LILLEY: ‘Canada’s Kennedy,’ former PM John Turner, dead at 91

He had Olympic athletic ability, movie-star good looks, romanced with royalty, held some of the most senior positions in the Government of Canada and was married to the love of his life for 57 years.

John Napier Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister, died Friday night at the age of 91.

Turner died in his sleep at home, according to long-serving staffer and friend of the Turner family Marc Kealey.

“He was even better looking than Kennedy,” longtime aid and friend Ray Heard said Saturday.

When Turner entered the political world in 1962, his dashing good looks saw comparisons made to Kennedy. As for that romance with royalty, that happened in 1958 when Princess Margaret toured Canada and visited Vancouver.

“Princess Margaret sat in the moonlight last night in an intimate tête-à-tête with a young bachelor-lawyer … at a secluded table on the lawn of the HMCS Discovery naval base,” the Toronto Telegram reported about their meeting.

John Turner during his tenure as federal Liberal finance minister in the 1970s. Photo by File photo /Postmedia Network

The romance was stopped by order of Buckingham Palace, perhaps in part due to Turner’s Catholicism.

In 1963, Turner would marry the love of his life, Geills McCrae Kilgour, and went on to have four children — Elizabeth, David, Michael and James.

Turner was a student athlete, Rhodes scholar who ran track with Sir Roger Bannister at Oxford, and worked at a prestigious Montreal law firm before entering politics in the 1962 election. He entered cabinet immediately and never left until he exited politics for the first time in 1975.

Under Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, Turner served as minister of corporate and consumer affairs, minister of justice and minister of finance. He spearheaded the push for a national legal aid system across the country, oversaw the suspension of civil liberties during the 1970 October Crisis and was minister of finance during the 1973 oil crisis.

He resigned from cabinet and politics after Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals had run against wage and price controls during the 1974 election and then tried to institute them in 1975. Despite claims he and Trudeau were bitter rivals and hated each other, Kealey says that wasn’t true.

“On Christmas Eve 1971, as Justin Trudeau is about to be born, Pierre Trudeau called John Turner and asked him to go to Midnight Mass with him,” Kealey said.

Kealey, who had worked with Turner and been friends with him since 1984, said he was a man devoted to public service, his faith and his family.

“Turner used to say, ‘I believe in three things — family, loyalty and silence,’” Kealey said.

As for his brief time as prime minister, Heard said there was one major strategic mistake Turner made after taking over from Pierre Trudeau.

“Like the hero of a Greek tragedy, his greatest error was calling an early election. He should have re-introduced himself to the Canadian people,” Heard said.

Heard said that Turner, who became prime minister in June 1984, should have held on and used tours of Canada by the Pope and Queen Elizabeth later that year as tools to raise his profile. Turner lost the September 1984 election to Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives.

Liberal Leader John Turner and Conservative Leader Brian Mulroney point fingers at each other during a debate in the 1988 federal election campaign. Former prime minister Turner, dubbed “Canada’s Kennedy” when he first arrived in Ottawa in the 1960s, has died at the age of 91. Photo by Fred Chartrand /THE CANADIAN PRESS

He would fight against Mulroney in the 1988 election staking his campaign on opposition to the free trade deal Mulroney had struck with American president Ronald Reagan.

“He always used to say, ‘Ray, I’m not against free trade, I’m against the Mulroney trade deal,’” Heard told me.

In the end, Mulroney won, Turner lost and stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party and Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in June 1990.

“It was John Turner who rebuilt the Liberal Party that set the stage for Chretien to be prime minister for 10 years,” Kealey said.

Former prime ministers John Turner, left, and Jean Chrétien greet each other at the federal Liberal leadership convention in Montreal in 2006. Photo by Phil Carpenter /Montreal Gazette files

Turner retired from politics in 1993 and returned to private life in Toronto.

Kealey said Turner didn’t harbour resentment over his failure to spend a longer time at the top of Canadian politics.

“No, he wasn’t bitter. Mr. Turner used to always say that the voters are always right,” Kealey said.

Heard said Turner was a complex man with many sides.

“He was a huge jock. He followed NFL football and the NHL. He was a staunch Catholic. He was a man of honour. He was an intellectual,” Heard said.

Funeral arrangements have yet not been announced.

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