When I first met John in 1961 I disliked him almost instantly. I was a 19-year-old McGill University student who knew everything that was worth knowing. He was a 32-year-old tax lawyer wearing a dark pinstripe three-piece suit. Sitting behind his large desk on the upper floors of a downtown Montréal office tower, to me he was Mr. Establishment.
John was also the President of the Young Liberals. As a member of the McGill Liberal Club, my debating partner and I needed his permission to engage in a public debate with two Russian students touring universities across North America. It was at the height of the Cold War, with Russia being the first country to send a cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space to orbit the Earth. For reasons he never explained, John just said “No, Liberals don’t debate Russians.” End of discussion. As I was also a McGill Debating Union member, my team did debate the Russians, but without the Liberal Club sponsorship.
Fast-forward some 28 years for our next meeting. After 16 years of practising public interest law, in July 1989 I joined Miller Thomson, then a relatively small Toronto-based full-service law firm. A few months later John Turner joined our firm as a rainmaker, to bring in business. As I had no clients of my own at the time, I looked forward to John making some rain for me. He did that very well, for me and the entire firm.
Shortly after joining, he walked around the firm to discuss what type of work each lawyer did. John was an avid environmentalist and wilderness canoeist. He was happy to learn that my practice included extensive experience in environmental and energy law, including public hearings and court litigation. Over the next roughly 20 years we did a lot of work together for both Canadian and foreign clients.
John was a Board member of the then much smaller World Wildlife Fund. WWF was concerned about the Chretien Liberal Government’s decision to permit diamond mining in a pristine wilderness area of Canada’s Northwest Territories. John asked me to prepare a court challenge of this government decision for WWF. We agreed to charge only a very modest fixed fee, while the work I did was several times that value had we billed our normal rates. I filed an application in the Federal Court with my signature at the bottom and John Turner’s signature right above mine. After a few days John called me into his office. The previous evening Prime Minister Jean Chretien had telephoned John, his former cabinet colleague, to ask what he planned to do with this court challenge. John replied that he was going to put on his gown and come to court with me to argue the case personally. He would ask the Federal Court stop the government from inflicting all this environmental damage. Chretien then said “What the f***do you really want, John!” His answer was a new or enlarged national park in the area, to preserve the wilderness in perpetuity. And he got his wish. (I no longer remember the name of the park.)
Where my areas of practice were relevant, John would take me with him to meetings with prospective clients. John was an amazing business getter. I used to joke that if he was having a pee in a men’s washroom and there was a man at the urinals on each side of him, he would have both of their business cards in his pocket before even zipping up his fly.
During one of his vacations in Jamaica, while lying on a deck chair on the beach, he struck up a conversation with a man on a nearby deck chair. When John returned to the office he told me we were taking a trip to the Los Angeles area to meet the CEO and senior executives of a large publicly traded energy company. While relaxing on the beach, John had persuaded this CEO to offer to purchase some of the nuclear assets of the former Ontario Hydro that Ontario Premier Mike Harris had decided to privatize. Although the purchase eventually fell through it did produce a lot of interesting work, none of which would have happened but for John’s vacation in Jamaica. This was not unusual, it was typical. He had a friendly, engaging personality which put people at ease, while he demonstrated his immediate grasp of their interests and concerns.
But John was by no means all business. He had a big heart. One day, he and I were walking from our Queen Street offices a few blocks to a nearby restaurant for lunch with a European business group looking for a Toronto law firm. On our walk we passed a few homeless people sitting on the sidewalk with their paper cups for donations. Both to and from the restaurant John bent over to drop some money into every one of these cups. As he said to me “There but for the grace of God sit you and I.” He could never walk past a homeless person without helping.
During one of our occasional nonbusiness conversations he asked questions about my personal history. I gave him a brief account of my birth in Hungary, the Nazi occupation followed by the Russian invasion and the communist regime, and our family coming to Canada as refugees. He then invited me to bring my mother to his office so that he could listen to her description of the story. A few weeks later Mom came to his office while John listened to her for over an hour. After I escorted Mom to the elevator I went back into John’s office to thank him. He said “Your mother is a hero, and don’t you ever forget that.”
There was no reason aside from personal interest for John to give up an hour of his invariably busy days to talk to an old lady with a heavy Hungarian accent about her life under the Nazis and the Communists. He also took 2-3 hours to talk to my son when he came back to Canada from law school in England. In that time he could have brought in a new client, or billed a few thousand dollars to an existing client for his time and advice. But he wasn’t made that way.
In his kindness, John was also a hero, and I won’t ever forget that. Rest in peace, John.
At his eightieth birthday party held at Miller Thomson’s Toronto office on the 58th floor of Scotia Plaza, John received greetings and congratulations from the entire staff, lawyers and distinguished dignitaries from his broad circle of friends. The guests included senior men and women from government, corporations, journalists and the church. I was asked to photograph the event. Below are some photos of public figures with John. But he also spent time to chat with the receptionists, the mailroom staff and the computer technicians – it wasn’t all about the high-profile public figures and firm lawyers. However, as I don’t have the permission of the firm’s staff and lawyers to publish their pictures the ones below are of public figures.
Categories: John Turner