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Alone at the Top
The Path to Power
Leading Canada
Private Life
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Charles Joseph Clark.


1939 -    

"We will not take this nation by storm, by stealth or by surprise. We will win it by work."
 -- Joe Clark, February 1976.

Such a modest, straightforward approach is unusual in politics, but entirely characteristic of Joe Clark. Hard work at the grassroots of the Conservative party led him to become its leader and prime minister of Canada. Despite a short term in office and dethronement as Conservative leader, Clark continued to serve the party with a career distinguished by sterling efforts behind the scenes. These efforts eventually brought him back to the centre stage of Canadian politics, where he again leads the Progressive Conservative party.

Charles Joseph Clark was born in High River, Alberta in 1939, the son of a newspaper owner and editor. He began in journalism at a young age, delivering his father's High River Times, editing the high school newspaper and working as a sports writer for the Calgary Herald one summer. But politics soon proved to be a greater passion than journalism. At the University of Alberta he studied history, English and political science. Active in student politics, Clark's first taste of professional politics came in 1958 when he worked for Alan Lazerte, who was campaigning for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative party.

Like many youths in the 60s, Clark took his time settling down to career. After graduating in 1960, he travelled through Europe for a year. In 1962, he worked for Diefenbaker's election campaign. After a year in law school at Dalhousie, Clark transferred to the University of British Columbia, but concluded that law was too dull for him. In between, he continued to write freelance newspaper articles. Clark's political activities carried on; he served as President of the Progressive Conservative Student Federation, as well as working for Davie Fulton in the B.C. election in 1963. The following year, Clark began an M.A. in political science at the University of Alberta, but was soon working for Peter Lougheed, the new provincial leader of the Conservatives. By this time, Clark's election experience was considerable and he was a key organizer in communications as well as contributing significantly to policy and strategy. Clark himself ran in the provincial election in 1967, for Calgary South. Held by the Social Credit Speaker of the legislature, it was a "suicide" seat, but Clark came within 462 votes of winning.

Davie Fulton's federal leadership bid was Clark's next project. Fulton lost, but Clark was invited to work for the winner, Robert Stanfield. By 1971, Clark was back in Alberta trying to finish his M.A. but was again enticed by another political challenge: Conservative candidate for the federal riding of Rocky Mountain. He won the nomination and the Commons seat in 1972.

In 1976, Clark entered the Conservative leadership race and won against political heavyweights such as Claude Wagner and Flora MacDonald. As Leader of the Opposition, he set about reuniting his party, badly split since the Diefenbaker years, and reorganizing its structure. Party fundraising was overhauled and Clark introduced executive caucus meetings to concentrate Conservative attacks on government policy in the Commons. Like the previous P.C. leader, Robert Stanfield, Clark found Trudeau's charismatic image a difficult one to counter. Although adroit at parliamentary debate and a good organizer, Clark was lampooned by the media as awkward and inept.

Nevertheless, in 1979, the Conservatives won a minority government, and at the age of thirty-nine, Clark became Canada's youngest prime minister. After the extravagant public spending of the Liberals, the Conservatives were intent on fiscal restraint and one of their first pieces of legislation was a stringent budget of program cuts and tax increases. The New Democratic party would not support it and Clark's government was defeated, just seven months after they were elected. Clark's prime ministerial legacy was not publicly evident: he reorganized the structure of Cabinet committees and introduced a system of expenditure control that was retained by the returning Liberals. In addition, the Conservative's [sic] Freedom of Information Act, which was drafted but not yet introduced in the Commons, was also adopted by the next government.

The 1980 election returned Clark and his party to the Opposition. His major role here was delaying Trudeau's 1981 constitutional reforms until federal-provincial agreement and judicial review had been reached. In 1983, a leadership review challenged Clark's position. He called for a convention and lost to Brian Mulroney. Despite the bitterness such a situation can create, Clark remained in the party as an M.P. and strove to preserve party unity. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1984, Clark was made Minister of External Affairs. In 1991, he took on an even more important ministry of Constitutional Affairs. In the aftermath of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Clark was instrumental in drafting the Charlottetown Accord and gaining its approval from the provincial premiers.

After leaving politics in 1993, he took a teaching position at the University of California, and worked as a consultant. Clark re-entered the political fray in 1998, becoming leader of the Progressive Conservative party, a position he held until May 2003.

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

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