Canada lost a former prime minister. I lost a mentor

OPINION: I first met John Turner more than 20 years ago. Our friendship shaped the course of my life and my sense of this country
By Arthur Milnes - Published on Sep 21, 2020
Former Canadian prime minister John Turner is recognized following question period in the House of Commons on June 23, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

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I loved John Napier Turner.

And that love came from anything but politics — it came from what Turner practised best.

Friendship.

Above all else, it came from what he also excelled at: mentorship. 

For whatever reason, the prime minister we lost Friday took time for me over a period that lasted for more than 20 years. My first chat with him occurred when I was a young reporter working at the Yellowknifer newspaper in the far-off — at least for this Ontarian — Northwest Territories, in 1995.

I called him for an interview, as he had just been in the North, and our conversations continued right up until Wednesday night, only a few days before he died at age 91.

Once I moved back south, my interest in his life and career only deepened. Most of our chats and meetings took place at restaurants here in Kingston — the city where he made his first real impact on Canadian public policy, proposing as a young lawyer a national system of legal aid he’d later help implement as a cabinet minister — and in Toronto.

For me, an eager student of Canadian political history, lunch with Turner was like a university seminar (though better), and I came away from each one with a bucket-load of books he’d recommended and another part of our national story that he’d challenged me to consider before we met again.

Funnily enough, he almost never discussed partisan politics with me, legendary Liberal though he was. Instead, he’d tell me to learn from the public speeches and stories of those who’d led us in the past, figures often maligned today — such as past PMs Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, his two special heroes.

And his advice — dictums often:  “Arthur,” he said so many times, “you can’t understand Canadian history until you read up on Laurier and Macdonald and McGee and what these great men said and did. Don’t give me an excuse. Read those speeches” — proved entirely correct and widened my appreciation for political greatness and Canada’s story along the way.

In doing so, he changed my life. My own work in journalism became less partisan and more respectful of leaders of all parties, whether from the present or the past.

In fact, his advice was so good that I eventually landed a job as the memoirs assistant to his greatest political foe, Brian Mulroney. While most of my Liberal and NDP friends were, as they say, shocked and appalled, Turner, when I told him of my new job with Mulroney, was more supportive.

“Arthur,” he said, “your job now is to serve Brian and Canadian history. You have a very important responsibility to Brian.  Don’t let him down. Don’t let me down. History is the only thing that matters.”

Still, he had fun at my expense due to my work with the Tory he had once opposed. Behind my back, for example, my wife, Alison, asked him to send a birthday greeting to the party she’d organized for me on my 40th. As my friends gathered in my Kingston backyard, Alison read Turner’s message.

I will treasure it always.

“I would have enjoyed sharing the big day with Arthur,” he wrote. “He is a good reporter with great instincts and a strong work ethic. He has been blessed with an engaging personality and is a born networker. Mind you, I question his judgment from time to time — e.g., Mulroney. I shall still raise a glass in his honour on the day.”

And, as I would discover, Mulroney returned the favour to his past political “enemy.”

“[Turner] is an intelligent, thoughtful and principled man,” he wrote in his Memoirs.

As I was to learn more fully as I served as a researcher for the 18th prime minister, theirs was a respectful friendship that dated back to the years before I was born. In them both, I witnessed a style of politics — mutual respect — that I wish we had more of today. With a man like Turner, Mulroney always told me, you could indeed disagree in politics without being disagreeable.

Words our politicians, and all of us as citizens, might consider in 2020.

One of my most cherished memories of Turner comes from about a decade ago. Nothing, I learned, meant more to our 17th prime minister in retirement than encouraging young people to become involved in politics — whatever party they chose — and stand for election to the House of Commons.

One year, the executive of the Queen’s University model parliament approached me to ask whether Turner would serve as their Honourable Speaker at that year’s gathering. It was to be held, impressively, in the House of Commons itself.

When I called him, it took Turner about a second to agree.

So it was that I saw my old friend, with physical difficulties due to his age, walk slowly onto the floor of his beloved House of Commons for a final time. He took the Speaker’s chair, and the students rose as one to greet and cheer him from their chairs in the Commons. Most had not been born when Turner had been a major force in Canadian politics.

Watching them, Turner became young again. He gave these young Canadians a pep talk, telling them of the awesome responsibility now in their hands to guide and shape Canada — as he once had — in the decades ahead.

And then he got down to business, presiding over the students’ question period.

He was in his element.

A House of Commons man always.

A mentor to yet another generation of Canadians until the very end.

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