Rt. Hon. John Turner, PC, CC, QC, BA’49
Former Canadian prime minister John Turner died this September at the age of 91, at his family home in Toronto. He held a place in government for nearly 30 years and was at the centre of some of the most formative political debates in modern Canadian history. As a politician, he will be remembered for being dignified, principled, and highly respected by both allies and rivals. Within the UBC community, Turner will be remembered as a distinguished student, athlete, and alumnus who made significant contributions to our university, our city, and our country.
Turner’s time at UBC began in 1945, when he enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at age 16. His impact was felt almost immediately. By 1947, “Chick” Turner, as he was called by his classmates, was the fastest sprinter in Canada and a sports editor for the Ubyssey student newspaper. He had a popular column called “Chalk Talk by Chick,” which became known for its sharp wit and snappy prose. He qualified for the Canadian Olympic team in 1948 but did not participate due to a serious knee injury. Turner is remembered as one of the finest athletes to ever compete for the Thunderbirds. He was also one of UBC’s most exemplary students academically, graduating with an honours degree and earning a Rhodes Scholarship at just 19 years of age. He attended Oxford University and earned a BA, Jurisprudence, Bachelor of Civil Law, and MA. He began work on a doctorate degree at the Sorbonne in Paris but returned to Canada when he was called to the Quebec bar. He was greatly admired by his peers. In 2007, he received an alumni UBC Award of Distinction.
Turner’s career in government began in 1962, when he was elected as a Liberal MP in Montreal. He became a rising star in the party and served as a minister in the Trudeau cabinet from 1968 to 1975. While serving as justice minister, Turner oversaw changes to the Criminal Code that led to the decriminalization of homosexuality and a number of other important social reforms. In June 1984, after Pierre Trudeau retired, Turner was sworn into office as Prime Minister and held the position for 79 days before being defeated by Brian Mulroney in the federal election. He was the first UBC graduate to serve as prime minister. For the next six years, Turner served as the leader of the Opposition, and was a notable critic of Canada’s emerging free trade agreements. He also served as Vancouver Quadra’s MP during that time. He was a strong presence in Canadian politics for a generation, and widely admired for his desire to make Canada a nation of, in his words, “equality and excellence.”
The government held a state funeral for Turner, who was a devout Catholic, at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto on October 6.