known before. That is the strength which has enabled him to go on, experiencing defeat as well as success, and were it lost he could serve no further public purpose - for it is said that only those whose prime mover is the intellect can function from a base of pessimism and, John Turner, especially in his sense of his country, is moved primarily by faith and duty.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate that periodically, our speaker sallies forth from a distinguished retirement to pronounce on the progress and prospects of our nation, as he does for us tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, lawyer, politician and passionate Canadian, the Right Honourable John Napier Turner.


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