Paying tribute to the late John Turner, former Prime Minister of Canada

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2020-09-24 10:21 [p.27]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I also want to thank all of my colleagues.

It is a great honour for me to address the chamber to pay tribute to my friend, John Turner.

I, obviously, am from a different generation, and in case anyone thinks I have changed sides, I am wearing red today in honour of John Turner. I do not know how I became so lucky to be considered worthy to be one of the few opposition MPs invited to what I think will go down in history as an extraordinary event, his 90th birthday party on June 10 last year.

John Turner did not approach reflections on his 90th birthday as someone who was out of it, who was not paying attention, who was just reflecting on the past, but gave a speech that was a clarion call to democracy. To his last days, he was engaged in the life of this country. He loved Canada so passionately, and his contributions to this country must not be underestimated. When he was Minister of Justice, he gave us legal aid. He said that everyone had to have access to the law, that they had to have access to a defence. He also took the first step on the very long road to LGBTQ rights by ending the criminality of same-sex relations in this country through a change to the Criminal Code.

He did much, and he was remembered and celebrated at that birthday party, as we have now heard, by Brian Mulroney by video and other living prime ministers who were present, including the Right Hon. Joe Clark, who gave a spectacular address, the Right Hon. Paul Martin and the Right Hon. Jean Chrétien. It was an extraordinary evening.

I want to give my condolences to Geills; Elizabeth; granddaughter, Fiona, and to my dear friends, Laura and David Kilgour, family members of someone who exemplifies what it means to be a great Canadian. John Turner is the exemplar of what that looks like: John Turner was a great Canadian.

Rather than spending anymore time saying things about him that I have learned, I have to say that he fought so hard against the creation of the PMO as a big-time institution. He was there, working for our current prime minister’s father. Indeed, Tom Axworthy famously relates how when he was working for Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Tom was sent with a message from John Turner, Minister of Finance. Turner said to him, “You just go back there and tell the boss that I don’t need some junior G-man from PMO coming around here to tell me what to do.” Those were the days. It has taken a while.

I want to end what I am saying by quoting what John Turner told us on his birthday. It goes to the essence of what he meant by saying that democracy does not happen by accident, as the Prime Minister has mentioned. He said that often:

I don’t like the use of the term “backbencher” when describing MPs. It is the MP who holds a prominent position in the House of Commons. My thinking on this is honed from the Magna Carta—one of the greatest pieces of democracy ever. Written in 1215, it laid out the essence of democracy in Great Britain and became the template of democracy worldwide.

Then, reflecting on the Magna Carta and the importance of the people voting, and the people who are elected occupying the position of government, he said:

It’s so different today, where Prime Ministers
—and here I want to make sure that is plural, so that no one thinks they are being singled out—
act in a manner that I can only describe as unilateral.

The most important part of democracy in my view is that “people govern people”. We have to hold that principle sacred…where debate and opinion of people matter.

…democracy does not happen by accident.

I thank John Turner for his constant reminder that we have to contribute to our society and give back. He lived under principles of faith as a devote Catholic. He understood that what we do to each other, we can expect to be done unto us, and we have an obligation to the entire family of humanity.

Eternal rest grant unto him. Light perpetual shine upon him. May he rest in peace.