She is a naturally retiring and private woman. But when her husband decided to run for the Liberal leadership, Geills Turner decided to go public. And the forceful 46-year-old former Harvard graduate student ultimately played a visible and effective role in the victorious quest, eventually turning the family home—a sprawling, elegantly furnished red-brick mansion in Toronto’s exclusive Forest Hill district—into a command post. She was clearly in control, polling delegates, planning campaign strategy and dealing with the media. Said the new chatelaine of 24 Sussex Drive: “A photographer asked to come around while John was home ‘resting.’ As if anyone has been resting around here.”
Her friend Senator Jerry Grafstein describes Geills (pronounced Jeels, but she is known as Jill) Turner as a “very independent-thinking woman,” and her appearances in the closing stages of the campaign, in such places as Sackville, N.B., and Yellowknife, N.W.T., marked the end of 16 years of self-imposed isolation from public life. She said that the media, which she had avoided for years, were depicting her as a recluse and “creating a monster.” As a result, she decided to give several individual interviews—a decision, she said, that caused a “logistical frenzy” at home, as household tasks got set aside. Said the wife of the prime minister-designate: “In the end I thought, well maybe I had just better create my own monster.”
Excited: Geills threw herself into the campaigning in Ottawa. And at one news conference when the microphone did not work and her husband repeatedly said to the assembled journalists, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” she cupped her hands and shouted, “Louder—and funnier.” Despite the excitement and inevitable domestic confusion of the campaign and the convention, the Turner family emerged from it in high spirits. Daughter Elizabeth, 20, arrived at the Ottawa Civic Centre having just completed her third year at California’s Stanford University, where she is studying history and English. Michael, 18, the oldest of the three Turner sons, had graduated from Toronto’s Upper Canada College— with both parents in attendance—the week before. And David, 16, and Andrew, 12, had finished writing their
year-end exams at the same expensive private school, six blocks from the Turner home. Andrew was looking forward to a busy summer of tennis and camp; David to working on a ranch in Alberta. They were, according to Andrew, “a little bit excited” about the convention. Even Tiki, the family budgie, whose cage is always left open, appeared content. The bird declined frequent opportunities to escape through the kitchen door which a parade of strategists kept using during the campaign’s final days.
The woman at the centre of the engaging, upper-crust family is both articulate and intelligent. Her bedtime reading during the campaign included Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Female Stress Syndrome. She is the only daughter of the
late David E. Kilgour, chief executive officer of the Great-West Life Assurance Co. in Winnipeg from 1955 to 1971. Geills Turner studied physics and mathematics at the University of Manitoba and McGill, in Montreal, before moving to Harvard University to do postgraduate work. She said that she always felt able to compete in those traditionally male-dominated fields. ‘T was lucky,” she said. “When I was growing up I never had the sense that girls had to do this and boys had to do that. I always believed that girls, if they had the ability and worked hard, had chances as good as the next guy’s.”
By 1962 she had completed an IBM sales training program in New York and was working for the company in Montreal when she volunteered to work
on the federal election campaign of a politically ambitious young lawyer named John Turner. They were married the next year in Winnipeg in a Catholic ceremony—although she remains an Anglican—and Geills plunged into life in Ottawa, where John was an MP and by 1965 a cabinet minister in Lester Pearson’s government. In Ottawa she considered studying law but she abandoned that project when she discovered that she could not enrol at the University of Ottawa law school as a part-time student. “I had a two-year-old then,” she recalled, “and I knew how demanding it was going to be and how demanding my life was already.”
Lost: The years in Ottawa made her wary of the media, particularly after she gave a number of interviews during the 1968 Liberal leadership race, which
her husband lost to Pierre Trudeau. On more than one occasion, she said, reporters “totally misrepresented” her. The loss to Trudeau was far less traumatic than it has often been portrayed, she said, adding: “I was realistic about it. We went into it competitive, prepared to do our best. But when John didn’t win there wasn’t any great lingering shock. In fact, the next morning I picked Trudeau up on the street and drove him to work.”
She said that her decision to become more public was partly prompted by changing attitudes toward women in Canadian life. Fifteen years ago, she added, “no one even considered wanting to talk to a woman, a wife, about anything except ‘womansy’ issues—what sort of chintz I had in the living room,
the babies crying upstairs, that sort of thing. This time, it is different.”
Among the issues she cited: the “plight of many older people who, if they are still in reasonably good health, are often living in very dire circumstances and, if they are not well, fit nowhere into the scheme of things.” She said that she also intends to stress the need for more day care facilities and the necessity to ease youth unemployment and its attendant social problems. “I know,” she said, “that all these things have to be looked at in terms of the [financial] restraints that are very much upon us at the moment. But so many problems are solved only when attention is directed to them. I can see a real opportunity to get involved in that way.”
Another interest that Turner intends to pursue in Ottawa is photography, which she studied for four years at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. During those years, she said, “I hardly slept at all. I worked in my darkroom until 4 a.m. and was back in class the next morning at 8. I discovered that I just loved the technical aspects of photography.” In April she travelled to China with 10 other photographers and she has been compiling a collection of photographs of the Canadian North, but she has no plans to publish it. “I would never consider that while John is in politics,” she said, “because it would look like I was using him. I would feel paranoid if I thought that my book could not stand on its own merits.”
Chaos: She conceded that the campaign was a strain and that her husband’s schedule was exhausting. He was often away for long stretches but, she said, “John has always been very good about it. When he’s home, he’s home.” Both husband and wife are almost compulsively organized. He raises the roses; she fixes the plumbing. “Chaos does not have a place in our house,” she said, and she and her husband are well prepared for the move back to Ottawa. But she added, “It is a little more complicated for the children.”
She said that the Turner style at 24 Sussex Drive will be “fairly traditional” and that entertaining will usually involve “sit-down dinner parties that are more intimate than some other kinds of entertaining. We have always entertained a lot, for politics and business and for pleasure. I enjoy it, although I do not think husbands always realize how much work is involved to do it properly.” As for her personal future: “Until John got this idea of getting back into politics, I was thinking that the time really had come to settle down and get a serious job. I have always had this idea that when I ‘grow up’ I will do that. But, obviously, now is not the time to make that decision.”
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