Former PM John Turner and the Arctic Youth Corp

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

John Turner, Canada's 17th prime minister and avid canoeist.

The South Nahanni River is one of the world’s great waterways. At 563 km long it snakes through the Selwyn Mountains and part of the Mackenzie Mountains in Canada’s vast Northwest Territories.

Along its storied water path you’ll find all manner of hot springs, glaciers, marshes, desert-like landscapes, incredible hoodoos, and bottomless lakes.

Very few of us have seen it, your friendly neighbourhood publisher included. There’s one Canadian prime minister, though, who not only canoed the breathtaking Nahanni, but every single river that empties into the Arctic Ocean.

You can be forgiven if Pierre Trudeau immediately springs to mind. While Trudeau was indeed an avid canoeist – and did in fact paddle some of the Nahanni – it is actually John Turner who holds this honour.

Recent news of Turner’s passing had me reflecting on our 17th prime minister, a man I was lucky to interview twice. While he wasn’t PM for very long – just 79 days – Turner held several leading cabinet posts in his long and distinguished career, including minister of finance and minister of justice. But he began his rise as parliamentary secretary to the minister of northern affairs and national resources.

A few years back Turner accepted the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s ‘gold medal’ for his contribution to the advancement of Canadian geography through his extensive Arctic travels.

During his time in northern Canada, Mr. Turner cultivated a friendship with Robert Engle, owner of Northwest Territories Airlines—also an avid canoeist —and Engle would fly the prime minister and his wife out on paddling trips in the Arctic.

When he travelled throughout the Arctic, he could tell the Inuit way of life and southern Canada both suffered from the lack of opportunity to ever meet. It was this famine of connection that weighed heavily on him when he sat down to come up with policy options for former Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s government.

This led him to one of his most inspired ideas as a young parliamentarian – one that unfortunately has been lost to history’s pages. However, it was both exciting enough and practical enough for the Pearson government of the day to include it in the 1965 Speech from the Throne. Turner proposed the formation of the Arctic Youth Corps, modelled after the United States’ Peace Corps.

In the US version, the Peace Corps sends Americans abroad to work at the grassroots level, in an effort to create sustainable change in communities. Turner’s vision was to see the potential for young people from southern Canada to get to know the northern realities of their country. He knew that it was sustainability that was needed in the Arctic and that such a program might go a long way in building economic and social bridges between north and south.

He also knew that young Canadians who served in the Arctic Youth Corps would carry this knowledge into subsequent generations. It would be a legacy of real value passed on from one generation to the next.

It’s a shame this idea was never made manifest. Of course, it’s still not too late to use a great idea from the 1960s that would contribute to our better understanding of Canada.

We see, locally, how the great work done by Pinnguaq has built bridges to our Arctic communities using technology.

In reflecting on that idea, Turner once told me he thought his Arctic Youth Corps idea would “open up the eyes of our young people to our great north.”

I think, once this pandemic is over and travel resumes, we need to build such bridges to our great northern frontier — and then perhaps Turner’s inclusive idea of Canada could one day yet come true.

*A version of this story appeared in Ottawa Life Magazine.

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