They still gather to honour John Turner


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This week's writer is Steve Paikin, anchor and senior editor of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on TVO.


It all started 40 years ago with something called The 195 Club.

Pierre Trudeau defeated Robert Winters on the fourth ballot for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

But there, in third place, with 195 loyal supporters to the bitter end, was John Napier Turner.

Those delegates who stuck with Turner became known as The 195 Club. They would become Turner's support system through his elevation into the Trudeau cabinet, first to Minister of Justice, then to Minister of Finance in 1972.

They were there in 1975 after Turner quit the cabinet, unable to work with Trudeau any longer.

And they formed the foundation of his support in 1984, when Turner returned to public life, eventually replacing Trudeau as Liberal leader.

But where Trudeau would win four elections and become one of the country's most consequential prime ministers ever, Turner would last less than three months in the PMO, before being crushed by Brian Mulroney in one of the greatest landslides ever. It was an ignominious end to a 23-year-long political career.

John Turner celebrated his 79th birthday a few weeks ago. For people of a certain generation, he remains the fair-haired knight in waiting that he was for almost a decade, as he waited for Trudeau to leave politics so he could make his return.

About 50 friends and supporters gathered at the home of a friend of Turner's in Toronto to mark the occasion.

At 79,Turner is rather unsteady on his feet. It must be tremendously annoying for this former track and field star, who was good enough to make the Canadian Olympic team in 1948, to walk with such difficulty. But his mind is still sharp, as evidenced by the numerous stories with which he regaled his guests.

At one point during the celebration, I asked him about his relationship with the Kennedy

Steve Paikin



Kennedy called me in 1968," Turner said. "I was Minister of Justice and Attorney- General of

Canada. He said, 'John, I don't know anything about Canada and I'm running for president. Can you give me a briefing?'

"So I arranged to meet him in Madison, Wisconsin, where he had a campaign event. And I briefed him on the major issues of the day,"Turner recalled.

"Four days later, he was dead."

Bobby Kennedy died on June 6. Many of us at the Turner celebration had been engrossed by the coverage of the 40th anniversary of RFK's assassination.

But for John Turner, the discussion was hardly academic or ancient history, as it was for many of us. He knew Bobby Kennedy. Actually, John Turner knows just about everyone.

We talked about the current race for president.

"I have a certain amount of sympathy for Hillary Clinton," he said. "I stayed to the last ballot too!"

Turner can still whip himself into quite a lather talking about political renewal, as he did in brief remarks to those assembled. He got himself elected for the first time at age 33, and wondered out loud, "where are the young men and women, the young candidates, the future of our party?"

He still worries about the status of the Liberal Party, which has seen better days.

And then, with a touch of anger in his voice, he added: "Don't look for me to bring this party back! I've done my time. But I'll be there to help every 18-year-old, 28-year-old, or 38-year-old who wants to do it."

Turner's political life was like a three-part Shakespearean drama. Act I: the rising star. Act II: the return to public life and his brief prime ministership. Act III: six years as Opposition Leader, unsuccessfully fighting free trade, losing a second election to Mulroney, and eventually retiring from politics in 1990.

While Turner unquestionably led what one observer at the celebration called "an impactful life," it's also true that because of his opposition to free trade, he alienated many of his friends on Bay Street. As a result, his post-political life wasn't nearly as impressive as it otherwise might have been.

When he ran for leader in 1968, Turner wrote a book called Politics of Purpose. Forty years later, The Centre for the Study of Democracy in Kingston will republish the book, in hopes of encouraging broader citizen engagement on public affairs.

It seems an appropriate move to celebrate this "impactful" life.

Meanwhile, next year's 80th birthday party is already organized. The 195 Club wouldn't have it any other way.

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