Lives lived: the right honorable John Turner, may he R.I.P.

di Joe Volpe del September 21, 2020

Former Prime Minister John Turner died at the age of 91. Here a memory of our publisher, Honorable Joe Volpe.

TORONTO - He was a good man. By any standard, his public persona defined what people want in a politician: competence, vision, compassion, resilience, and determination.

Political analysts and historians will wax on and on about his successes and shortcomings, whether they knew him or not. I knew him.

I regret missing his 90th birthday celebration.

He was part of a cohort of men and women who entered the political arena in the 1960s when Canada was still, metaphorically, a block of unhewn stone, socially and economically.

He played his part well, challenging Canadians to grasp his baton as he passed it to us in full flight. I liked him. It was not difficult to see why some did not.

John Turner was a gifted man in so many ways: a brilliant scholar, skilled debater, first-class and lawyer, urbane, worldclass athlete and, from my late wife’s perspective, a “real babe magnet”.

She had a way with words. He was also a magnet for those who felt that “politics” was a calling, a civic duty, wherein practitioners were expected to participate in the great themes that shape the nation and determine its future.

He was from a “generation of thinkers and doers”, when “friendships” (alliances really) emerged from debates on broad-based themes and to almost self-evident issues of importance to the entire country.

I confess a partiality because he embraced an open party (and open government system) that allowed for a “grass-roots” integration of newer Canadians into the political and economic mainstream.

There had been flashes of it before him, but he inspired many with the simple ethic: “earn the public’s support and you’ll have a seat at the table; once you do, the expectations of you will increase – you had better be prepared to meet those expectations”.

Several peoples and community activists – friend and foe alike - took those messages to heart and sparked organizational ferment unmatched in recent years.

He was tolerant, accepting and encouraging of Canadians like me, Armindo Silva, Jasbir Mangat and many others who came from elsewhere to forge a future Canada together.

He gave support but “refused to play favorites”. In his view, excessive dependance on the latter bred structural weakness.

In 1988, he campaigned with me and for me during the historic election on Free Trade and the Continentalization of the Canadian economy.

He was the first national Canadian political leader to campaign on the site of Villa Colombo, partially in recognition of the Italian (and other ethnicities’) contribution to the social-cultural fabric of Canada.

Before that election, he had extended to me an invitation to attend National Caucus at Orford, Quebec. “Got to get to know the country and some of the people you may have to work with… and if you can stand the heat”, he said.

On the Sunday morning of the weekend meetings, he advised everyone that, first, he was going to attend Mass at the Trappist monastery close by and we were all welcome to join him. To replenish his inner strength, I thought.

Caucus can often resemble viper’s nest, notwithstanding, in the two years I served under his leadership, he handled himself with aplomb and competence. For some that was not enough. But he had a warm personality as well.

Several years ago, one of my sons met him on the subway; approached him and asked if he could say hello. Mr. Turner, said, “I know who you are - you’re Joe Volpe’s son. Sit here and tell me about school”.

And he had a sense of humor. At a black-tie event in downtown Toronto, well before being called to Cabinet, I saw he was sitting at a table of “notables” two over from where I had been assigned. I decided to go over and acknowledge his presence with a light-hearted “Gentlemen, I just wanted to say hello to the person most responsible for me Not being in Cabinet”. “That’s because you are still loyal to me”, he laughed. Then, motioning to one of the executives beside him, he said “switch places with him, I want this young man to be seen with me at the event”.

There is a Jewish expression for him: a “mensch” - a Man’s Man, in un-PR language. May he rest in peace.

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