Transcript: Steve Paikin
My interview with the journalist, TVO host and author
The Lean Out podcast has just celebrated its 50th episode. So, for episode 51, we have a special Canada-themed show for you.
We’re going to be hearing from a much-respected Canadian broadcaster who’s written a riveting biography about a much-discussed Canadian politician, former Prime Minister John Turner, Canada’s version of JFK.
As we take a trip back in time — hearing about John Turner’s role in the invocation of the War Measures Act, and his liaisons with Princess Margaret and Marilyn Monroe — my guest on the podcast today will reflect on how things have changed between Turner’s time and our own, in both media and in politics.
We’ll hear why we need a civil culture of debate in this country, now more than ever — and where Canadian politics goes from here, with the faceoff between Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau.
Steve Paikin is a Canadian journalist and the host of TVO’s flagship current affairs program, The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He’s also the author of John Turner: An Intimate Biography of Canada’s 17th Prime Minister. That book is out later this month.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Steve, welcome to Lean Out.
SP: Tara, thank you very much. Delighted to be with you.
TH: Very happy to have you on. This is a fascinating book, and there are quite a lot of parallels to today. The book opens with John Turner’s death in 2020. That’s where I’d like to start as well. The Globe and Mail ran the headline, “Former Prime Minister John Turner, who was in office for just 11 weeks, dies aged 91.” A lot of people were upset by that. You knew John Turner. How did you react?
SP: I guess I’m with them. I understand that headline writers have to try to encapsulate a great deal of information in very few words. But the notion that the most important thing about this man’s life was the fact that he was the second shortest serving Prime Minister of all time, I didn’t think was accurate. I mean, it’s accurate; he was the second shortest serving Prime Minister of all time, behind only Charles Tupper. But the reality is that he was a superstar cabinet minister in the 1960s. He became the leader of the official opposition in two elections, which were truly groundbreaking and historic, in the 1980s. He was Prime Minister going into the first one, and then he was opposition leader going into the second one — that free trade election in 1988. So there were a lot of things that happened in his life that were far more important, actually, than being Prime Minister for a short period of time. And I suspect if you asked him, he would have told you that being PM didn’t crack the top five, six, or seven things he did with his life. So, yeah, I get why they did it. But I didn’t love it either.
TH: Let’s talk about how you got involved in telling this story. You’re the host of a popular — and I’m sure very demanding — current affairs show. We were in the middle of a global pandemic at that time, likely the biggest news event of all of our careers. What compelled you to take on this book project?
SP: Well, you’re quite right. John Turner died in September of 2020, so we were six months or so into Covid-19. And yeah, it was certainly the biggest story in a long time. I, frankly, didn’t really want to do this book, Tara. I had just finished a book on former Ontario Premier Bill Davis, which ran 600 pages — which took a lot out of me. And I was certainly not looking for another book project. But a couple of Mr. Turner’s colleagues approached me after he died. So I guess we’re talking now October of 2020. They said, “We really think there’s a good book to be written about John Turner, the man.” As opposed to the politician. A more intimate biography of his life, including more on his personal life. They said to me, “You knew him.”
Our birthdays were two days apart, so we used to go for lunch around the time of our birthdays every year. And his son lived across the road from me. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Well, maybe I can present a bit of a different take on his life, based on my knowledge of him.” Not only that, but I knew his family a little bit, and they were very kind to give me access to his private papers at the archives in Ottawa. They also did extensive interviews with me, which previous authors also had not had access to. So I thought, “Add it all up and maybe I do have something new to say about him.”
TH: I like the way you break that down — the man versus the politician. And this is a very intimate book. So let’s start with the man, John Turner. He began his life full of material advantages, but with many emotional disadvantages, including the loss of his father very young. Give us a snapshot of John Turner’s early life, and how you think that shaped his character.
SP: The material advantages, and the privilege, that he would ultimately come to have in his life certainly didn’t start at the very beginning. He was two when his father died. His father died of a botched operation. He was born in England and the family was living in the UK at the time. Not only that, but there’s another sibling that didn’t make it either. There was a baby that was born, who died, I think a matter of mere days after being born. So it was an incredibly tragic time for Mr. Turner’s mother. She lost her husband and a child within a relatively short space of time. And therefore decided to move back to British Columbia where her family was from originally, and start all over again.
It wasn’t until she moved back to Canada that their life started to get better organized. And John Turner would eventually have the opportunity to meet important people, because his mother was the highest ranking female civil servant in the country. And then things took off.
But his life certainly started under very, very tragic circumstances. He never knew his father. Now, mind you, I asked his sister, Brenda — who’s still alive, she’s 90 years old — I asked her, “What was it like not having a dad?” And she said, “Well, you have got to remember we grew up during World War II, and nobody had a dad.” Everybody’s dad was away. So on the one hand, nobody had a father present in their lives at that time. But on the other hand, some of his friends’ fathers did come back from fighting in World War II. And, of course, his father, he would never come to know.
TH: How do you think that shaped him?
SP: Profoundly, in many ways. First and foremost, he became friends with a lot of people who were much older than him during the course of his legal career at first, and then political career, and then business career after that. Quebec Premier Duplessis became a friend, even though there was maybe 30 years difference. And there would be other members of the clergy, for example, in his life.
He would take on these friendships. There was some speculation that they were replacement father figures for him, because he didn’t have a father in his life. And then, of course, his mother did remarry and he did have a stepfather. But the two of them were never particularly close. And the stepfather was, let’s say, quite a disciplinarian with young John. Therefore, whatever close potential relationship he might have had with a father figure in his life, he didn’t have it. You just have to assume that that played out in myriad ways throughout the course of his life.
TH: Now, you’ve referred to him as our JFK. He was elected in 1962, in his early thirties, a golden boy in Canadian politics. He’s this former world class athlete. He’s quite handsome, as everyone remarks. He’s also hugely well-connected, very well liked. All of this, of course, came with gossip. What do we know about his relationship with Princess Margaret?
SP: Oh, yeah. I thought you were going to go there. Okay. His stepfather ends up becoming Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. And Princess Margaret ends up on a Royal Tour of B.C. The Lieutenant Governor asks his stepson, John Turner, if he wouldn’t mind chaperoning the Princess around for a while. And they spend an evening together dancing. Everybody’s tongue was wagging at, as you point out, the gossip that that created. It made all the newspapers and it was a very big deal. So it no doubt kickstarted John Turner’s presence as a major figure on the political scene of the country — and the social scene of the country.
But it also started cottage industries over the years of gossip about the nature of their relationship, which was highlighted many years later when the Princess’s private letters were published. And she fessed up that John Turner, now married with children, was coming to visit her. She said in a letter to a friend, “To think, I almost married the guy back in the day.” So it was a very, very close relationship. And there’s some funny stories in the book that he never told people for publication, but which, now that he’s gone, I have very indelicately published in the book — that really do describe what the true nature of their relationship was. I will leave that juicy gossip for those who want to read the book.
TH: There was also some suggestion that he spent some time with Marilyn Monroe.
SP: Yeah. Let’s put it this way: Men loved Mr. Turner; Mr. Turner loved men. Women loved Mr. Turner; Mr. Turner loved women. You said it right off the top, he was our JFK. Kennedy was sworn in as President in 1961. Turner gets elected for the first time in 62. They’re both young, dashing men. Kennedy was, I think, 43 when he becomes President. John Turner was 33, maybe, when he gets elected for the first time, and becomes a very young cabinet minister not too long thereafter. So, you know, people have got their eye on these two guys, and the similarities between the two of them were pretty obvious. And he did, through his father-in-law — his father-in-law did business with the Kennedys, and so he came to know and socialize with the Kennedy family in New England. I know he was asked this numerous times, he would never be specific about whether he and Marilyn — how close they were, let’s put it that way. But they had the pleasure of each other’s company, whatever that means, at some point in their lives.
TH: I want to ask one more question about his personal life before we move on to his politics. He ultimately gets married, and his wife Geills becomes one of the most important people in his life. She, in fact, took the photo for the cover of your book. But she had a strained relationship with the press, and was a difficult personality sometimes. At one point in the book, you recount how she was effectively politely banned from a campaign plane. A very strong personality. You didn’t shy away from that, even though though you had all of this access to the family.
SP: No. And she would agree with that. I mean, she doesn’t sanction fools easily. I think she was born in 1937, and she’s a woman who was working in IBM in her twenties. She’s a person who, had she been born 20 years later, might very well been a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Her daughter and I had a wonderful conversation in which she admits that Mrs. Turner — she had one daughter and three sons — and that daughter Elizabeth admitted that she doesn’t have the most maternal instincts. That’s not necessarily where she goes. She’s an incredibly powerful force. An incredibly strong woman. She looked out for her husband in a major way when he was in politics. She did not like when the media wrote nasty stories about Mr. Turner. You can bet that Mrs. Turner was not happy about that. And I know there is this tendency to portray her as somehow the bad guy in the whole John Turner political story. And yeah, there might be some truth to that.
But the other side of the coin is she just was not one of those — and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, but just so you’ll understand what I’m saying — she wasn’t one of those Nancy Reagan types who stayed in the background, gazing with that look on her face at her husband. You know, she was her own person. And she didn’t love the fact that he was in public life, particularly when he made his comeback in 1984. They had a great life together in Toronto in the middle 70s. He was making a fortune in business. He was a hot director for Boards of Directors. She gave all that up to see him go back to become the leader of the opposition. I have a lot of sympathy for her position, let’s put it that way.
TH: And he did take quite a bit of abuse from within his own party.
SP: Oh my God, did he ever.
TH: Let’s talk now about his career. There’s some standout moments to dive into. Turner was, of course, Pierre Trudeau’s Justice Minister during Criminal Code reform, decriminalizing abortion and homosexuality. This is the period Trudeau famously said that the state has no business in people’s bedrooms. John Turner did this despite being a devout Catholic. How big a part of his political legacy do you see this as being?
SP: I wouldn’t put his Prime Ministership at the top of the list. I’d put this at the top of the list. These are things that have had, as the expression goes, political legs. This is stuff that has lasted forever. It was illegal to have an abortion in Canada before John Turner was the Justice Minister. It was illegal to be openly gay in this country until John Turner was the Justice Minister. His predecessor as Justice Minister was Pierre Trudeau. Pierre Trudeau tried to get these reforms through the Parliament that was led by Prime Minister Lester Pearson — and could not do it. John Turner got it done. Two reasons. Number one, he had a way of dealing with his opponents that was disarming, and in which he was able to try to get as much buy-in as possible. He didn’t see people on the other side of the floor of the House of Commons as enemies. He saw them as political adversaries and opponents who needed to be won over. But he certainly didn’t see them as enemies. And of course, having a majority government instead of a minority government, as Pearson had, was no doubt helpful as well.
But I think the story of that Criminal Code reform — I think the big story is Mr. Turner was a staunch Catholic. Personally, he would have been opposed to abortion. And personally, he would not have been a fan of homosexuality. But his own personal views, he was able to shunt those to the side. Because, number one, the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, said this is the right thing to do. And I think Mr. Turner understood the difference between his own personal views and what the government perceived to be in the best interests of the country at the time. So he did it. Here we are, it’s more than 50 years later — and those reforms have stood the test of time.
TH: Interesting. He was also Justice Minister during the October crisis, which saw the indication of the War Measures Act. Interestingly, he did raise questions about its impact on democracy and the precedent it might set going forward. When you were writing this, how did you think through Turner’s objections, given what was happening in our country with the Emergencies Act?
SP: Isn’t that an interesting question? Because, yes, it was the first Prime Minister Trudeau who brought in the War Measures Act. It was the second Prime Minister Trudeau who brought in the Emergencies Act. And they were very, very different circumstances.
I mean, let’s go back 50 plus years — to 1970. October of 1970. The British Trade Commissioner is kidnapped. A Quebec cabinet minister, Pierre LaPorte, is murdered. There are bombs blowing up in mailboxes all over Quebec, as the separatist organization, the FLQ — Front de libération du Québec — is increasingly flexing its muscles for an independent Quebec. Quebec as its own country.
So, the circumstances are — I mean there were no jumpy castles or hot tubs that the FLQ was using back then, as there were when the Convoy was making its mischief more recently. These were very, very scary times 52 years ago. And the cabinet gathered together, pushed through the War Measures Act. Mr. Turner, you’re quite right, making sure that there were safeguards put in place. That there was a sunset clause to this. That parliament would have to be regularly updated as to where things stood. There was an attempt to get the leaders of the opposition on side for the War Measures Act as well.
I think it was a good thing that Canada had John Turner as the Justice Minister at the time. Somebody who — if you were going to trample over, which is in effect what happened … There were hundreds of people arrested on very slim evidence. But it was good that you had somebody with a democratic heart, who worried about civil rights, in the Justice portfolio at the time. To make sure that further abuses of civil rights did not happen. You know, all those years later, I’m convinced that he felt he made the right decision to support the War Measures Act — with the provisos in place that put caps on it. But I can’t imagine he loved doing it. It was sort of one of these necessary evils because the times, in their judgment, called for it.
TH: The moment that we’re in now, I wanted to ask a little bit about that. Did it seem reminiscent for you, as you were writing this book? That there’s so much that is similar. Inflation is high now. You talk about inflation in the book. The Emergencies Act gets triggered — you talk about that in the book. There was incredibly polarized political moments throughout the book. We are in a moment of huge polarization. What parallels did you see?
SP: All of those and more. I mean, you’re quite right. There’s this old expression that everything old is new again. And that was certainly the case here. Even with the fact that a guy named Trudeau was the Prime Minister in both circumstances. I mean, it’s kind of eerie how often this happens. Those similarities are really very intriguing. And John Turner was a strong Justice Minister at the time. He had the Prime Minister’s confidence. If Pierre Trudeau was the most important political figure in the country, and in particular in French Canada, John Turner was the most important English cabin minister among Anglophone Canadians. I don’t know that we have that kind of similar situation in Canada today. You know, Justin Trudeau is obviously the most important political figure in the country today. But I’d be hard pressed to think if — I mean, I haven’t done a survey on this, but could five percent of Canadians name who the Justice Minister is today? In whose name the Emergencies Act was presumably passed? I doubt it. Now, that may have a lot more to do with the fact that government is so much more centralized nowadays. And, you know, it’s really only the Prime Minister that gets any attention, and maybe some days the Finance Minister.
But people knew who John Turner was back then. They knew who he was during the FLQ crisis because he was the Justice Minister. And they certainly knew who he was thereafter, in the early 70s, when he became the Finance Minister. And here we go again with more parallels, with very stubborn inflation and with lots of attempts to get inflation down, and big deficits, and throwing all sorts of ideas and stuff at the wall — and not really sure that any of it’s sticking.
TH: I did want to spend a moment on free trade as well. John Turner was against the Free Trade Agreement. This is an issue in Canadian politics, which as you point out in the book, it’s still somewhat up for debate as to whether this was a net positive for the country. Turner famously called out International Trade Minister John Crosbie, who had not even read it. I found that detail quite astonishing.
SP: It was a 1300-page agreement. So I can understand that he hadn’t read every page of it. But John Turner did.
TH: He did indeed. And Turner said, “I’m not gonna let Mr. Mulroney destroy a great 120-year old dream called Canada.” He did pay a price for this on Bay Street, when he left politics. Why do you think that issue was so important to him?
SP: John Turner was not opposed to free trade. He understood Canada was a trading nation, and he certainly understood the need for Canada to have strong, robust trading relationships with the American government, and with American states, and American businesses. That was not his problem. His problem was he read the agreement. And he just thought the agreement that Mr. Mulroney had come to with Ronald Reagan and the American side wasn’t good. He thought that we were giving up too much. He thought that rather than create a country where the real business relationships are east/west, that we would — because of this agreement — create a situation where a north/south flow would be the main thing. And he didn’t want that. He wanted a country where people in Quebec and British Columbia knew each other better than Quebec knew people from Vermont. Or British Columbians knew people from Washington state. That’s what he was going for. He preferred east/west ties to north/south ties. And so he opposed the agreement.
You’re quite right that the business community wanted this agreement. Most of the country wanted the agreement. Ontario was notable in its opposition, but Quebec was in favour of the Free Trade Agreement. And as a result of his opposing the agreement, when he eventually did leave politics in the 1990s, the welcome mat was not out for him in the way that it was when he retired the first time in 1975. When he had his famous falling out with Trudeau in 1975. He resigned as Finance Minister and Bay Street just couldn’t wait to get to him. They were competing for the right to sign him up to their law firms, to their Boards of Directors, and so on. Not the case when he retired in 1992. 1993, I guess he officially stopped being an MP. So, he put his money where his mouth was. It affected his bottom line financially. But that’s just what he believed. He believed the agreement was a bad one. And so he fought it with all his energy.
TH: His political downfall — his fate was sealed in a debate with Brian Mulroney over a patronage scandal. But there were other real bumps in that campaign. Including the way he behaved with women. In the time he’d been away from politics, on Bay Street, women had entered politics in much greater numbers. There was a feeling he didn’t interact appropriately, often patting them on the rear end to signal a job well done. Which he did with men too. But how much do you think that hurt him?
SP: That’s hard to say. Because there were people in two different camps on this. There were certainly people who believed that when John Turner made his comeback to public life in 1984, that he’d spent a decade out of the public eye. To a great extent on Bay Street, in a very macho business environment. And had missed a lot of the increasing participation of women in the workforce, and the less tolerance that women and many others were starting to demand of the kinds of things you’d talked about there. Bum patting and sexist comments. A lot of the stuff that would have passed for okay in some circles before that. But was, now, really not appropriate anymore.
And, yes, you’re quite right. I quote in the book some women who he used to pat on the bum, and they didn’t think anything of it. That was his way of being — he was a real jock. He was a tactile guy. He just thought patting someone on the bum didn’t matter, if it was a man or a woman. He just saw that as making them feel a part of the team. But a lot of society had moved on at that point. That kind of behaviour just wasn’t acceptable anymore. And when he got caught on camera doing it to the president of the Liberal Party, who was Iona Campagnolo, a woman — she was taken aback, there’s no doubt about it. And she patted him right back. His response to that was to say, “I bet you’ve been waiting to do that for a long time.” He was still stuck in that macho B.S. And she looked at him and said, “No, not really.” I think that surprised him. Because he was a good-looking guy. As far as he was concerned, a lot of women did want to pat him on the bum. And more. But there you go. He learned the hard way that some of that stuff was just really out of date.
It was one of a number of examples of things he did that seemed to be looking to the past instead of to the future. The kinds of clothes he wore were very much suits out of the 1950s and 60s, not the 1980s. The expressions he used. When he campaigned in that election, he went to Thunder Bay and he talked about C.D. Howe, who was a politician who was very famous 40 years earlier. Most of the people he was talking to in that stump speech that he gave in Thunder Bay wouldn’t have been born when C.D. Howe was in Parliament. It was a bunch of things like that. That made him look too much like yesterday’s man. And not enough like today’s or tomorrow’s man.
TH: That’s a good segue for something I wanted to ask you about. There’s a point in the book where you recount being this 24-year-old reporter when John Turner won the Liberal leadership in 1984. It got me thinking about your position here. You’ve been a journalist for 40 years now. How has journalism and politics changed during that time?