Published March 1, 2024

State funeral, public condolences being planned for Brian Mulroney

The flag on Parliament's Peace Tower fluttered at half-mast Friday morning as Canadians paid tribute to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"Canada is in mourning," said Liberal House leader Steve MacKinnon inside a sombre House of Commons, where a book of condolences has been set up for members of Parliament to sign.

Mulroney died Thursday in a Florida hospital following a recent fall at his Palm Beach home. He was 84. He had been treated for prostate cancer almost a year ago and underwent a heart procedure in August.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed a state funeral will be held to honour the Progressive Conservative titan, who held the prime minister's post for nearly nine years.

Trudeau said details on the timing are being worked out with Mulroney's family, and there will also be opportunities for the public to offer their condolences. 

The House of Commons was scheduled to sit Friday before a two-week break, but MPs agreed to suspend the sitting until March 18, when they will officially pay tribute to Mulroney.

The outpouring of condolences so far make it clear he has left a lasting mark on this country and its people.

"It's just hard to imagine politics in Canada without Brian Mulroney," said David McLaughlin, Mulroney's former chief of staff.

"I'm sad for him, sad for his family, and I'm kind of sad for the country because I don't think we'll see the likes of a Brian Mulroney again. He was truly a giant in Canadian politics."

McLaughlin said he was a prime minister who constantly tried to do big things.

Mulroney, a charismatic and compelling leader with convictions as deep as his trademark languid baritone, led the country as the leader of the Progressive Conservatives from 1984 until 1993.

He reinvented cross-border relations thanks to a close friendship with then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan, a relationship that helped usher in the era of continental free trade and bilateral environmental treaties. He led the way on a global treaty to rid the world of substances depleting the ozone layer, and with president George H.W. Bush signed a cross-border pact to cut down on the air pollution that causes acid rain.

For many, Mulroney will always be the prime minister who introduced the Goods and Services Tax — a bold and necessary move, he insisted, but one that came with lasting political damage.

He also twice tried to garner agreement from the provinces to amend the Constitution in a bid to bring Quebec on side.

McLaughlin said although both of those constitutional amendments failed, they show how high Mulroney was willing to reach.

Mulroney's prime ministerial tenure took the public on a giant mood swing. So popular in 1984 that his first government still holds the distinction of being the largest majority Canada has ever seen, his popularity plummeted so far that his successor, Kim Campbell, could only win two seats in the 1993 election. 

But in his post-prime ministerial life he took on the role of an elder statesman, sought out by premiers, cabinet ministers and prime ministers for his political wisdom and acumen.

Erin O'Toole, a former Conservative MP and party leader, said he counted Mulroney as a close friend and mentor who "would always be there, in thick and thin." 

"It's a sign of character that you don't see much in politics," O'Toole said in an interview. 

"There'll be a lot of people there when the skies are sunny, but on a cloudy day, he would call when a lot of others wouldn't."

Bob Rae, whose single term as NDP premier in Ontario coincided with the end of Mulroney's time as prime minister, concurred.

"When my brother died, Brian Mulroney was the first political leader to call, as he was when I was elected premier in 1990, when I was defeated, and at so many other moments," Rae said.

Despite being a fierce partisan fighter, Mulroney always had Canada's best interest at heart, said O'Toole — an example he said he tried to follow as Conservative leader. 

"I tried to take that approach in the pandemic," O'Toole said, recalling some of his cross-partisan efforts at the time. 

"Trying to be a bridge-builder and looking at the whole nation, not just a small group of it or your partisan supporters," he said. 

"He always said, put the long-term well-being of the country at the forefront of everything you do." 

Banner image: Former prime minister Brian Mulroney leaves Parliament Hill Wednesday, June 6, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2024. 

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