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The ultimate ‘House of Commons man’: Steve Paikin on the life of John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with author and journalist Steve Paikin about his fascinating new book, John Turner: An Intimate Biography of Canada’s 17th Prime Minister.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honored to be joined today by Steve Paikin, the well-known host of TVO’s The Agenda. He’s also a first-rate historian who’s written really terrific biographies of former Ontario premiers John Robarts and Bill Davis as well as books on the call of politics and the modern National Hockey League.

Steve has a new book about former Prime Minister John Turner. The book is entitled, John Turner: An Intimate Biography of Canada’s 17th Prime Minister, and tells the story of the former prime minister’s fascinating career that put him at the center of some of the big political questions that shape present-day Canada. I’m grateful to speak with Steve about the book, including Turner’s place in the modern mythology of Liberal politics. Steve, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

STEVE PAIKIN: Thank you very much. It’s great to be with you again, Sean. It’s odd because, usually, I have you on the program I’m doing and I ask the questions, but I’ll see if I can figure this out when the tables are turned today.

SEAN SPEER: John Turner, a stepson of British Columbia’s lieutenant governor, rose to public prominence in part when he danced with Princess Margaret at a 1959 Naval Ball on Vancouver’s Deadman Island, which, of course, led to rumors about a possible romantic relationship. In the 1984 federal election, Brian Mulroney liked to joke that, “When I was driving a truck, John Turner was dancing with Princess Margaret.” Why don’t we start with a bit of biography. Help our younger listeners, in particular, understand Turner’s early political profile? Steve, he was sometimes characterized as Canada’s Kennedy, right?

STEVE PAIKIN: Rightly so. He was an absolutely dazzling-looking, handsome guy. These baby blue eyes that would just go right through you. He got elected in 1962 for the first time as a Liberal opposition backbencher. Of course, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the American president just the year before. The comparisons were understandable. I feel quite strong in saying that a lot of people thought that John Turner had political fame and fortune written all over him from the very earliest moments. I think he was 33 years old when he first got elected for the first time.

He was right in the wheelhouse of lots of political potential. He ran for the Liberal leadership in 1968, defeated by the current prime minister’s father. Pierre Trudeau knew talent when he saw it, put John Turner in his cabinet as the justice minister and then the finance minister, and then the two of them had a parting of ways over a pretty significant issue. In 1975, he quit. I think a lot of people thought at that point, “Well, the potential just wasn’t realized and it just isn’t going to happen,” but there were others who were plotting in the wings. Of course, the story picks up a decade later.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll get into some of those different threads. I want to stay on Turner’s background and how that influences the way we ought to think about him and his politics. Turner grew up in part in British Columbia and, at different times in his political career, was a representative of a B.C. riding. That makes him different than a lot of the Central Canadian political leaders and prime ministers that we’ve had in Canada’s history. How much should we think of Turner as a Westerner and how does his attachment to British Columbia affect the way that he thought about national politics?

STEVE PAIKIN: Great question and an important question because, of course, so many of the prime ministers before that were from this so-called Laurentian Elite: the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto axis. John Turner, I think, is one of only—I’m probably going to get this wrong—but I think he’s one of only three prime ministers, and we’ve had 23, who represented three different provinces in the House of Commons.

He first got elected in ’62 in a Montreal riding. His riding disappeared, so he moved to the province of Ontario and ran in an Ottawa riding. Then when he came back in 1984, he ran in Vancouver Quadra and he won every personal election that he stood for in his particular constituencies. I think Mackenzie King and Wilfrid Laurier were the only other prime ministers to have served in three different provinces.

I think you touched on something very important here, which is that John Turner very much felt like a product of Western Canada. Had his prime ministership lasted longer than 79 days, I think we would have seen a different way of governing, a way of governing that was very much more inclusive of Western Canada, which has always, I think, eluded Liberal prime ministers from—well, it depends how far you want to go back, but maybe all the way to the beginning.

His understanding of not just the West but of the North—this is a guy, Sean, who used to take his family on canoe trips further North than any white family in the history of the country. Up to Baffin Island, for goodness sake, and Northwest Territories. He’d seen places that only Indigenous Canadians had seen. As a result, I think all of that combined, the Western influence, the Northern influence, had he been able to serve longer, would have made for a very different kind of prime minister.

SEAN SPEER: Turner is sometimes characterized as a more centrist and even conservative figure when it came to, say, economic policy compared to Pierre Trudeau and other senior Liberal voices of the era. I think, for instance, of Turner’s decision to step down as finance minister rather than implement price and wage controls. Do you want to talk a bit about Turner’s economic philosophy? Perhaps more concretely, what was it in his worldview that made him a big-L Liberal rather than, say, a Progressive Conservative?

STEVE PAIKIN: If you made that Venn diagram, there’d be a heck of a lot of overlap between the Blue Grit that John Turner was earlier in his career and, say, a Red Tory like Bill Davis. It’s interesting because the two of them were born a month apart. They come of a certain generation where there might not be that much difference between those two things. Back in the day, back in the ’60s and ’70s, the Liberal Party was very different from the way it is today. There was a Blue Grit wing with its eye on deficits and much more concerned about the business community.

There was a social justice, more left-wing wing of the party, which, of course, Pierre Trudeau represented and was much more along the lines of, “Let’s implement lots of big social programs,” and that kind of thing. I wouldn’t want to exaggerate that. Because when John Turner came back to public life in 1984, having been on Bay Street, having become more conservative because he was on Bay Street, when he came back in 1984, I think, and particularly in 1988 when he ran that campaign against Brian Mulroney’s free trade agreement, that was an indication that although you might describe him as a business-Liberal, that didn’t mean a blank cheque for the United States.

He was very concerned about Canadian sovereignty. He was very concerned about making sure that we retain control of our water. He was always adamant that he thought the United States was going to come after our water and we better be careful not to let that happen. He doesn’t fit necessarily nicely into one of those boxes to say that he’s definitely a Blue Grit. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was a social democratic Liberal, but he had more left-leaning in him, I think, than more people gave him credit for.

SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to the ’88 election in a minute. I want to take up something you raised earlier, which is a departure from politics. The book reminds me that it was almost a decade before returning to take over as Liberal Party leader in the lead-up to the 1984 election. A common narrative, Steve, as you well know is that in the intervening time, Turner’s political acumen and skill had atrophied a bit, that he had failed to keep up with the new modern political developments and felt a bit dated. Is that your sense? If so, is there something that someone like Mark Carney can learn from Turner’s experience?

STEVE PAIKIN: Okay, let’s go with those one at a time. First of all, that is not only my sense, but that is the sense of, I think, everybody who knew him at that time. He’d been this rising star until he left and resigned from Trudeau’s cabinet in 1975. Then he went to Bay Street and he became the quintessential English-Canadian lawyer, corporate director. Life was just fantastic for him and his family then.

He made tons of money. He was probably on 16 different boards of directors. He really was hot stuff. He stayed on Bay Street at a firm then called McMillan Binch. It’s still around. It’s called McMillan LLP today. He stayed there from 1975 to 1984 when he just could not resist the siren call from so many Liberals to come back into public life and rescue the Liberal Party from its record-low unpopularity at that time, right?

Pierre Trudeau was now going on, whatever it was, 15 years as prime minister, and people have had enough. Mr. Turner, unfortunately, when he was in the private sector, really let his skills atrophied. That’s a good word. His French wasn’t nearly as good as it used to be. He was not as in touch with the Liberal Party as he needed to be, right? This party was now Pierre Trudeau’s party. It was a very different party from the party he would have created had he beat Trudeau in the 1968 leadership convention.

Furthermore, he took some very curious positions on some very important issues to Liberals. For example, the Liberals were always the number one party in Canada when it came to protecting minority language rights. Yet, at his very first press conference when he threw his hat into the ring in ’84, some journalist asked him, “What about this situation in Manitoba, where there’s a controversy over whether or not to respect francophone rights and have all the laws translated into French?”

John Turner’s answer was, “Well, I think language rights are a provincial responsibility, so I wouldn’t get involved there.” That shocked Liberals. Even better for Conservatives, Brian Mulroney, francophone from Quebec, jumped right into that space and said, “Well, the Liberals won’t do it, if John Turner won’t do it, we’ll protect those minority language rights in the province of Manitoba.” That was a game-changer right there before Turner had even won the leadership. That was a big game-changer.

Sean Conway, the former Ontario MPP, had a great expression. He said that when Mr. Turner came back into public life in 1984, he wasn’t “tournament tough.” He’d just been on the sidelines for too long. He was too rusty. His political antennae weren’t good. He made too many mistakes. Combine all that with the fact that he went up against, arguably, the greatest campaigner in the last 50 years in Brian Mulroney, and it’s not surprising that he led the Liberals to their worst showing at that point ever.

SEAN SPEER: Turner really finds his voice in the 1988 election on the free-trade question, which, setting aside the political dynamics, it might be a bit of a surprise since, as we discussed earlier, fairly or unfairly, Turner had a reputation for being to the Right of some of his Liberal contemporaries on economic matters. Do you want to talk a bit about his decision to ultimately oppose free trade? Was it a principled one or was it mostly driven by political consideration?

STEVE PAIKIN: No, I think it definitely was a principled one. Let’s remember because he had that background on Bay Street, John Turner was not hostile to free trade. So many of his clients were American clients. He was doing plenty that would’ve constituted free trade between Canada and the United States. What he was against was that deal. After the deal came out and was made public, and I can’t remember how long it was, it was more than 1,000 pages long, he went on a ski vacation with his family. He took the agreement with him and he read every single page of that agreement.

He came back with an agreement that was dog-eared, that had post-it notes in the margins, got a follow-up on this, this will be a question in Question Period. He went through that agreement with a fine-tooth comb and made the conclusion that it wasn’t free trade he was against, it was this agreement that he didn’t like. He really feared that this agreement would create this north-south—almost like a vacuum cleaner, right? It would hoover up all of that relationship economically and that the ties that bound us east-west would suffer. Therefore, he thought this was going to affect Canadian sovereignty.

He wasn’t satisfied that we had an adequately good dispute settlement mechanism as a part of the agreement. He thought that the American Congress would never give up its power to have the final say over these treaties and that it was a to-weak dispute settlement mechanism in the agreement. As a result, he went up against it. For that decision, he got a lot of Liberals on his side and, as you point out, almost won that 1988 election. If the election had been two weeks shorter, he probably would’ve won it. Mulroney and the conservatives absolutely destroyed him in the last two-three weeks of the election campaign.

As a result, he lost again. If you compare that to Meech Lake, where he sided with Brian Mulroney on a constitutional agreement that he thought was on the right side of history but which his party was overwhelmingly against, these are two things on which I think he took principled positions. One of them, Liberals really appreciated him being with, free trade. The other one, they absolutely would not support him and it helped to doom his relationship with his party, namely, the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord.

SEAN SPEER: I was just surprised to discover for the book that he remained in parliament until 1993 even though he was replaced as party leader in 1990. As you know as well or, frankly, better than anyone, that’s a bit uncommon in modern politics. What led him to remain a parliamentarian? Based on your research, what was his experience like during that period?

STEVE PAIKIN: The most controversial thing about his time in that period was that he actually took a position against his own party leader Jean Chrétien, whom he had defeated in 1984 and with whom he had a pretty terrible relationship. They were simply rivals every step of the way. Once Mr. Turner came back into public life in 1984, on the issue of the war in Iraq, Mr. Turner—no, let me get this chronology right. I think it was the Gulf War. It was the Gulf War at this point. Mr. Turner said, “We have got to be with NATO. We got to be with our allies on this.”

Jean Chrétien and the Liberals were far too lukewarm on it. As a result, it was a problem between Chrétien and Turner yet again. That was a problem. You know what? Mr. Turner didn’t have any problem giving a speech in the House of Commons opposing his own party because he thought his own party was wrong on this one.

He paid for it. He was a former prime minister. I think it was the whip who actually kicked him out of his office and moved him into a—if everybody wants an office downtown, so to speak, they moved him way out to the suburbs. He was punished for taking that position. Why did he want to hang around? Because he’s a House of Commons man. That was the expression back in the day. He thought the big debates in the country happened in parliament. He thought parliament was where the action was.

He’d been elected as the MP for Vancouver Quadra for a second time. He felt he owed it to his electors not to quit on election night after he lost that second election. He hung in there and he stayed till the end of his term. He didn’t show up as often obviously as he did before, but he stayed as an MP until 1993 until the subsequent federal election. I think it says everything you need to hear about John Turner that he respected parliament and democracy so much that he wanted to serve out the whole term.

SEAN SPEER: I know it’s a counterfactual, Steve, but I can’t help but ask it. What kind of prime minister do you think Turner would’ve been had he been elected in 1984? Would he, for instance, have ran with the Macdonald Commission report that was released in 1985 and formed the basis of the Mulroney government’s economic direction with trade and privatization, et cetera, or do you think we would’ve gotten something quite different?

STEVE PAIKIN: That is such a great question and it’s one that I pondered a lot as I wrote the book because the obvious thing is we’re never going to know. The other thing is it’s a hard question to answer because John Turner was so rusty when he came back into public life. He didn’t take good advice well. There were a lot of people who offered him bad advice and he took that.

His political antennae were not good, which makes me think had he been able to win that election by some crazy freak, or fluke I should say, would he really have been a great prime minister? I don’t know. People often said to me, he’d take lots of advice from lots of different people. Whoever the last person was to give him advice, the last person to leave the room, that’s the way he’d go.

Well, that’s not great leadership. I don’t know if he did that because he was so insecure in his own lack of understanding of politics in 1984 because he’d been away too long or what. It’s a curious thing. He was a great cabinet minister. When he was justice minister, he brought in the bill to make abortion legal under some circumstances in Canada. When he was justice minister, LGBTQ rights became a thing. Homosexuality was outlawed before John Turner made it legal.

The notion that he didn’t have political skill is absolutely wrong, but it seems that his best moments took place before he left and went into the private sector. When he came back, well, look, the worst decision he made was calling that snap election. He made it, Sean, because he saw what happened in 1968 when Pierre Trudeau won the leadership and then almost instantly called a snap election, took advantage of Trudeaumania, and won a majority government that the Liberals had not previously had. What did John Turner do?

He did the same thing. The only difference was there was no Turnermania in the land. In fact, people were quite tired of the Liberals by then. The support that he had was a mile wide and an inch deep and it just wasn’t that strong. The people who were telling him, “John, get a seat in the House of Commons. Be prime minister for a while. There are lots of Canadians who don’t know who you are. You’ve been out of public life for a decade. Get in there. Let them see you do the job. Meet with the Pope. Meet with the Queen.”

There was a papal and royal visit coming that summer of 1984. “Meet with them. Do the job for a while. Let people see you do the job.” He rejected that very good advice. He remembered Pierre Trudeau’s example. He called that snap election. As a result, he was prime minister for 79 days and 79 days only, making him the second shortest-serving prime minister in Canadian history.

SEAN SPEER: You alluded to his rivalry and relationship with Jean Chrétien. I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about his relationship with Pierre Trudeau. In reading the book and preparing for this interview, I was reminded of his decision to resign in 1975 and the controversy that that decision produced. Do you want to talk a bit about those fundamental relationships in this era of Canadian politics?

STEVE PAIKIN: Sure. One of the reasons, Sean, I wanted to write this book is that a couple of people who worked for Mr. Turner when he came back into public life after 1984 said, “Steve, you knew him,” and it’s true. I covered the ’84 convention. Our birthdays were two days apart and so we used to go out for lunch together on our birthdays. This is after he got out of public life. I didn’t do that during public life. After he got out of politics, we became friendlier. Those lunches were great because he’d answer your questions.

I’d ask him about some real steamy stuff from back in the day and he’d talk to you about it. On the issue of Trudeau versus Chrétien, this was one of the things that we returned to a number of times because I reminded him, “You resigned from Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet. Clearly, you had a difficult relationship with him,” and he said, “No, actually, we got on okay. We had a fundamental disagreement on wage and price controls, but in the main, Pierre Trudeau respected me. I respected him. We got along well.”

Pierre Trudeau was obviously the king of French Canada. Trudeau understood that John Turner was the king of English Canada. During the War Measures Act, during 1970, there was his justice minister, John Turner. Remember? The War Measures Act comes in under his name. He’s the justice minister who brings it in. Pierre Trudeau wanted him in the room and wanted his advice on how English Canada would react to all of that.

His relationship with Pierre Trudeau after it was all said and done was pretty good according to him. With Chrétien, the exact opposite. They were friendly when they were in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, right? There’s actually this great picture, a famous picture in Ottawa of Lester Pearson, the prime minister, and these guys beside him. Justice Minister Trudeau, solicitor general, I guess, at the time, or maybe not even that, maybe Consumer Minister Turner, and minister without portfolio, Chrétien, standing with him.

You get the prime minister and three future prime ministers all in one shot. At that time, Turner and Chrétien got along pretty well. When Mr. Turner came back out of private life in 1984 and ran against Jean Chrétien for the Liberal leadership and Chrétien thought, “Who is this guy? He’s not very good. He hasn’t been around for the last 10 years. I’ve been here doing the heavy lifting. I’m way better than him,” and yet Liberals were supporting Turner. I mean he won on the second ballot, right? It wasn’t that close.

That just was the beginning of the end. Frankly, the Chrétien people at that moment resolved to do whatever they could to destroy Turner, and they did. They were a terribly disloyal lot, I have to say, and they really made his life miserable, but then what are you going to say? A lot of it is timing. Chrétien came in 1990, became the leader, won three straight majorities because people had had enough of the Tories at that point. Turner’s timing was bad, Chrétien’s timing was good, and the rest is history.

SEAN SPEER: [laughs] The election of Justin Trudeau as Liberal Party leader in 2013 seemed to represent a genuine generational change in the party. Even successful Liberal leaders like Chrétien seemed a bit removed from not just the internal machination of liberal politics, but even the myths and stories that Liberals told themselves about themselves. What about Turner? What, if any, kind of purchase does he have in the modern Liberal Party’s conception of itself?

STEVE PAIKIN: Well, I would say not much anymore. For this reason, I think that 1984 convention really was the beginning of a civil war inside the federal Liberal Party. From that moment on, you were either a Turner Liberal or a Chrétien Liberal, or after that, you were either a Chrétien Liberal or a Paul Martin Liberal, right? Even after that, you were a Michael Ignatieff Liberal or you were a Bob Rae Liberal.

These cleavages existed in the Liberal Party for decades. The one thing you have to give Justin Trudeau credit for is that he won the leadership of his party with, I think—what was it? It was like 85 percent of the vote. Maybe 90 percent. I can’t remember now, but it was way up there. He said, “We’re not Turner Liberals anymore. We’re not Martin Liberals. We’re not Chrétien Liberals. We are Liberals, period, full stop.” It really took the Liberal Party having historically awful elections as they did finally in 2011 under Michael Ignatieff, the worst showing ever. Third-place finish. That had never happened before. It took that much disaster for Liberals to finally pay heed to that message. We can’t be factionalized Liberals anymore. We’ve got to be united Liberals. Now, on the one hand, I guess you’ve got to say that’s a good thing because party unity is always a good thing. This party is very unified around its current leader and his particular ideological bent.

Let’s face it. Today, the Liberal Party is a party with one wing. It is not a bird with two wings anymore. It is a quasi-social democratic party that believes in considerable state intervention. The Liberal Party used to be a party that was a big red tent. If you’re pro-life or pro-choice, you were welcomed in that tent. Not any longer. You’ve got to be pro-choice now on the abortion issue. It’s a very different party now than the one that John Turner was involved with.

As a result, I’m not sure John Turner would be completely comfortable with the current incarnation of the Liberal Party because it doesn’t have those two wings. It has one wing now. The business wing of the Liberal Party basically doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know. Historians can decide whether we’re better or worse off for that. I don’t know. I won’t weigh in on that, but it’s a single-tier party today, which makes it different from the way it always was in the past.

SEAN SPEER: What do you think John Turner’s political legacy is? How should we place him in the broader history of the defining questions of the latter quarter of the 20th century? How, Steve, do you think he ought to be remembered?

STEVE PAIKIN: Well, interestingly enough, despite the fact he was prime minister of the country, I’m not sure that being prime minister for 79 days entitles you to be remembered for your prime ministerial legacy. I’m not sure there’s much there you can point to, to say, “Oh, John Turner was the prime minister and, therefore, we got X, Y, and Z.” As I considered that question for the book, I said to myself, “What’s really his overarching lasting legacy?”

I would say democracy. I would say this is a guy who used to go into his 70s and 80s into schools and talk to young people about the importance of democracy, the importance of standing for parliament, the importance of getting involved in politics. He used to say, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to participate.” As a “House of Commons man,” that’s what he loved to do.

He absolutely, in his DNA, believed in the importance of Canadian parliamentary democracy. He thought we were blessed in this country to enjoy a system of government, which had personal freedom at its core, but also an obligation and an understanding that we had to do well by each other as well. The importance of a strong and buoyant economy, the importance of good relations with our American neighbors, while at the same time having a wary eye down south so that we maintain our sovereignty. That’s all part and parcel.

I remember he was asked once what’s the best thing he ever did in public life. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t something he did as justice minister. It wasn’t something he did as finance minister. It wasn’t something he did as consumer minister. It wasn’t something he did as solicitor general. It wasn’t something he did as prime minister. You had to go to 2004. He was chosen by Paul Martin to lead a 500-strong delegation of Canadians to go over to Ukraine and oversee the presidential elections in Ukraine, and he did.

They got to the end of the elections and he was able to report back to Prime Minister Martin and the world that thanks to the oversight of many countries, including Canada and including our delegation over there, they went to ridings—hey called them oblasts—they went to ridings all over the country and they made sure the election was clean and the outcome was just. As he looked back on that years later, he said, “I think that’s the best thing I ever did.”

Now, how many prime ministers would say to you, “The best thing I ever did in public life was nothing I did when I was a prime minister or in cabinet, but rather something as a private citizen”? I think that tells you a lot about the man and about, number one, how much he cared about Ukraine and the democracy they were trying to build at the time and, number two, how absolutely mortified he’d be today were he alive to see what Russia is doing in that country? He’d have been appalled.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a penultimate question. What, if anything, surprised you through this process? As you mentioned earlier, Steve, you knew John Turner, but what did you learn about him as you worked on the book?

STEVE PAIKIN: Learned about him and surprised are two different things. I’ll answer it this way. I remember covering all this stuff back in the day. I remember watching it back in the day how the knives came out for this guy, not from the back. They didn’t stab him in the back, Sean. They stabbed him in the front. They stabbed him in the side. They stabbed him in the back. Liberals went after this guy holus-bolus and it was shocking at the time.

You got to remember. In the middle of the ’88 election, there was a meeting held by senior Liberals to try to depose John Turner, to take him out, and to somehow install Jean Chrétien as the Liberal leader in the middle of an election campaign. Brian Mulroney was already with his line. If it had happened, Chrétien was going to show up to the leaders debate. Mulroney was going to look over at him and say, “How did you end up here?” [laughs]

I think one of the things that I’m reminded of, having looked in the archives and seen the secret memos that went back and forth at the time, I’m reminded of [chuckles] just how shocking it was that he had to put up with the kind of internecine warfare in that party at that time because one of the truisms in Liberal politics was loyalty to the leader, and it worked. The Liberals have been in power for 85 of the first 120 years of the country’s birth.

Loyalty to the leader had a lot to do with that. Well, there was no loyalty to John Turner. To constantly be reminded of all of the terrible things he had to endure during his prime ministership, which I’ve chronicled in the book and which having got access to archives that nobody else has seen, really puts a lot of meat on that bone. I’m still astonished by what people did back then. It was just astonishing. That’s the word for it.

SEAN SPEER: My final question is a bit of a homer question. Steve, I think you know that I grew up in Thunder Bay and have spent time in Kenora and Lake of the Woods. Why don’t you talk about Turner’s personal connection to the region? He spent a lot of time at Lake of the Woods, I understand.

STEVE PAIKIN: Well, he inherited that part of the province of Ontario, which is so far away from both capital cities in Ontario that it’s in a different time zone. Kenora, Lake of the Woods, that was his wife’s place. His wife is from Winnipeg. Geills Turner was from Winnipeg. As a result, Winnipeg to Kenora, it’s just a couple of hours. If you live in Winnipeg, a lot of people have cottages in Northwestern Ontario. To get there from Toronto or from Ottawa, that was a real feat of logistics.

It took a day to pack everything up. It took two, often three days, to get everything up there. He was a different guy at Lake of the Woods. You’ve got to remember, he started his political career as the parliamentary secretary to the minister of northern affairs. He had a love for the North that was probably unrivaled in the country by anybody else and, certainly, any other Southerner for sure.

The canoe trips that the family took up there, the time he spent at Lake of the Woods, he never felt more Canadian than when he was up there looking at the gorgeous landscape of Northern Canada. I think as well, he was a different father when he was up there. He could be a different husband up there. He got away from all of the political sturm and drang. I remember his kids telling me for the book. They said, “My dad would just sit on the porch and he’d look at the trees and he’d look at the water. He’d do it for hours and he wasn’t bored.”

He was just dazzled by how gorgeous the landscape was up there and so it was hugely important to him, even late in life when he could barely walk anymore. There was a time late in life when he lost his health and he needed a walker to get around, and somehow they still managed to get him into a kayak or into a canoe and go out for a paddle. I’m willing to say, he was never happier than when he was either in the House of Commons or in Northwestern Ontario, the land of your birth. It just filled his soul.

SEAN SPEER: Well, this has just been a wonderful conversation, Steve. You’ve done the transition from host to guest masterfully, almost as masterly as you’ve written this book, John Turner: An Intimate Biography of Canada’s 17th Prime Minister. Steve Paikin, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

STEVE PAIKIN: Really great to be with you, Sean. Thank you so much.

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