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Former prime minister John Turner dies at 91

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John Turner, Canada’s 17th prime minister, has died at the age of 91.

Marc Kealey, a former aide speaking on behalf of Turner’s relatives as a family friend, told the Canadian Press that Turner died peacefully in his sleep at home on Friday night.

Turner governed for just 79 days in the summer of 1984 after a difficult, decades-long climb to the top job.

Read more: Aline Chretien remembered as trusted adviser to former prime minister

Born in 1929 in Richmond, England, Turner moved to Canada as a young child and grew up mostly in Ottawa, later moving to B.C.

A decorated athlete, Turner once held the Canadian record for the 100-metre dash and qualified for the 1948 Olympics while a student at the University of British Columbia. An injury kept him out of the Olympics, though his athleticism and scholarly acumen helped him win a Rhodes scholarship.

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Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien reflects on his life and career in his new book, ‘My Stories, My Times’

Most Canadians will remember Turner for his lengthy political career and relatively brief stint as Prime Minister, however.

He first entered politics in 1962, winning a Montreal seat for the Liberal Party. Under Prime Minister Lester Pearson, the young Turner was seen as the “golden boy” of Canadian politics and within three years he made it into cabinet. In 1967, he was named to his first prominent cabinet seat: minister of consumer and corporate affairs.

Turner ran for the Liberal leadership in 1968. Although he lost to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, he made a respectable showing for a 38 year old — by far the youngest person in the race.

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Under Trudeau, Turner was named minister of justice, a portfolio he held for four years. In that role, he worked on the controversial Official Languages Act and the government’s response to the October Crisis in 1970.

Turner became minister of finance in 1972. He held the portfolio for three years, until he quit cabinet in 1975 amid rumours that he was butting heads with Trudeau.

He spent most of a decade working in a Toronto law firm before returning to politics.

Trudeau’s departure brought Turner back to Ottawa. Trudeau decided to resign in 1984, and once again, Turner threw his hat into the leadership ring. This time, he won, defeating then-cabinet minister and eventual prime minister Jean Chretien.

Trudeau didn’t leave a strong government for Turner, though. Just before his departure, Trudeau made over 200 patronage appointments.

Turner took office on June 30, 1984, without holding a seat in the House of Commons himself. He called an election just 10 days after being sworn in, on July 9. He ran for a seat in the riding of Vancouver-Quadra.

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Although he won his seat, it was a disastrous election for the new prime minister.

He was sometimes seen as old-fashioned, sometimes even offensive: feminists weren’t happy to see the Liberal leader on television patting the bottom of Iona Campagnolo, the female president of the Liberal Party of Canada. A few days later, he did the same thing to another female Liberal official.

In his defence, Turner said, he was a “very tactile politician” and that the two women weren’t offended by the touch.

But Conservative leader Brian Mulroney brought the real knockout blow to Turner’s campaign during a debate — attacking the Liberal over the Trudeau patronage appointments.

Turner argued that he had no choice but to accept them. Mulroney disagreed. “You had an option, sir, to say ‘no’ and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party,” he said.

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Mulroney’s Conservatives would go on to win the election with 211 seats to the Liberals’ 40. Before the election, the Liberals had 135 seats.

With the election defeat, Turner’s term as prime minister lasted only 78 days — the second-shortest in Canadian history, behind Sir Charles Tupper.

Turner stayed on as Liberal leader, leading the party through another election defeat in 1988. After that election, he decided to step down as leader, making the announcement in 1989 and officially resigning in June 1990. His successor was the man he had once defeated: Jean Chretien.

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Former Canadian PM Jean Chretien jokes ‘you beat me by one’ as he congratulates Queen on royal baby

Turner stayed on as the MP for Vancouver Quadra for a few more years, eventually retiring from politics before the 1993 election.

He went back to work as a lawyer, and was named a companion of the Order of Canada in 1994.

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An outpouring of condolences and remarks of Turner’s time in politics have been expressed across Canada.

A statement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office commended Turner on his accomplishments in and out of office, adding that he “was a humble man with a strong social conscience.”

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Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien speaks to the media

“On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to Mr. Turner’s family and friends,” read the statement. “His contributions to Canada will not be forgotten.”

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien said in a statement that he “was really saddened to learn of the passing of my long-time colleague and friend.”

“More than anything, John was a House of Commons man and an outstanding public servant. He revered our democratic institutions like no other and served his constituents and Canada with great distinction. He will be greatly missed.”

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In a press conference Saturday, Toronto Mayor John Tory remarked on Turner and his dedication to Canada.

“He was an accomplished professional, he was a very accomplished athlete in his younger days and he had a very proud career in politics and public service becoming of course prime minister of Canada which so few people have done,” said Tory.

“But more than anything else, John Turner was a very proud Canadian. He loved this country and the country never did perhaps love him back in the same way that he deserved given his devotion and love to Canada.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper expressed his condolences on Twitter Saturday as well.

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“His legacy and commitment to public service will be remembered for generations,” wrote Harper.

Former Ontario NDP leader and federal Liberal leader Bob Rae tweeted that he was “very sorry to hear this news.”

“John Turner’s vitality and determination, his loyalty to friends, his belief in public service and in Parliament — he served his country with great distinction and honour.”

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“Sad to hear about the passing of former PM John Turner,” wrote Ontario Premier Doug Ford. “He was a dedicated public servant who devoted decades of his life to making Canada a better place.”

“On behalf of Canada’s Conservatives and the Official Opposition, I would like to express our sincere condolences to Geills and the Rt. Hon. John Turner’s entire family,” wrote Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, who is self-isolating following his coronavirus diagnosis Friday night.

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A statement from the office of Governor General Julie Payette praised the work Turner accomplished “as an intellectual and as an athlete.”

“His career spanned one of the most turbulent periods in modern Canadian history: the debates he had and the reforms he championed continue to shape the political sphere today, particularly in areas such as free trade and gender equality.”

A statement from the Liberal Party of Canada remarked on Turner’s time as party leader, and said that he “dedicated his life and career to the hard work of building a better Canada — and to the values and freedoms that make our democracy strong.”

“Our thoughts and condolences are with John’s family and loved ones.”

The Peace Tower will fly the national flag at half-mast on Sunday in memory of Turner.

The flag will be flown at half-mast until the day of the funeral, which has yet to be determined.

—With files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ David Lao