As your Member of Parliament, what issue I should be focusing on? Click here to let me know!

The Last Gentleman Prime Minister

This week, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney will be laid to rest.

Mulroney was a giant in Canadian politics. The last of the “gentleman prime ministers”.

Mulroney was born and raised in Baie-Comeau, Quebec. The son of working-class Irish parents.

Despite his humble beginnings, Mulroney quickly rose to prominence as a successful businessman and lawyer.

Despite his prodigious success in business, Mulroney wanted to serve. So, in 1976, he threw his hat into the ring to replace the outgoing Robert Stanfield as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. He would lose to Joe Clark.

Mulroney took the loss hard, but he kept working. He expanded his business and political network and in 1983 he once again ran for the leadership. This time he won.

Two months later, Mulroney ran in a by-election to gain a seat in Parliament and became the MP for Central Nova, Nova Scotia (he would later transfer to represent the Quebec riding of Charlevoix).

At the time he became Opposition Leader, Canada was a desperate and divided country.

With the brief exception of 6 months under Joe Clark in 1979, the Liberals, under the leadership of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had been in control for 16 devastating years.

Canadians were facing skyrocketing debt and crippling double-digit inflation.

The country was deeply divided over the long-argued questions of Quebec separatism and western alienation, exacerbated by the Trudeau years.

The country was ready for a change.

Trudeau Sr. saw the “writing on the wall” and took his, now fabled, walk in the snow in February of 1984.   

He was succeeded by John Turner. Viewed as a decent and sound man, the Liberals surged to a 20-point lead in the polls. Hoping to capitalize on the lead, only four days after being sworn in as Prime Minister, Turner called a general election.  

Unfortunately for Turner, the once formidable Liberal campaign machine was tired and in disarray.

In the televised leaders’ debate, Mulroney unleashed a blistering attack over the issue of patronage. Turner had agreed to execute patronage appointments made by Trudeau before leaving office. When asked about it, Turner replied, “I had no option.”

Mulroney famously responded:

“You had an option, sir. You could have said, ‘I am not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada, and I am not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.’ You had an option, sir—to say ‘no’—and you chose to say ‘yes’ to the old attitudes and the old stories of the Liberal Party. That, sir, if I may say respectfully, is not good enough for Canadians.”

Turner froze and the election was over.

Mulroney would win the second largest majority government in Canadian history (second only to the 1958 landslide won by fellow Tory, John Diefenbaker). He would go on to win a second majority in 1988, the first Conservative Prime Minister to do so since Sir. John A. Macdonald.   

His time in office was characterized by taking big swings. Often failing, at times successful, Mulroney always swung for the fences.

His successes and failures are well documented.

He succeeded in privatizing crown corporations and shrinking the size of government. He ended the disastrous National Energy Program. He achieved landmark achievements in environmental protection.

Most famously, he secured the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the most successful free trade agreement in history.

Mulroney also sought constitutional reforms to solve the divisive issues standing in the way of national unity. Quebec still had not signed on to the recently patriated Constitution. Mulroney called two rounds of meetings with premiers which would come to be known as the Meech Lake (1987) and Charlottetown (1991) Accords. Both would ultimately fail.

Mulroney took Canada to new levels of respect and influence on the world stage, taking strong stands opposing communism and apartheid, and supporting free trade and the first Gulf War. He had strong relationships with US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush (Sr.) and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In fact, to many, it was his relationships that were Mulroney’s secret weapon. His ability to remember names and faces and details. His willingness to reach out and touch people with his condolences or congratulations. His generosity of spirit expressed in that rich baritone and smiling Irish eyes.  

Brian Mulroney was far from perfect. He was a man. Like all human leaders, no one is ever perfect. But Brian Mulroney loved Canada. His own humble beginnings taught him that in Canada, if you work hard enough, anything was possible. That you can reach for the stars and that sometimes you might just catch one. 

Brian Mulroney was a giant, a gentleman, a great Canadian, and he will be missed.