Reputation Earned: Joe Clark’s was the last conservative government Canada ever had

With another Canadian federal election taking place on October 21, 2019, this is another repost from my facebook page.  I am absolutely NOT a conservative nor would ever vote for one, but I can respect someone with principles, honesty and dignity.  Former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark was a conservative in the traditional sense: balanced budgets and unwilling to change, but also arguing from the same facts as political opponents.  (Take Germany’s Angela Merkel, for example.)



On May 22, 1979, forty years ago, Canada held its 31st federal election. Joe Clark (born June 5, 1939, age 80) became Canada’s sixteenth and youngest Prime Minister after the Progressive Conservatives won the most seats, but not a majority, 136 out of 282.  Clark made the decision to “govern like a majority” rather than seek consensus with the Liberal and New Democratic parties. The Liberals and NDP opposed Clark’s budget and some of his plans (e.g. de-nationalization of PetroCanada), leading to a non-confidence vote in December 1979, and another federal election in February 1980. Clark would never be Prime Minister again.

The far right Social Credit party had six seats, which would have been enough to give Clark a thin coalition majority, but they did not want to cooperate. They paid for it in the subsequent election, losing all six seats and never winning another seat in three subsequent elections before disbanding. Voters were frustrated and turned away from them. Even the provincial Social Credit parties have disappeared from the political landscape.

This would mark the last time a traditional Progressive Conservative would govern Canada. Brian “the walking jaw” Mulroney destroyed the PC party with his ineptitude and corruption, leading to right wing extremist “populism” and ignorance that continues today.



Although some regard Clark as a failure, disagree with his planned policies and call him “uncharismatic”, he remains a respected figure. His reputation and legacy are one of honesty, principle, and willingness to do the right thing – even when it cost him politically.

The Iranian Hostage Crisis began on November 4, 1979, and it was Clark’s government that planned and and executed the rescue of six Americans from the Canadian embassy in Tehran on January 27, 1980, the “Canadian Caper” as it was called.  Yes, Canadians were involved despite what hollywood claimed.

Clark’s other lasting legacy of his short premiership was his handling of the Boat People crisis of 1979, providing citizenship and funding to settle 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere. Compare that to how the rest of the world treats boat people, refugees and migrants today.  Would Justin Trudeau have settled 20,000 Syrian refugees without Clark’s legacy to live up to?

In 1992, Clark negotiated the Charlottetown Accord, bringing all the provincial and territorial premiers to agreement (conservatives, liberals, socialists and Quebec separatists), as well as the leaders of Canada’s First Nations people, a Sisyphean task equivalent to herding cats. The Accord failed because of Brian Mulroney’s toxic personality – the voters rejected him more than Clark’s Accord.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    At the provincial level, I think of Bill Davis (Ontario) and Peter Lougheed (Alberta) in much the same way. Honourable, decent conservatives. Sounds funny these days.

  2. ColeYote says

    Also at the Ontario level I sorta think of John Tory the same way. Never became Premier, but he was decent enough as leader of the opposition and as the current mayor of Toronto. Ontario politics probably wouldn’t be nearly as much of a mess these days if he hadn’t managed to lose his seat while he was PC leader.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Agreed on Crosbie and Tory, and also worthy of mention, though he was never a leader: Hugh Segal. He gave an amazing speech on universal basic income some years ago, with much the same content as this essay.

  4. bryanfeir says

    I actually sort of liked Tory at the provincial level, and won’t forgive McGuinty for basically destroying any chance to talk about the parallel Catholic school system for another generation. Unfortunately, the local MPP candidate during Tory’s election was someone who had sent out fear-mongering pamphlets before the election was called with “Warning! A convicted gun and drug dealer has just been released into YOUR neighbourhood!” and claiming that Tory would be tough on crime. Given it was released long before the election, I have no idea whether it was actually approved.

    Tory’s biggest problem is that from what I can see he would rather things run smoothly than run well. He’s not going to actively try to make things worse (unlike Ford, either of them), but if it would take some disruption to make things better, he may need to be pressured into it.

    Back to Clark, one slight downside to him was that apparently he was in favour of moving the Canadian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He did get talked out of it by his advisors.

    But yeah, Mulroney was a used car salesman whose primary goal in life was to one-up Trudeau, Campbell was a temporary stand-in held up by a failing party that really didn’t know what to do with her, Charest ended up going to provincial politics instead where he did well enough, Harper was pretty much a stuffed suit and mask trying to hide the screaming hordes behind him after he’d used those hordes to take over the original Progressive Conservative party… Scheer seems to be trying to follow Harper’s track while on the surface being less blatantly controlling.