Joe Clark | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Joe Clark

Charles Joseph “Joe” Clark, PC, CC, journalist, author, 16th prime minister of Canada 1979-80, (born 5 June, 1939 at High River, AB). Clark was Canada's youngest prime minister when he took office one day before his 40th birthday. His brief term put a temporary end to 16 years of Liberal rule. He later gained respect as a senior minister in the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, especially on the international stage.
Joe Clark, politician
Joe Clark speaking to a Progressive Conservative convention (photo by John de Visser).

Early Life and Career

The son of Grace (nee Welch) and Charles Clark, a newspaper editor, Joe Clark was educated at the University of Alberta in Edmonton where he received a BA in history and later an MA in political science.

During his time at the university, Clark pursued his two interests of journalism and politics. He was editor of the student newspaper, The Gateway, and was also national Progressive Conservative (PC) student president. He lectured on political science at the university, and worked as a journalist at the CBC, the Calgary Herald and The Edmonton Journal.

Clark became a director of organization for the Alberta PC party, but was defeated as a candidate in the 1967 provincial election. He then served on the Ottawa staff of Alberta Member of Parliament (MP) E. Davie Fulton, and for three years was executive assistant to federal PC leader Robert Stanfield. Clark was first elected to the House of Commons as MP for Rocky Mountain, Alberta, in 1972.

In 1973, Clark married lawyer Maureen McTeer. They have one child, Catherine.

PC Leader

At the federal PC convention of February 1976, Clark emerged from relative obscurity as the surprise beneficiary of a progressive consensus to win the party leadership, replacing Stanfield. Clark had little profile prior to becoming leader, giving rise to the nickname "Joe Who?"

In the spring election of 1979, Clark ran on a small-c conservative platform that included tax and mortgage breaks and a proposal to privatize Petro-Canada, the federally-owned oil and gas company created by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The PCs won the May election, defeating the Trudeau Liberals, and Clark became prime minister. Clark formed a minority government with 136 House of Commons seats, against 114 for the Liberals, 26 for the New Democratic Party and six for Social Credit.

Prime Minister

Sworn into office on 4 June, one day before his 40th birthday, Clark became the country's youngest ever prime minister. He was also the first prime minister born in western Canada (representing the Alberta riding of Yellowhead).

Clark believed he could build public approval by governing as though he had a majority, without co-operation from the New Democrats. This cost him the necessary support on crucial issues such as energy, Québec separatism, and his mortgage interest credit bill. Although the small Social Credit caucus often supported Clark's government in the Commons, it abstained in the most crucial vote of all: The six-month old PC government fell on 13 December, 1979, in a non-confidence vote on Finance Minister John Crosbie’s austerity budget.

1980 Election

In the ensuing 1980 election, Clark’s platform was almost the same as that of the previous spring. The PCs were also surprised by Trudeau's decision not to proceed with his planned resignation from politics, but to fight the election as Liberal leader. On 18 February, the Liberals won a majority, sweeping the PCs out of office. Clark returned to the Commons as leader of the Opposition.

Aislin, Somebody Pay the Babysitter.
In this political cartoon published in the Montreal Gazette, cartoonist Aislin pokes fun at Joe Clark (holding the door), giving up the prime minister's residence after a brief stay, having lost the 1980 election to Pierre Trudeau.\r\n

In Opposition, Clark successfully delayed Trudeau's plans for patriating the Constitution in 1981, until the new Constitution could be reviewed judicially and a federal-provincial compromise could be achieved.

At two national PC party meetings, Clark received strong support for his ongoing leadership – including nearly 70 per cent support during a leadership review vote in 1983. Clark said this was not enough and called a leadership contest in which he was a candidate. A significant minority of party members considered him too progressive and unlikely to win another election. In the leadership vote of June 1983, Clark lost to Brian Mulroney.

External and Constitutional Affairs

Mulroney became prime minister the following year, and the PCs were back in power with a large majority government. Over the next six-and-a-half years Clark would sit in cabinet as secretary of state for External Affairs. Along with Mulroney, he steered Canadian foreign policy, including its aggressive support of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

Mulroney and Mandela
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney introducing South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela on June 18, 1990.\r\n

In April, 1991 Mulroney named Clark minister for constitutional affairs, with the formidable task of patching together an agreement with the provinces for constitutional renewal, in the wake of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord.

In July, 1992 Clark and nine premiers announced they had reached a deal that included an elected Senate. When the deal was met with a lukewarm response by the prime minister and the PC's Québec caucus, the premiers and Clark tried again in August. This conference delivered another constitutional proposal, the so-called Charlottetown Accord. However, it was later rejected in a referendum, scuttling Clark and Mulroney's hopes for satisfying the Québec government's constitutional demands, and for solving the national unity question.

Citing exhaustion after the long constitutional debate, Clark announced in February 1993 that he would not run in the next election.

PC Leader Again

Five years after leaving politics, Clark took advantage of PC leader Jean Charest's decision in the spring of 1998 to move to the Québec provincial Liberals. On 14 November, Clark was elected federal PC leader once more at a national convention. His return came at a low point for the party, which was saddled with a $10-million debt and fifth-party status in the House of Commons. Clark did not support the United Alternative movement to create a partnership among right-wing parties, and he did not attend the February 1999 UA convention. Instead, in December 1998 he instituted a Canadian Alternative Task Force as a mechanism to revive the PCs.

Clark returned to the House of Commons in September 2000 after winning a by-election in the riding of Kings-Hants, Nova Scotia. He was re-elected again two months later in the general election as the MP for Calgary Centre. Clark's PCs, however, won only 12 seats and remained in fifth-place in the Commons. In the years that followed, a merger was discussed with the leaders of the Canadian Alliance – at the time the official Opposition.

In 2002, Clark announced his resignation as PC leader – but maintained his Commons seat – saying he realized that Canadians did not want him to lead them into the future. He was succeeded by Peter MacKay on 31 May 2003. MacKay would later organize a merger of the PCs with the Canadian Alliance into the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Clark retired from the House of Commons in June 2004. He left Parliament as an independent MP, having refused to join the new Conservatives. On his last day as an MP, speaking to reporters outside Parliament, he declared: “I’m very troubled by the disappearance of my party.”

Post-political Career

Since leaving politics, Clark has led international observer teams overseeing difficult elections in Pakistan, Dominican Republic, Cameroon, Mexico, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon and Nigeria. He has served as vice-chairman of the non-profit Global Leadership Foundation, a small group of former heads-of-state and diplomats who assist the governments of developing nations by offering discreet advice and mentoring on governance.

He is active in international business, and has sat on the boards of directors of several corporations and charitable organizations, including Save the Children Canada. He is the president of Joe Clark and Associates, an international consulting firm based in Ottawa.

Clark has also lectured and taught at academic institutions in Canada and the United States. He is also the author of two books, Canada: A Nation Too Good to Lose (1994), and How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change (2013).

He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence and Commandeur in l’Ordre de la Pleiades – awarded by the Francophonie, the international association of French-speaking nations. Clark is also honorary chief of the Samson Cree First Nation. And he was the first recipient of the Vimy Award, presented to Canadian citizens who have made outstanding contributions to the security of Canada and the preservation of its democratic values.

Five Prime Ministers
In October 1994 the National Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada) commissioned this portrait to commemorate the launch of an education kit on the theme of Canada's Prime Ministers. From Left to right are Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien and Joe Clark. \r\n

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