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The duty

February 29, 2024

  • Canada

It was on a checkered public career that the curtain finally fell on Thursday with the death at age 84 of former Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney. Admired when he came to power, but despised when he left nine years later, the little guy from Baie-Comeau was rehabilitated years later in the name of his environmental legacy, then reviled again for his acceptance – long denied – of 'envelopes of money of nebulous provenance. It was his daughter, Caroline Mulroney, who made the announcement on the social network X. “He died peacefully, surrounded by his family,” she wrote.

The man who occupied 24 Sussex Drive from 1984 to 1993 died at the age of 84. The circumstances of his death are not yet known. He is survived by his wife, Mila (née Pivnicki), and their four children, Caroline, Benedict, Mark and Nicolas.

The little guy from Baie-Comeau

Brian Mulroney liked to present himself as a little guy from Baie-Comeau, where his father, an electrician, had settled in 1938 to work in the future newsprint factory which would supply the Chicago Tribune. However, from high school, he received his education in Chatham, New Brunswick, where he boarded. He began his university studies in Nova Scotia, and it was only after failing his first year that he returned to Quebec to start his law again, at Laval University.

Brian Mulroney first became known as a lawyer specializing in the resolution of labor disputes, of which there were many during the turbulent period of the early 1970s. This led him to become a commissioner in 1974 on the Cliche commission, which looks at union intimidation on construction sites in Quebec. There he met Guy Chevrette and met Lucien Bouchard again, with whom he had studied law. The population follows this work – as in another era it followed that of the Charbonneau commission -, and Brian Mulroney gains notoriety.

In 1976, he attempted his first foray into politics by running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. Despite a costly campaign that earned him the nickname “Cadillac candidate“, the “outside Tory” bit the dust and lost in the third round to Joe Clark.

Brian Mulroney was named president of Iron Ore in 1977 and firmly established himself as a successful businessman. At this time, his alcohol consumption was taking up more and more space in his life, to the point that his friends, including Paul Desmarais, raised the issue with him and argued that it was an obstacle to his ambitions. Returning from a trip to Romania where he fell seriously ill, Mulroney began to reflect and decided, on June 24, 1980 — St. John the Baptist Day — to abandon the bottle. In his memoirs published in 2007, he wrote that he never took another drop in 27 years and that alcohol never failed him, unlike cigarettes, which he quit four years later.

In 1979, Joe Clark became Prime Minister, but nine short months later saw the overthrow of his minority government. Following a disappointing vote of confidence, he called a leadership race, in which he stood again. This time, Brian Mulroney has the upper hand. He was elected leader on June 11, 1983. Elmer MacKay (the father of future minister Peter MacKay) gave up his Nova Scotia seat and thus allowed Mr. Mulroney to be elected to the House of Commons in August of the same year.

Prime Minister

Brian Mulroney made short work of his Liberal opponent, John Turner, during the 1984 election campaign. His killer phrase thrown into a televised debate — “You had an option , sir!» —, which criticizes the Liberal for not having canceled the partisan appointments of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, makes him triumph. His party doubled its number of seats — from 103 to 211 — in the House of Commons, mainly thanks to Quebec, which granted it 58 and punished the Liberals for the unilateral patriation of the Constitution. Brian Mulroney then became the first prime minister since John Diefenbaker in 1957 to access the highest office without having previously been a minister.

Brian Mulroney's reign was anything but a smooth ride. The constitutional question concerns the Prime Minister, who invited Quebecers to sign the Constitution “with honor and enthusiasm”. The festival of meetings was in full swing, and a lake in the Outaouais — Meech — became a national symbol when the agreement of the same name was finally signed there, in 1987. The five conditions for Quebec ratification posed by Prime Minister Robert Bourassa are there: recognition of the distinct society, right of veto in Quebec on constitutional modifications affecting it, right of review on the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court, supervision of the federal spending power with right of withdrawal and formalization of the jurisdiction of Quebec in matters of immigration.

We know the rest: the three years allocated for the ratification of the agreement by the 10 provinces are eroding the consensus. Minister Lucien Bouchard slammed the door of his party in May 1990 and founded the Bloc Québécois two months later, with other discontents of all stripes. His friendship with Brian Mulroney suffered. In an interview on Radio-Canada on Thursday evening, Lucien Bouchard said he had reconciled with Brian Mulroney, whom he had known when he was 20 years old. “My sadness is compounded by a lot of nostalgia, by the years that were taken from us by political differences,” he explained. “We reconciled late, unfortunately. Things had been slowly repairing themselves for a year or two and they had accelerated over the past six months,” he said, confiding that he had shared a meal during the holiday season.

Meech sank for good on June 23, 1990. The constitutional psychodrama continued with the drafting of the Charlottetown Accord, which recognized Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination, which guaranteed Quebec 25% of the seats in the House of Commons and which establishes an elected Senate. By referendum in October 1992, Canadians rejected it by 54%.

Abortion, privatization and GST

In parallel with these constitutional rifts, hot issues are multiplying. The Progressive Conservatives privatized several Crown corporations, including Air Canada and Petro-Canada. When the Supreme Court of Canada invalidated the provisions on abortion, Ottawa tried to once again regulate the practice, but the Senate prevented it, thanks in particular to the vote of the conservative Pat Carney, who returned to vote although very ill.

The Senate also caused headaches for Brian Mulroney when he tried, in 1990, to introduce a goods and services tax (GST). The prime minister then took advantage of an obscure clause allowing him to temporarily appoint eight additional senators and regain the majority. Furious, the liberals banged on their desks with their shoes and created a din which prevented the vote from taking place for 11 weeks.

Brian Mulroney will also lead a major tax reform. The Progressive Conservative reign was nevertheless written in red ink: Canada's debt tripled during these nine years, to reach $488 billion. At that time, for every dollar Ottawa spent, $0.25 was borrowed money.

Brian Mulroney is the one who established the free trade agreement with the United States, a bold revolution at the time which was opposed by the Canadian intelligentsia. In the West, the decision taken in 1986 to award the CF-18 aircraft maintenance contract to Bombardier rather than to a cheaper Winnipeg company turned the population against it.

Dissatisfaction coupled with constitutional fatigue got the better of the great coalition of Western populists and Quebec nationalists that Brian Mulroney had built. In 1992, he only received 11% approval, according to Gallup, making him the most hated prime minister since polls began (1940). On February 24, 1993, Brian Mulroney announced his resignation. His party, led by his successor, Kim Campbell, will be annihilated in the fall elections, retaining only two of its seats. The Progressive Conservative Party will never recover from this collapse and will disappear for good in 2003.

With the passage of time, Mr. Mulroney will rise in popular esteem, and will be named the greenest prime minister in history in 2006 for having signed a treaty with the United States on acid rain, creating eight national parks and introduced the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The scandal nevertheless caught up with him in the fall of 2007, when a parliamentary committee put back on the agenda information (known since 2003) that he had pocketed $300,000 in cash paid by the controversial lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber. Then Prime Minister, Conservative Stephen Harper went so far as to publicly order his troops not to contact Brian Mulroney. He will launch a public inquiry which will conclude that these payments “were not acceptable”. The image of the little guy from Baie-Comeau will be permanently tarnished.

With Benoit Valois-Nadeau

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116