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Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark

Updated on January 6, 2017

Charles Joseph Clark (familiarly known as Joe Clark) became Prime Minister of Canada on June 4, 1979, succeeding Pierre Elliott Trudeau after the defeat of Trudeau's Liberal government in the general election of May 1979. Clark, who became leader of the Conservative party in 1976, was the first Conservative to head a Canadian government since the defeat of John Diefenbaker in 1973.

Although the Liberals received a larger percentage of the popular vote (40 percent compared to 36 percent for the Conservatives) Clark's Conservative Party won the 1979 election with a plurality of 135 seats in Parliament to the Liberals' 115. For a majority in Parliament, Clark had to rely on the support of the Social Credit Party with its six seats or the New Democratic Party with its 26. Failing that he was subject to defeat by the Liberals at any time.

Joe Clark was born in High River, Alberta, on June 5, 1939, the son of the publisher of the local newspaper. His parents were Roman Catholics of British origin. Clark attended local schools and the University of Alberta, where he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in political science. He went on to study law at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Clark was active in student politics and eventually left law school to work full time for the Conservative Party. First he became an aide to E. Davie Fulton, the Conservative leader in British Columbia, then returned to Alberta to work for Conservative leader Peter Lougheed. In 1967 he ran unsuccessfully for the Alberta legislature. After Robert Stanfield was elected national Conservative leader in 1967, Clark became his executive assistant, leaving in 1970 to go to Europe to improve his command of French.

In 1972 and again in 1974 Joe Clark was elected to Parliament for the Alberta seat of Rocky Mountain, even though- his party lost nationally in both years. After these Conservative election defeats Robert Stan-field resigned as national party leader. Joe Clark campaigned hard for the post, visiting many delegates to ask their support on later ballots if their own favorites were defeated. He urged moderate policies and stressed his command of French, since national unity was a pressing issue and most of the other candidates did not speak Canada's second language as well as Clark. At the Conservative Party convention in early 1976 Clark was a compromise English-speaking candidate. Most of the delegates from English Canada moved to him when their favorites were defeated. He won on the fourth ballot.

Many observers thought Clark young and inexperienced compared to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. But the Liberals were losing popularity after 15 years in office, and unemployment and inflation. were serious problems. The victory of the separatist Parti Quebecois in the 1976 Quebec provincial election frightened many English Canadians. Trudeau postponed elections as long as he could, but in 1979, with Parliament's term due to expire, he was forced to dissolve it and call a new election.

During the campaign the Liberals, the Conservatives, and the New Democratic Party all received public funds under a new electoral law, and more money was available from individuals because of new tax rebates for political contributions. These changes favored the opposition. No party won a majority of either votes or seats in Parliament, but the Conservatives won the most seats, and so Trudeau resigned and Joe Clark formed a new government on June 4, 1979. Clark had no assurance from either the New Democratic Party or the Social Credit Party that they would support him in Parliament, but he declared that he would govern just as if he had a majority and the other parties could decide whether or not to support him.

At 39, Joe Clark became Canada's youngest Prime Minister. In contrast to the sophisticated and worldly Trudeau, he projected the image of a sober family man. His wife, Maureen McTeer, a lawyer, made many official appearances with her husband while he was opposition leader in Parliament and was much in the public eye. The Clarks were married in 1973 and a daughter, Catherine, was born to them in 1976.

Considered a moderate in his own party, Joe Clark took pride in keeping the Conservative factions working together. He was committed to maintaining na-tional unity and in his campaign rejected the Parti Quebecois's claims to self-determination for Quebec. In his campaign Clark had also promised to cut taxes to stimulate the economy. But once in office he adopted an austerity budget designed to curb inflation by slowing economic activity, and he also proposed additional taxes to help conserve energy. In December the minor parties combined with the Liberals to defeat a gasoline tax increase, and Clark resigned. New elections were scheduled for February 1980.


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