Joe Clark

From Academic Kids

This article is about Joe Clark the Canadian political leader. For the article about the United States Senator from Pennsylvania, see Joseph S. Clark.
The Rt. Hon. Joe Clark
Rank: 16th
Term: June 4, 1979 - March 3 1980
Predecessor: Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Successor: Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Date of Birth: June 5, 1939
Place of Birth: High River, Alberta
Spouse: Maureen McTeer
Children one daughter
Profession: politician
Political Party: Progressive Conservative

The Right Honourable Charles Joseph Clark, PC, CC, BA, MA (born June 5, 1939) was the sixteenth prime minister of Canada from June 4, 1979, to March 2, 1980, and a prominent Canadian politician until his retirement in 2004. He was born in High River, Alberta.

Joe Clark was the son of the publisher of the local newspaper. He attended local schools and the University of Alberta, where he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in political science. He studied law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was active in student politics, and left law school to work full time for the Progressive Conservative Party.

Clark is married to Maureen McTeer, a well-known author and lawyer. Their daughter, Catherine, is an art history graduate from the University of Toronto who has pursued a career in public relations and broadcasting.


Political career

Clark first became active in politics at the University level. He served as President of the University of Alberta Young Progressive Conservatives. Clark sparred with future political rival Preston Manning in debate forums on campus between the Young PCs and the Youth League of the Alberta Social Credit Party. Clark was keenly aware from a very young age of the politics of Canada. In his youth, Clark was an admirer of Progressive Conservative leader and Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and he eventually entered politics himself at the provincial level at the age of 28. He was unsuccessful in his first foray into politics as on official constituency candidate for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party in the 1967 provincial election. Clark served as a chief assistant to provincial opposition leader and future Premier Peter Lougheed. He was first elected to Parliament in the 1972 federal election. Following the resignation of PC party leader Robert Stanfield, Clark sought and won the leadership of the PC Party at the 1976 leadership convention. Although he placed third in a field of eleven on the first ballot of convention delegates, behind Claude Wagner and Brian Mulroney, he quickly became the compromise Red Tory candidate. The party's right-wing rallied behind Wagner. Mulroney, a Quebec businessman with no elected political experience, was unable to expand his base of support significantly. Many delegates were offended by his expensive leadership campaign. As other Red Tory candidates were eliminated during the first four ballots, Clark gradually overtook Mulroney and then Wagner to emerge as the victor on the fifth ballot.

Joe Clark's rapid rise from a relatively unknown Alberta MP to the Leader of the Opposition took much of Canada by surprise. The Toronto Star announced Clark's victory with a headline that read "Joe Who?" giving Clark a nickname that stuck for years. Much joking was made of Clark's clumsiness and awkward mannerisms. Skinny and tall, editorial cartoonists portrayed him as a sort of walking candy apple, with an enormous head and floppy dog-like ears. Initially, it seemed unlikely that a man that was the source of so much mockery could ever hope to compete against the confident and intellectual Pierre Trudeau.

However, Clark remained belligerent in his attacks on the Trudeau government, angrily clashing with the prime minister in Parliament. Trudeau's attempts to brush off Clark were seen by many Canadians as examples of the pompous attitude of a prime minister who had taken his position for granted.

Clark was the first Canadian politician to take a strong stand for decriminalization of marijuana in Canada, and for a guaranteed minimum income for everyone — both positions characteristic of the Red Tories. In many ways his social liberalism was as bold in the '70s as Trudeau's was in the '60s.

Prime Minister

Joe Clark's efforts would prove successful, and on June 4, 1979, at age 39, he became Canada's youngest prime minister, after defeating Trudeau's Liberal government in the May 1979 general election. Clark was the first Conservative to head Canada's federal government since the defeat of John Diefenbaker in the 1963 election.

Missing image
Joe Clark presenting the 1979 Grey Cup

But with a minority government in the House of Commons, Clark had to rely on the support of the Social Credit Party with its 6 seats or the New Democratic Party (NDP) with its 26 seats. Without this support, he was subject to defeat by the Liberals at any time.

Social Credit was below the 12 seats needed for official party status in the House of Commons. However, the six seats would have been just enough to give Clark's government a majority had the Progressive Conservatives formed a coalition government with Social Credit, or had the two parties otherwise agreed to work together.

Clark refused to grant the small Social Credit caucus official party status, however, or form a coalition or co-operate with the party in any way. This led to the Clark government's defeat in the House of Commons in December 1979. The Liberals voted with the NDP on a Motion of No Confidence related to the Clark government's budget, moved by NDP MP Bob Rae. The Social Credit caucus abstained, thus ensuring the vote's passage. Though Clark was criticized for his "inability to do math" in failing to predict the vote, at the same time the collapse was at least partially welcomed by his party. When a new election was called, the PC Party expected to be able to defeat the demoralized and leaderless Liberals easily.

During the 1979 election campaign. Clark had promised to cut taxes to stimulate the economy. However, once in office he adopted a budget designed to curb inflation by slowing economic activity, and he also proposed an 18 cent per Imperial gallon tax on gasoline in order to reduce the budgetary deficit. Though Clark had hoped this change in policy would work to his advantage, it actually earned him widespread animosity as a politician who could not keep his promises, even in such a short period.

Pierre Trudeau quickly rescinded his resignation from the Liberal leadership, and swept the Liberal party back into power in the February 1980 election with 146 seats, against 103 for Clark and the Progressive Conservatives.

Trudeau's attitude to Clark

Missing image
Joe Clark during his second term as Tory leader in 2001.

At Trudeau's funeral in 2000, his son Justin Trudeau related a story in which he had childishly insulted one of his father's chief rivals, and his father had corrected him, lectured him sternly on how wrong it was to demonize or insult someone just because they disagreed. At this point in the ceremony, the CBC cut to an image of Clark, leading many to believe that Clark was the man Justin had insulted.

Under Mulroney

In 1983, after declaring that an endorsement by 66 per cent of delegates at the party's biennial convention was not enough, Clark called a Progressive Conservative leadership convention to decide the issue. After a heated campaign, he led on the first three ballots before losing on the final ballot to arch-rival Brian Mulroney. Mulroney won a huge victory in the 1984 election, and became prime minister. Many political observers and analysts have questioned Clark's rationale for the decision. One famous incident involved a 1987 state dinner held in honour of visiting royal Charles, Prince of Wales. The Prince, who was seated next to Clark at the function asked him "why 66 percent was not enough?" Clark's wife, Maureen McTeer, elaborated on Clark's decision in her 2003 autobiography In My Own Name. McTeer suggested that for her husband, anything less than a 75 percent endorsement would not have been a clear enough mandate to forge onwards from the party membership. Clark feared that the 35 percent of PC members who did not support him would become his most vocal critics in the upcoming election campaign and his continued leadership would have led to fractures in the party. Clark was convinced that he could win another leadership race and gain a clear level of support once his qualities were compared against the handful of politically inexperienced challengers who coveted his position and who were covertly undermining his leadership.

Secretary of State for External Affairs

Despite their personal differences, Clark ably served in Mulroney's cabinet as secretary of state for external affairs.

Some observers considered him to have been one of, if not the single, most competent foreign affairs ministers that Canada has ever had, sometimes comparing him to Lester B. Pearson - who had won a Nobel Peace Prize. Some of Clark's accomplishments and bold moves in this role included:

  • convincing Mulroney to appoint Stephen Lewis as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations - who later became the UN special envoy on the AIDS crisis; many believe Lewis' appointment was Clark's price to serve under Mulroney
  • in 1984, being the very first developed nation foreign affairs minister to land in previously-isolated Ethiopia to lead the Western response to the Ethiopian famine; Clark landed in Addis Ababa so quickly he had not even seen the initial CBC report that had created the initial and strong public reaction; Canada's response was overwhelming and led the US and Britain to follow suit almost immediately - an unprecedented situation in foreign affairs to that time, since Ethiopia had a Marxist one-state regime and had previously been wholly isolated by "the West"
  • a famous public rebuke to the Canadian Jewish Congress for its stance of supporting the state of Israel without limitation no matter what it had done
  • taking a strong stand against apartheid and for economic sanctions against South Africa at a time when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher very strongly opposed such sanctions
  • taking a strong stand against Nicaraguan intervention under Reagan
  • accepting refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries with regimes supported directly by Reagan
  • managing nonetheless to maintain extremely strong ties with the US and deep coordination where Canada and the US agreed, helping steer the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations to a final agreement

All told, he managed to maintain Canada's independent voice politically and socially at a time of increasing economic integration with the US and the rise of more socially conservative right-wing politics there.

Minister for Constitutional Affairs

Perhaps in part because of Queen Elizabeth II's support - she too opposed apartheid - Clark then served as the president of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada.

With Quebec's constitutional status within Canada a rising issue, he shifted to become the minister responsible for constitutional affairs. The latter position saw him play a leading role in the drafting of the failed Charlottetown Accord. He retired from politics in 1993, side-stepping the near annihilation of the PC party in the 1993 election under the leadership of Mulroney's successor Kim Campbell.

In the 1995 Quebec referendum, the federal side won by under one percent of the vote. It was widely seen as being the failure of Charlottetown and prior Meech Lake accords that had caused it to be so close.

Second PC leadership

One of the two PC candidates to survive the 1993 wipe-out, Jean Charest, became leader of the PC party following Campbell's resignation. After leading the party to modest success in the 1997 election, winning 20 seats, Charest bowed to tremendous public pressure and left federal politics to become leader of the Parti libéral du Québec (unaffiliated with the federal Liberals).

The party had no obvious candidate to fill Charest's shoes, and turned to Clark once again. In 1998, Clark returned as leader of the Progressive Conservatives. Clark was elected as Member of Parliament for Kings—Hants, Nova Scotia, in a by-election on September 11, 2000, and in the general election held two months later for Calgary Centre, Alberta. While the party had been expected to be wiped out, Clark's strong performance in the leaders' debates drove the party to another modest success: the party won exactly the 12 seats necessary to be recognized in the House of Commons as an official party and therefore qualify for research funding, committee memberships, and minimum speaking privileges. Aside from Clark's Calgary seat and one each in Manitoba and Quebec, the party's seats were concentrated in the Atlantic provinces.

Clark never lost hope that the PCs would eventually retake Ontario and form a federal government again. He continued to support those working for Red Tories to retake the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, and strongly supported by-election races by many promising young politicians including Elio Di Iorio. Clark's personal popularity grew as, once again, scandal enveloped a lame-duck Liberal regime under Chretien. Clark was widely trusted but this, in his own words, did not translate into additional seats.

Citing this exact rationale, Clark announced his intention to step down as PC leader on August 6, 2002. He was replaced by Peter MacKay on May 31, 2003 in a controversial deal with Red Tory rival David Orchard, whom Clark had always encouraged MacKay to keep within the Conservative camp.

Mulroney's attitude to Clark

Although Clark and Mulroney had long been perceived as bitter opponents, Mulroney's speech at the 2003 convention praised Clark as an honest and admirable leader who had the distinction of being the only prime minister in recent memory who, even when he failed, was always respected, and never hated, by the Canadian public. At the time of his retirement polls showed that he was in fact the single most trusted political personality in Canada.

Merger of the PC party and the Canadian Alliance

On December 8, 2003, the day that the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance to incorporate the new Conservative Party of Canada, Clark was one of three MPs -- the other two were André Bachand and John Herron -- to announce that they would not join the new caucus. MP Scott Brison had already joined the Liberals. The PCs were no more. Red Tories scattered, some joining the new party and others joining the Liberal Party, NDP and Green Party of Canada.

Clark announced that he would continue sit for the remainder of the session as a Progressive Conservative MP, and retire from Parliament at the end of the session.

Later, Clark openly criticized the new Conservative Party in the run-up to the 2004 election. He gave a luke-warm endorsement to the Liberal leader, Paul Martin, saying that Canadians should trust "the devil they know" over Stephen Harper. He endorsed Ed Broadbent, who had led the NDP, and other Liberals and Conservatives as individuals, saying that the most important thing was to have "the strongest possible Canadian House of Commons" since neither large party offered much hope:

Clark also criticized the new Conservative Party as an 'Alliance take-over', and that eastern Canada would not accept the new party or its more socially conservative policies against gay marriage and abortion. The Conservatives lost some seats in eastern Canada, winning 6 as opposed to the 10 held by the PCs prior to the merger. The new Conservatives remained largely based in the West (as the Alliance had been), making gains in Ontario and being completely shut out of Quebec in favour of the Liberals and the separatist Bloc Québécois.


Joe Clark's departure from politics as a lone independent did not reflect the success of his overall political career, which spanned over thirty-five years of activity. Clark was the only politician to ever defeat Pierre Elliott Trudeau in an election. He also remains the only Canadian to ever be elected Prime Minister under the age of forty. While Clark's government was unable to pass any major legislation, it is credited with making the original draft of the Canadian Access to Information Act which was later on reviewed and passed by the Trudeau Liberals. During his term as External Affairs minister, Clark championed Canada's unabashed disapproval of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Canada was the only G7 nation to take such a resolute stance against the apartheid regime during the 1980s. He also took on the difficult Constitution ministerial portfolio after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and vigourously pursued his task.

While Clark's return to politics in 1998 was hailed as a death knell by some opponents for the shell shocked Tories, Clark managed to prevent the party's wholesale destruction in the 2000 election and was judged by audiences to be the best speaker during the national debates. Clark was also selected by the media and many parliamentarians for three years in a row, to be Canada's most effective opposition leader between 2000 and 2002, pursuing the Liberal government on issues such as Shawinigate and the Groupaction scandal. In his final mandate, Jean Chrétien repeatedly referred to Clark as the Leader of the Opposition (Clark wasn't), much to the chagrin of the Canadian Alliance politicians who occupied the Opposition Leader's chair during the same period. Clark's efforts to rebuild the PC party culminated at the end of his leadership in May 2003 with the party overtaking the NDP for fourth party status in the House of Commons after by-election wins in Newfoundland and Ontario and the party's return to being the most popular alternative to the governing Liberals in the national polls. Many of his supporters and detractors have suggested his actions shored up the weakened PC party during some of its toughest years when its national alternative status was seriously challenged by the prairie populism of Preston Manning and the Reform Party of Canada and the social conservatism of Stockwell Day and the Canadian Alliance.

Clark continues to use his experience in foreign affairs. He was in Washington on January 20, 2005 at the second inauguration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Before heading to the Capitol, he and Canada's ambassador to Washington, Michael Kergin, discussed the inaugural festivities with Arizona Senator John McCain at the Canadian Embassy there. Clark has also written several op-ed pieces for several of Canada's national newspapers since his retirement. Clark has been seen as a possible future compromise candidate for appointment to the opposition benches of the Senate of Canada. He is also rumoured to be a prime candidate for the Lieutenant Governorship of Alberta.

In 1994, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Preceded by:
Pierre Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
Succeeded by:
Pierre Trudeau
Preceded by:
Pierre Trudeau
Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons
(second time)

Succeeded by:
Erik Nielsen
Preceded by:
Robert Stanfield
Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons
(first time)

Succeeded by:
Pierre Trudeau
Preceded by:
Robert Stanfield
Progressive Conservative leader
Succeeded by:
Erik Nielsen
Preceded by:
Elsie Wayne
Progressive Conservative leader
Succeeded by:
Peter MacKay
Preceded by:
Eric Lowther, Reform
Member of Parliament for Calgary Centre
Succeeded by:
federal riding abolished in 2003
Preceded by:
Scott Brison, PC
Member of Parliament for Kings—Hants
Succeeded by:
Scott Brison, PC
Preceded by:
federal riding created in 1976
Member of Parliament for Yellowhead
Succeeded by:
Cliff Breitkreuz, Reform
Preceded by:
Allen B. Sulatycky, Liberal
Member of Parliament for Rocky Mountain
Succeeded by:
federal riding abolished in 1976

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