Talking trade with John Turner

Canada’s eldest former Prime Minister sits down with Journal Features editors Kerri MacDonald and Michael Woods to discuss the economy, the Liberal Party and the future of Canadian democracy

Former Prime Minister John Turner speaks at a tribute event at Grant Hall on Friday.
Image by: Tyler Ball
Former Prime Minister John Turner speaks at a tribute event at Grant Hall on Friday.

At 79 years old, the Right Honourable John Turner’s pace has slowed since he took on Brian Mulroney in the 1988 so-called “free-trade debate.” But Canada’s 17th Prime Minister hasn’t changed his stance on the issues he fought for throughout almost 30 years in office.

Turner was at Grant Hall on Friday for a tribute event run by the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy. The event saw the release of an updated collection of Turner’s speeches and writings, entitled Politics of Purpose, as well as speeches on Turner’s life in politics and discussions on free trade.

“While I’m a little older than I was in the 1960s, I remain restless,” he told a gathering of students, faculty and politicians.

“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. In this country, we’re taking it for granted.”

Turner, who now walks with a cane, delivered his speech sitting down, but captivated listeners with thoughts on NAFTA, partisanship and Canada’s relationship with the United States.

“We were naïve as hell,” he said of the drafting of the Free Trade Agreement, saying it wasn’t a true agreement because it favoured American interests.

He recounted his debates with Mulroney over free trade.

“I had an unfair advantage over Mr. Mulroney,” he said. “I read the agreement.”

Turner often faced accusations of anti-Americanism during his time as leader of the opposition from 1984 to 1990.

“I have never been, nor will I ever be, anti-American. I am a proud Canadian,” he said.

After his speech, Turner sat down with the Journal to talk about the state of the Liberal party, the upcoming American election and how he saved John Diefenbaker’s life.

Journal: What direction do you think the Liberal party should take now that Stéphane Dion is stepping down?

John Turner: We have to have a new evaluation of policy, people—particularly younger people—organization, fundraising, and topped off by a new Kingston conference here at Queen’s to duplicate what we did here in 1960.

What do you think the implications of the upcoming American election will be for Canada?

Well if Barack Obama wins as we expect, he has certain protectionist instincts and the Americans will be in a recession, if not worse, so there will be great pressure on him to fulfill his own instincts and try to revise the so-called free trade agreement with Canada.

And if he doesn’t win?

I think McCain might be suffering from the same protectionist instinct.

Aside from the economic crisis, what do you think is the biggest problem facing Canada in the coming months?

To revitalize our democracy. The turnout in the last election was disastrously low, under 60 per cent. Among young people your age I imagine it was about 10 or 15 per cent, so that is not healthy for democracy. We have to revitalize the country. As I said to your students here, democracy doesn’t happen by accident. People have to work at it. People have to participate. People have to get involved.

How do you think the free trade debate has shaped Canadian politics?

Well it just shows that if you have a debate in the right format, not the format of the last election where you have five people around a table, you can’t really get at each other. I was able to concentrate on Mr. Mulroney and get at him. So I think you have to have a format that allows the leaders to debate each other, and not let the media control it.

What role do you think NAFTA has to play in terms of the current economic crisis?

Well it’s a trade agreement, and trade will always be under pressure when the economics become difficult.

When you were Justice Minister, you defended the decriminalization of homosexuality and abortion, but you’re also a devout Catholic. How did you reconcile those two?

I had no problem with abortion because all I did was permit abortion where the life or health of the mother was in danger, and the Canadian courts had been saying that for 60 years, as had the United Kingdom courts and the American courts. So I didn’t change the law, I just rendered what the judges were saying statutory. As a good Catholic, I went to the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, explained what I’ve just explained to you, I supported it by three independent legal opinions from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—leading Catholic lawyers saying this was what I’d done, so the bishops didn’t see an issue.

What was it like for you filling Trudeau’s shoes?

Well, he’d stayed in it too long and the party had begun to disintegrate, so I inherited a weak situation.

So how did you deal with that?

I got out and I had to rebuild the party, coast to coast.

Do you think there are parallels between that and today’s situation?

And today’s situation? Very much so.

Have you spoken with Stéphane Dion or anybody in the Liberal party? Are they going to be consulting with you?

I’d imagine they would.

You saved former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s life. Can you tell us about that?

Well that only was published in a book that his executive assistant,

Sean O’Sullivan—when he published his book My Two Houses—he told the story that in Trinidad in Tobago, the Diefenbakers and Jill and I were in the same place. … One morning my wife saw him, about 11 o’clock in the morning, and he’d been caught by an undertow. She said ‘Mr. Diefenbaker’s in trouble.’ So I went out and grabbed him and swum him back in. Grabbed him by the trunks and swam him back in.

Did that change your political relationship at all?

No, we were friends before that.

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