Brian Mulroney, former Canadian prime minister, dead at 84

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Brian Mulroney dead at 84
WATCH: Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney has died at the age of 84. Mulroney is survived by his wife, Mila, and four children. Among them are Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s transport and francophone affairs minister, and Ben Mulroney, a well-known TV personality. – Feb 29, 2024

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney has died at the age of 84.

Mulroney’s daughter Caroline announced his death in a social media post on X, saying, “The country’s 18th prime minister died peacefully and surrounded by family.”

He will have a state funeral, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Born in Baie-Comeau, QC., in 1939, Mulroney would go on to build a political career marked by his leadership of the at-times fractious coalition of Western conservatives, Red Tories and Quebec nationalists that made up the old centrist Progressive Conservative Party, and a legacy of securing the original NAFTA trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico as well as passing the goods and service tax into law.

He was also commended for his strong opposition to apartheid in South Africa, helping to lead the global sanctions that brought that regime to an end, and his environmental achievements including acid rain reductions and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

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Click to play video: 'Brian’s Mulroney death: Tributes pour in across Canada'
Brian’s Mulroney death: Tributes pour in across Canada

“He was committed to this country, loved it with all his heart and served it for many, many years in many different ways,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Thursday night. He commended Mulroney’s dedication to proving Canada belonged on the world stage.

“He shaped our past, but he shapes our present and he will impact our future as well. He was an extraordinary statesman and he will be deeply, deeply missed.”

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, along with Trade Minister Pat Carney, makes a statement after a day of briefing the provincial premiers on the state of the North American trade talks in this Sept. 14, 1987 file photo in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Mitchell

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre told reporters he last spoke to Mulroney six weeks before he passed away, and said he took inspiration from his “humble beginnings” and the successes he enjoyed throughout his life.

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Click to play video: 'Trudeau, Poilievre react to death of former PM Brian Mulroney'
Trudeau, Poilievre react to death of former PM Brian Mulroney

“I know all Canadians join with me in saying that we will miss that deep, beautiful, rich voice and that big, friendly, Irish smile,” he said.

The House of Commons adjourned early Thursday night upon news of Mulroney’s death.

Mulroney is survived by his wife, Mila, and four children. Caroline Mulroney is Ontario’s treasury board president and francophone affairs minister, and Ben Mulroney is a well-known TV personality. Both Mark and Nicholas Mulroney have careers in banking.

Mulroney’s breakthrough victory in Quebec in the 1984 federal election netted the party 58 seats in a traditional Liberal stronghold. For most of the previous century, the PCs had found themselves in a trap that had helped keep them largely out of power – without success in Quebec, they became a mostly Anglophone party, and as such they had continued limited traction in Quebec.

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FILE – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II poses with G-7 leaders at Buckingham Palace in London, July 16, 1991.  (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau, File).

He also was no stranger to scandal, and was investigated by the RCMP after leaving office for accepting kickbacks from a German businessman, Karlheinz Schreiber, related to the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada. Mulroney told a parliamentary inquiry in 2010 that these payments had been for lobbying and consulting services, but Jeffery Oliphant, the judge who ran the inquiry, found no evidence that any services had ever been carried out.

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Although he told Tories as he ran for the party leadership in 1983 that civil servants would be issued “pink slips and running shoes,” Mulroney governed from the centre, with a foreign policy well to the left of other conservative national leaders of the time, like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

His death comes at a time when conservative movements around the world are struggling with existential challenges to Western democracies and civil rights amid a rise of populist and authoritarian elements within their ranks.

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Landslide in 1984

The Liberals started the 1984 federal election, Mulroney’s first as PC leader, in the lead. A series of missteps by Liberal leader John Turner saw the party falter in the polls, but a memorable moment in the leaders’ debate set the stage for a PC landslide.

Pierre Trudeau, as he left office, had named a large group of Liberals to a range of federal appointments, widely seen as patronage. John Turner, who had just succeeded Trudeau, had confirmed the appointments.

Confronted about the appointments during the debate, Turner said he had had “no option.”

Mulroney pounced.

“You had an option, sir,” he said, pointing an accusing finger. “You could have said, ‘I am not going to do it.’ You had an option, sir, to say no.”

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Turner was visibly flustered. “I had no option,” he repeated.

“That is a confession of non-leadership,” Mulroney replied.

Click to play video: 'Former PM Brian Mulroney on why the Queen called Canada ‘home’.'
Former PM Brian Mulroney on why the Queen called Canada ‘home’.

After that, it was all over but for the counting. The election that followed saw the PCs more than double their seat total to win the first majority for the party since John Diefenbaker’s victory in 1957.

In power, Mulroney signed the free trade deal with the U.S. and Mexico known as NAFTA, which was a major point of contention under the Trump administration and saw Canada dragged into talks to renegotiate the deal, now known as the USMCA or CUSMA.

Free trade with the United States was bitterly controversial at the time, but Mulroney fought the 1988 federal election on the issue and won a second majority government.

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“Throughout our history, trade has been critical to Canada’s livelihood. Now, almost one third of what we produce is exported. Few countries in the world are so dependent on trade. This trend ultimately threatens the jobs of many Canadians and the living standards of the nation as a whole,” Mulroney said in defence of the agreement in 1985.

Federal cabinet ministers pose for a group photo following their new appointments in Ottawa, Monday, Jan. 4, 1993. Left to right front row are Thomas Hockin, Bill McKnight, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn, Charles Mayer and Monique Vezina. Back row left to right are Pierre Vincent, Kim Campbell, Pierre Blais, Monique Landry, Mary Collins and Pauline Browes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson.

“We must confront this threat. We must reverse this trend. To do so, we need a better, a fairer, and a more predictable trade relationship with the United States.”

But Mulroney’s attempts to reach a constitutional deal with the provinces, his other main priority as prime minister, were less successful.

Mulroney’s first attempt to amend the Constitution, the Meech Lake Accord, failed in 1990. The Charlottetown Accord, his second attempt, failed to pass a national referendum in 1992.

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As Mulroney leaves power, party disintegrates

By 1993, Mulroney had stretched his second government to the very end of its mandate – legally, an election had to be held that year. His coalition was splitting apart as the Reform Party gained strength in the West and rural Ontario, and Lucien Bouchard, a separatist-turned-federalist-turned-separatist who had been Mulroney’s Quebec lieutenant, resigned to start the Bloc Quebecois.

Mulroney resigned as PC party leader, succeeded by Kim Campbell, who briefly became Canada’s first female prime minister.

Leader of the Conservative Party and prime minister-designate Kim Campbell is given a standing ovation in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and other members of the government, Ottawa, Wednesday, June 16, 1993. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tom Hanson.

Between Mulroney’s personal unpopularity and the two splits in the party, Campbell was given an impossible hand to play. She presided over a defeat for the PCs that saw the once-mighty party reduced to two seats – Campbell’s not among them.

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Mulroney had failed to lay the groundwork for a PC coalition that would endure after he left the scene.

In the short term, the PC disintegration led to unbroken Liberal governments that lasted until 2006.

For conservatives, the 1993 defeat led to a long, torturous process that eventually led to the founding of the modern Conservative Party in 2003.

While the unified party saw electoral success under Stephen Harper, it also saw the right wing of the party take on new prominence and the old Red Tory presence in Canadian federal politics diminished – a trend that has continued as Conservative leadership candidates increasingly set out to prove their “true blue” and “true conservative” visions to party members.

Tributes pour in

In a statement on social media, Harper highlighted Mulroney’s domestic trade and environmental policy achievements while also standing for “freedom and democracy on the world stage.”

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“History will record that Mr. Mulroney’s premiership was transformational,” he wrote. “Canada has lost a historic figure, and we mourn his passing with all his many friends and associates.”

Former prime minister Jean Chretien, who served as opposition leader in the final years of Mulroney’s second government, said while they were opponents in politics they “had a lot of things in common.”

“In politics, a position is a position, it’s like playing hockey, you can fight on the ice, have a beer together after that,” he told reporters on Parliament Hill.

Chretien offered his condolences to Mulroney’s family, saying his children should be “proud of their father.”

Click to play video: 'Brian Mulroney dead: Jean Chrétien reflects on former PM’s legacy'
Brian Mulroney dead: Jean Chrétien reflects on former PM’s legacy

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh highlighted Mulroney’s environmental achievements, including tackling acid rain and ozone-destroying chemicals, and his fight against apartheid in South Africa in a social media statement.

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Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet remembered Mulroney as the last to have “sincerely attempted to reconcile” Quebec and Canada, and commended him for his various work including on free trade.

“He was the architect of a free trade agreement that would not have existed without the support of Quebec,” Blanchet said. “Respect for a great native of Quebec’s North Shore and a great Quebecer.”

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who also served in Mulroney’s cabinet, said Canada owed the former prime minister a “profound debt of gratitude.”

“He was an exceptional leader. A visionary. And a statesman whose influence had a significant impact on the international stage,” Charest said.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, right, arrives with former Quebec Premier Jean Charest at a tribute for Claude Ryan Friday, February 14, 2014 in Montreal. .THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland praised Mulroney for standing up for Canada both in and out of office. She said that during NAFTA negotiations, he offered counsel as she negotiated with the Trump administration.

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“He was an advocate for democracy, human rights and the first Western leader to recognize an independent Ukraine.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called Mulroney “a giant” who leaves behind an “unmatched legacy.”

“Brian was also so generous with his time,” said Ford. “When faced with tough decisions, I often leaned on him for advice and benefited from his experience and his political instincts. He was a role model to me and taught me countless lessons on how to be a better leader.”

with files from Global’s Amanda Connolly, Sean Boynton, Sean Previl and former Global News reporter Patrick Cain, and The Canadian Press

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