Clark, Joe (Canada)

Reference work entry


Charles Joseph Clark was prime minister of Canada from June 1979 to March 1980, the youngest ever to hold the post. Clark headed a minority Progressive Conservative government for 6 months before his government fell on a budget question and in the general elections that followed was defeated by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals.

Early Life

Born in High River, Alberta on 5 June 1939, Charles Joseph Clark was the son of a newspaper owner and editor. Raised and educated in Alberta, where he obtained degrees in history and political science before studying law at Dalhousie University, Clark worked as a journalist from 1964–66 before first becoming involved in mainstream politics as director of Peter Lougheed’s campaign to become premier in Alberta and then as executive assistant to Robert L. Stanfield, the leader of the opposition in Ottawa from 1967–70.

Clark acquired a reputation as an expert political tactician and entered parliament as a Progressive Conservative MP for Rocky Mountain Riding in 1972.

He became party leader in 1976, beating political heavyweights such as Claude Wagner and Flora MacDonald, and set about reuniting the badly split party. Having overhauled the fundraising structure and introduced executive caucus meetings to concentrate attacks on government policy, Clark set about challenging the charismatic Pierre Trudeau’s premiership.

Despite being lampooned in sections of the media as awkward and inept, Clark went on to defeat Trudeau at the May 1979 general election. Having won significant numbers of seats in Ontario and Western Canada, the Conservatives fell only six seats short of an overall majority, proceeding to govern as a minority.

Career Peak

Clark’s period in office proved unpopular with a stringent budget of program cuts and tax increases fostering little parliamentary support outside the party, forcing a general election in Feb. 1980, which returned Trudeau’s Liberals to power with a majority government. Clark’s 272 day government turned out to be the shortest of any elected administration in Canada’s history.

Clark remained as Conservative leader until 1983, when he was defeated at a leadership selection meeting by Brian Mulroney. Clark was re-elected as head of the Progressive Conservative party in 1998, the first Canadian leader to be directly elected by the grassroots members of a federal Party.

As one of the first leaders to recognize that Canada had to be prepared for the interdependent, global economy of the future, Joe Clark helped to initiate both the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and the launch of the Uruguay Round/GATT negotiations. His other achievements as Minister of External Affairs included a new Asia-Pacific focus to foreign policy, a larger role for public input into the development of foreign policy, and Canada’s entry into the Organisation of American States and La Francophonie, as well as the Canadian Freedom on Information Act, drafted when Clark was prime minister and kept by the incoming Liberal government.

Later Life

Despite the defeat, Clark continued to maintain a high profile political life with his reputation for integrity and competence enabling him to successfully hold the post of foreign minister from 1984–91 and Minister for Constitutional Affairs from 1991–93.

After 5 years out of politics, Joe Clark returned as leader of the Progressive Conservatives in Nov. 1998, returning to the House of Commons in Sept. 2000 after winning a by-election in the riding of Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia. He was re-elected again 2 months later in the general federal election as the Member of Parliament for the riding of Calgary Centre in Alberta.

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