By Roderick Benns
When former Prime Minister John Turner reflects on the years he spent as a progressive minister under both Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, he is satisfied he made important social changes for all Canadians.
Asked to consider a time in politics when he knew he was making a difference in Canadians’ lives, Mr. Turner says he “had a lot to do with a number of situations that affected people directly.”
Mr. Turner pointed out he was involved with legislation and departments that had many direct connections to Canadians under both Prime Ministers Pearson and Trudeau.
“For instance, I always believed in balancing individual rights against those of corporations,” says Mr. Turner.
That’s why the former leader says he was proud to introduce the bill in the House of Commons in 1967 that created the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs – and then he led it.
“I headed up the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs which gave a balance in the legal rights between consumers and corporations,” Mr. Turner says.
As John Turner biographer, Paul Litt writes, this “fit with his concern for the rights of the average Canadian in the face of impersonal bureaucracy…”
Litt notes that for Mr. Turner it was “also a matter of social justice; the poor…commonly paid more because they lacked access to consumer choice and got stuck with the highest interest rates.”
Under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Turner was appointed minister of justice in 1968 – a post he held for four years. It was during this time that Mr. Turner sponsored Criminal Code reform.
“At the justice department, I established the federal court of Canada,” where trials and hearings were heard across Canada, he says. The court also strengthened the rights of individual defendants on trial. Mr. Turner also got rid of the tradition of party patronage in the appointment of judges. He also set up the Law Reform Commission.
During a key time in Canada’s history, Mr. Turner would also direct the Justice Department under the War Measures Act. He was also minister of finance from 1972-1975.
After years as a successful lawyer, Mr. Turner was convinced to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1984. Mr. Turner won and became prime minister when Mr. Trudeau left office. Losing to Brian Mulroney in 1984, he nonetheless doubled the Liberal seat count in the next election, in 1988. He remained Liberal leader and leader of the opposition until 1990. He then retired from politics once again to resume his legal career.
Did You Know?
John Turner is known as Canada’s ‘fastest prime minister,’ for his distinguished athletic record while in university. In the late 1940s, Turner was one of Canada’s top sprinters. In fact, he set the Canadian record in the 100-yard dash, running it in 9.8 seconds in 1947.
The University of British Columbia sprinter also dominated the 100-and-200-yard events. He even qualified for the 1948 London Olympics, but a car accident closed this window of opportunity.
Mr. Turner, a Rhodes Scholar, studied law at Oxford and in 1954 was called to the Quebec Bar.
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