Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

CLARK, JOE (b. 1939)

Born June 5, 1939, in High River, Alberta, Joe Clark was the first Canadian prime minister to have been born in the Prairies. At age thirty-six he was chosen as the youngest person ever to lead the Progressive Conservative Party. Sworn to office the day before his fortieth birthday, he became his country's youngest prime minister. His government, defeated in the House of Commons on its first budget and by the Liberals in the ensuing general election, remained in office only nine months, from May 1979 to February 1980, one of the briefest governments in Canadian history. From 1984 to 1993 he served first as Canada's minister for external affairs, then as constitutional affairs minister, in the government of Brian Mulroney, the man who had successfully challenged him for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1983.

Joe Clark was raised in a Tory (Conservative) and Catholic family, an unusual mix by Canadian standards for much of the twentieth century. His grandfather had published a small-town newspaper in Ontario, and his father moved to Alberta where, just four months after the creation of the province in 1905, he established the weekly paper in High River.

Clark was educated at the University of Alberta, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in political science. Although he spent the greatest part of his adult life in public affairs (either in an elected or behind-the-scenes party position), Clark listed journalism as his chosen profession in his official biographies. Known to cite passages from Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow about the poignant beauty of the Great Plains and about the spirit and virtues imbued by the harsh Prairie environment, Joe Clark was profoundly shaped by the geographic and social diversity of the foothills country south of Calgary in which he spent the first eighteen years of his life. His later championing of the view of Canada as a "community of communities" (dismissed by his political nemesis, Pierre Trudeau, as an affront to the principle of a single Canadian nationhood) was drawn from his early experiences in that part of Alberta.

First elected to parliament in 1972, he was reelected in the five succeeding Canadian general elections. His unexpected victory over ten other candidates for the Tory leadership in 1976 led the press to dub him "Joe Who?" That, together with his badly handled budget vote in 1979 and open dissension within the Tory party over his leadership in the early 1980s, led his opponents to launch an "Anyone But Clark" movement aimed at his removal from the party's top position. When the challenge to his leadership succeeded in 1983, with Brian Mulroney's selection to lead the Progressive Conservative Party, many commentators speculated openly that Joe Clark's political career had come to an end. However, he proved them wrong with his loyalty to his party and its leader in the decade that followed, combined with his handling of the External Affairs ministry and his stewardship of the constitutional affairs portfolio during difficult (and ultimately unsuccessful) consultations and negotiations over Canada's constitutional arrangements. He demonstrated an understanding of foreign policy and Canadian society that helped to remove a measure of the tarnish from his leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party from 1976 to 1983.

Withdrawing from national politics at the time of the 1993 election, Clark established a political consultancy firm in Calgary. With clients in Canada and abroad, the business enabled him to draw on contacts established during his twenty-one years in elected politics. The attractions of public life surfaced once again, however, when in 1998 he successfully sought the national leadership of his party. By then the Conservatives had been reduced, with only twenty members of Parliament, to fifth place in the House of Commons and were heavily in debt. Clark's considerable challenge at that point, made more burdensome because he held no seat in Parliament from which he could attempt to gain daily media exposure, was to rebuild the Tory Party into a national force similar to what it had been during his earlier period in Canadian politics.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Stegner, Wallace.

John C. Courtney University of Saskatchewan

Courtney, John C. Do Conventions Matter? Choosing National Party Leaders in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995.

Graham, Ron. One-Eyed Kings: Promise and Illusion in Canadian Politics. Toronto: Collins, 1986.

Humphreys, David L. Joe Clark: A Portrait. Toronto: Deneau and Greenberg Publishers Ltd., 1978.

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