Published February 29, 2024

Brian Mulroney, 18th prime minister and Progressive Conservative titan, dead at 84

First elected as Prime Minister in 1984

By James McCarten

There was no in-between with Martin Brian Mulroney.

Canadians loved him: In 1984, they handed the youthful charmer a blank cheque and the largest majority mandate in history so he could change the country.

Canadians hated him: When he announced his departure from politics in 1993, his charm was dismissed as blarney, his youth faded into a lugubrious middle-age.

He entered the job with massive support; he left with the lowest approval rating in the history of polling.

Voters pleaded for reforms when they elected him. When he tried to deliver that change — be it free trade, tax reform or a new Constitution — they reacted with wariness at best and hostility more often.

News of Mulroney's death Thursday at the age of 84 elicited a very different response. 

"I was an opponent of him all my political career, but in politics, opposition is opposition," former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien said in a rare appearance on Parliament Hill. 

"It's like playing hockey. You can fight on the ice and have a beer together after that. And we had a lot of things in common."

A spokesman for Mulroney's daughter Caroline said he died surrounded by family at a Palm Beach hospital, where he was being treated after a recent fall.

"He was committed to this country, loved it with all his heart and served it many, many years in many different ways," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Thunder Bay. 

"He had the courage to do big things."

Even after leaving office, Mulroney couldn't shake the suspicions that dogged him, especially allegations that swirled around an Air Canada purchase of Airbus jets in 1988. In 1997, he won an out-of-court settlement with the then-Liberal government in a libel suit over an RCMP investigation of the Airbus matter.

But in 2008, Mulroney faced an embarrassing public grilling before a public inquiry charged with looking into his relationship with Karlheinz Schreiber, a shady German-Canadian businessman with ties to the Airbus file who eventually ended up in a German jail for tax evasion.

Before he went to jail, though, Schreiber spent a decade fighting extradition through the Canadian legal system, dropping tantalizing hints throughout that he and Mulroney were much closer than the former prime minister had claimed.

Before becoming the first Quebecer to lead the Conservatives in the 20th century, Mulroney was the Boy from Baie-Comeau.

Born March 20, 1939, in the isolated smelting town on Quebec's North Shore, his Baie-Comeau years had a profound influence on him.

The town was overwhelmingly francophone. Most of Mulroney's playmates spoke no English and he grew up thinking there was nothing unusual about a bilingual existence.

The town mill was American-owned. Mulroney was raised on the notion that American investment meant jobs for his father and the other families in Baie-Comeau. He would go on to ease restrictions on American investment in Canada.

He worshipped his father Ben, an electrician who taught him the importance of loyalty. His father had always voted Liberal, but during his university years Mulroney became a prominent young Tory.

His political choice was a bizarre one for a young Quebecer at a time when the Liberals had a stranglehold on federal politics in that province.

He headed to the Tory leadership convention in 1956 intending to vote for Davie Fulton, but was mesmerized by the oratory of John Diefenbaker.

The 17-year-old student from Quebec and the 61-year-old Prairie populist would go on to form an unusual friendship that the young Mulroney would flaunt before his amazed chums by gathering them in a room and reaching the Chief on the telephone.

Mulroney's university years would also bring him into contact with those who would later help him win the leadership and serve in his government: eventual senators Lowell Murray, Michel Cogger and Jean Bazin, and the man who would become his soulmate, Lucien Bouchard.

These friends would get him to the ball. They would also be among those who would bring him some of his greatest heartache at evening's end.

Mulroney was indifferent about law studies, but proved to be an excellent labour lawyer after he was hired by Montreal's largest law firm, Howard, Cate, Ogilvy.

In 1972, the year he became a partner in the firm, he met a bikini-clad Mila Pivnicki by the pool at the Mount Royal Tennis Club. She was 14 years his junior. Eventually, she would become his wife, his most trusted adviser and among the Conservative party's most effective campaigners. The couple would have four children.

Mulroney rocketed to public notice in Quebec in 1974 after Premier Robert Bourassa appointed him to the Cliche commission investigating union violence in the construction industry.

The inquiry produced sensational headlines of union sabotage and scandalous cost overruns. It also put the effortlessly bilingual young lawyer with the honey-coated baritone on television screens every evening.

That exposure propelled Mulroney out of the political backrooms and into the orbit of some powerful Tory patrons. He quickly became a favourite to succeed Robert Stanfield as Conservative leader.

But grassroots delegates at the 1976 convention were wary of Mulroney's corporate connections and suspicious that his smoothness masked superficiality.

Conrad Black, a friend for decades, wrote of Mulroney: "His knowledge of how to get ahead was geometrically greater than any notion he had of what to do when he reached his destination."

Joe Clark, then a little-known backbench MP from Alberta, passed Mulroney on the second ballot and won the convention on the third.

It was a withering blow to Mulroney's pride.

His bitterness manifested itself in late-night drinking binges where he biliously poured out his contempt for Clark.

He was bored by the practice of law and agreed to become president of Iron Ore Co. of Canada in 1977, a post that came with the comfortable trappings of corporate leadership: a jet at his disposal, a mansion atop Mont Royal.

The defeat of Clark's minority government and the resurrection of the Liberals in 1980 unleashed a dump-Clark movement among Tories.

Publicly, Mulroney pledged loyalty to Clark. Privately, his friends in the party worked feverishly to undermine him and force a leadership review.

They ran a bruising guerrilla war against Clark and were elated when Clark told a party convention in 1983 that he would hold a leadership vote despite having the backing of two-thirds of his party.

Their elation was tempered by some in Mulroney's entourage. John Thompson, a Mulroney organizer, worried about Mulroney's penchant for rhetorical excess.

In a memo prepared for the 1983 convention, Thompson was blunt. "Your image is fuzzy," he said. "They don't trust you."

He listed the reasons: "The slickness, smoothness, pat answers, (the) feeling that there is no substance, (the) plastic image . . ."

Mulroney won the convention primarily on his promise to open the door to the Tories in Quebec. That door had been bolted shut to Conservatives with one exception since Louis Riel was hanged a century earlier.

"The Conservative party has been consigned to the Opposition benches for one reason alone — its failure to win seats in French-speaking areas of the nation," Mulroney said in a 1980 speech.

On Sept. 4, 1984 — election day — Mulroney’s Tories kicked the Quebec door down. The province elected 58 Tory MPs, most of them political unknowns outside their ridings.

Mulroney had won the largest number of seats ever — 211 of 282 MPs — to become Canada's 18th prime minister. It was an achievement paralleled in the 20th century by only one other Conservative leader — Mulroney’s hero, John Diefenbaker.

The bilingual Mulroney did what the unilingual Diefenbaker could not: On Nov. 21, 1988, he won a second majority mandate after a hard-fought election on free trade with the United States.

His honeymoon with the Canadian public actually lasted less than a year after his 1984 win.

Tories hoping Mulroney would become Canada's version of John F. Kennedy had those hopes dashed when age-old political practices such as patronage begat age-old political scandals.

Eight ministers were forced to resign from Mulroney's cabinet during his first four-year term. None of the scandals touched Mulroney personally, but his judgment was called into question for appointing ministers of dubious character.

Many involved in scandals were his cronies, including Cogger and Bazin.

Two years after the election, polls suggested the Conservatives had the support of some 20 per cent of Canadians, putting the party in third place behind the Liberals and the New Democrats.

Mulroney seemed unencumbered by a guiding political philosophy. He often sought to reconcile opposing views rather than boldly state his own.

He electrified voters during the 1984 election debate with his attack on John Turner and the Liberal party's history of patronage. But he wasted little time after his election in giving his old friends Senate seats and other plum posts.

"Universality is a sacred trust," Mulroney declared during the campaign. Six months later, the sacred trust was up for review in an economic statement by then-finance minister Michael Wilson.

After widespread protests, the government backed down on a plan to remove part of the inflation protection on old-age pensions. In 1993, the baby bonus was scrapped in favour of a program that aimed the money at more needy families.

During the 1983 leadership race, he lampooned John Crosbie's support for promoting free trade with the United States.

"It's terrific until the elephant twitches, and if it ever rolls over, you're a dead man," Mulroney said.

No mention was made of the subject during the election. In 1985, his government opened negotiations with the Americans and the free trade deal took effect Jan. 1, 1989.

If there was vacillation on some policy fronts, there was no shaking his commitment to Quebec. He persuaded first ministers to make it their priority to win Quebec's backing for a renewed Constitution.

No one expected him to play midwife to a deal that would win the unanimous backing of all first ministers when he invited them to a little-known government retreat in the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa in 1987.

The whole country was surprised when their meeting produced the Meech Lake accord. The package included recognition of Quebec as a distinct society and gave all provinces a greater say in the appointment of senators and justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Not since Confederation had any prime minister been able to strike a unanimous agreement on the Constitution.

That unanimity lasted as long as it took to change three provincial governments. Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, long retired but still influential, attacked the pact to great effect.

Changing the agreement to satisfy three new premiers in 1990 came at a crushing personal cost for Mulroney.

Lucien Bouchard, his best friend for almost 30 years and the man Mulroney brought into politics and his cabinet, turned his back on the prime minister and his party over the changes.

Mulroney was devastated by the defection and embittered by Bouchard's decision to form the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois and fight against everything Mulroney believed in.

He still could not publicly discuss the episode more than two years later.

"I don't want to talk about that," he said during an interview with The Canadian Press in 1992. "I might have something to say about it someday, but not now."

His bitterness came through clearly in his 2007 memoirs, in which he rips Bouchard as a betrayer and regrets giving loyalty, trust and friendship to "a man incapable of reciprocating such feelings."

But Mulroney's own penchant for rhetorical excess almost led him to single-handedly scuttle the deal. While waiting for Newfoundland and Manitoba to ratify Meech Lake, Mulroney told a newspaper that his entire rescue plan for the pact had been hatched long before and it included high-risk and high-pressure tactics.

"It's like an election campaign; you count backward," he said in the interview with the Globe and Mail. "I said, 'That's the day we're going to roll the dice.'"

Two weeks later, the deal died when Newfoundland and Manitoba failed to ratify it.

Twice, Mulroney had the unanimous backing of first ministers to bring his home province into the constitutional family. Twice, that consensus evaporated.

That loss, coupled with the defection of Bouchard and six other Tories to the Bloc Quebecois, briefly debilitated Mulroney.

"He was always the one that was optimistic, even through all of the scandals and resignations," said one long-time aide. "But that period was the only time I ever saw him down and he was really down."

Two years later, he would achieve consensus on an even broader constitutional deal — the Charlottetown agreement. Quebec would still be recognized as a distinct society, but natives won the right to govern themselves. The Senate was to be revamped so that each province would be represented equally by elected senators.

Every first minister and aboriginal leader enthusiastically supported the agreement. Initial polling results suggested most Canadians did as well and Mulroney decided to ask voters to back the pact in the country’s first referendum in 50 years.

But support bled away during the month-long referendum campaign.

Voters in six provinces, including Quebec, said No to the Charlottetown agreement and Mulroney abandoned his efforts to change the Constitution.

The economy will likely bear Mulroney's longest-lasting imprints.

Free trade fundamentally restructured the country's economic relationship with the United States and forced Canadian business to make painful adjustments.

He changed the way Canadians are taxed by bringing in the Goods and Services Tax. The measure was aimed at replacing a hidden tax. Canadians didn't hide their scorn for it.

The deficit didn't go down much in actual numbers, but was cut in half as a percentage of the gross domestic product. Inflation was brought down to less than two per cent.

With profound change came profound pain.

The changes were brought in just as the country was about to be brutalized by the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Bankruptcies hit record highs. Over 1.6 million people were out of work, many through sudden layoffs and plant closures. Taxes increased faster in Canada than in any other G7 country.

He killed the baby bonus, sold Air Canada and sliced the CBC and Via Rail — institutions that symbolized the country.

"This country required some drastic action, painful though it might be and unpopular though it might be," he said.

It was painful, and its unpopularity ultimately forced Mulroney from office.

Polls suggested his personal approval rating could be measured in single digits. The Conservatives fell behind the Liberals, NDP and upstart Reform party during much of 1992 and into 1993. Yet even then, his caucus stayed loyal, united by Mulroney's personal leadership style, which remembered every birthday, cheered every birth or wedding, offered sympathy at every death.

He announced his resignation on Feb. 24, the least popular prime minister in the history of modern polling. He officially left office in June and his successor, Kim Campbell, led the Tories to destruction just weeks later.

But Mulroney remained a respected statesman in the international community. He became a business consultant and took lucrative directorships on the boards of major global corporations.

In 1998, he was named a companion of the Order of Canada. There were other international awards.

In 2004, he and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher became the first foreign dignitaries to deliver eulogies for an American president when they spoke at Ronald Reagan's funeral.

Just a couple of years later, however, his relationship with Schreiber reared up again.

During hearings for the Airbus libel case, Mulroney said under oath he barely knew Schreiber. But it came out that he had accepted at least $225,000 in cash from Schreiber, with the first of three instalments coming just weeks after he stepped down as prime minister and while he was still an MP.

After years of controversy, a public inquiry under Justice Jeffrey Oliphant was set up in 2008 to look into the matter, albeit with a strictly limited mandate that left the Air Canada deal and the libel suit out of the picture.

Nevertheless, Oliphant's final report found a mess of lies, contradictions, calculated concealment and unresolved questions.

Mulroney testified he accepted the money to lobby foreign governments on behalf of Schreiber, contradicting Schreiber's claim that the money was for lobbying the Canadian government.

The former prime minister said he was wrong to take Schreiber's $1,000 bills and stash them in a personal safe and later a safety deposit box. He said he delayed paying taxes on the money for years because he thought of it as a retainer, not income.

Oliphant found problems with the testimony from both men.

Mulroney testified that he never revealed his long relationship with Schreiber during a liberal suit court hearing because he wasn't asked the right question. Oliphant called that explanation "patently absurd."

Mulroney said he got $225,000 from Schreiber; the businessman said it was $300,000. Oliphant said he didn't accept either claim.

In the end, though, despite the discrepancies, Oliphant's finding was merely that Mulroney breached his own ethics code.

After the release of Oliphant's report, a poll suggested that almost two-thirds of Canadians felt that they'd had enough of the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, and that Oliphant should be the last word on the subject.

After the inquiry, Mulroney continued his career as an international business and political mentor. While he publicly kept a discreet distance from the Harper government, he maintained close ties with many in its ranks, including senior cabinet ministers.

He regularly delivered speeches before various public policy or charitable foundations. He often stressed that a political legacy often doesn't gel for years. He urged audiences against a rush to judgment.

"Time is an ally to leaders who place the pursuit of principle ahead of popularity," he said in a November 2012 speech.

He pointed out that free trade, which is now seen as a foundation of national prosperity, was condemned as a sell-out when first negotiated.

"Support for free trade at one point was down to my immediate family," he chuckled.

He has defended his close relationship with Reagan, which was viewed with deep suspicion by many Canadians. He credits the friendship with helping push through the acid rain treaty and the free trade deal.

"Anyone who tells you that personal friendship doesn't count in the conduct of foreign affairs — that nations only have interests and nothing else — doesn't have a clue what he is talking about," he said in March 2012.

He often cited Sir John A. Macdonald as a politician vilified in his time who came to be seen as a great prime minister. He would note that he and Sir John were the only Tory PMs to win consecutive majority governments in peacetime.

His message was clear: let history, not political foes, rule on the Mulroney legacy.

That is a message he has also shared when it comes to those across the aisle.

Earlier this year, Mulroney made headlines for defending the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, applauding its decisions on a renegotiated North American free trade deal, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"History is unconcerned with the trivia and the trash of rumours and gossip floating around Parliament Hill," Mulroney told delegates last year at the Atlantic Economic Forum in Antigonish, N.S., ahead of Trudeau coming to the stage.

 It's the "big-ticket items that have shaped the future of Canada" that matter.

Mulroney suffered health problems off and on through his life. He was never an athlete and there were no press photos of him water-skiing à la Jean Chrétien or back-flipping into a pool à la Pierre Trudeau.

He was a heavy smoker for years before quitting. In his memoirs he wrote candidly about his realization in early 1980 that "I had developed what could only be described as a serious drinking problem." He quit drinking on St-Jean-Baptiste Day that year.

He was found to have a lesion on his lung in 2005 and underwent successful surgery. However, he subsequently developed pancreatitis and spent several weeks in hospital.

In April, Mulroney was treated for prostate cancer in Montreal. 

His daughter Caroline Mulroney, now a veteran cabinet minister in Doug Ford's Ontario government, said in August that his health was improving daily following the cancer treatment and a recent heart procedure.

Banner image: Brian Mulroney in Mulroney Hall at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. on Monday, June 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

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