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The Legacy of Brian Mulroney

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On Friday, March 1st, politicians on both sides of the aisle came together to mourn the loss of Brian Mulroney, who died at 84. Mulroney served as prime minister from 1984 to 93. Flags across the country are at half mast to honour Mulroney, and Justin Trudeau has announced the government is working to have a state funeral for Canada’s 18th Prime Minister. 

Longtime friend Jean Charest, a former minister in Mulroney’s cabinet, saw Mulroney a week before he passed, saying his friend seemed to have lost a noticeable amount of weight. Still, Charest says he was surprised to hear of Mulroney’s passing.  

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday Mulroney was an inspiring man who, in even brief encounters, created enthusiasm among his peers about their duty of leading Canadians towards a brighter future. 

“By the time I finished talking to him, I was ready to go door-knocking and just ready to take on the world,” Ford said. “He was a mentor, adviser, and good friend.” 

Mentioned often by his colleagues is how much he inspired them and how he had a way of making people feel capable of more than they realized. In recent days Mulroney has been described as a kind and compassionate person, making personal phone calls of congratulations and condolences in times of victory or strife. Friend or foe, Mulroney was always one to extend himself to others in addition to being a powerful leader. 

Prime Minister Trudeau shared his sentiments from Sudbury, where he spoke about a health care agreement recently signed by the Ontario government. 

Canadians are reflecting on what an extraordinary statesman Prime Minister Mulroney was. There are certainly things that people disagreed with from one party to the next but the idea of service and devotion to country ran through everything he did. I think in this time of a level of toxicity and personality attacks in politics, it seems to have gotten worse over the past while. I think it’s important to inspire ourselves and to take a moment to remember that everyone who serves does so out of a deep and abiding love for Canada.” 

Progressive Conservative Pierre Poilievre also shared his thoughts on the late prime minister, saying the changes Mulroney brought about in nearly a decade as prime minister were transformational.  

“He unleashed free enterprise, crushed inflation, restored fiscal sanity and concluded one of the greatest free-trade agreements the world has ever seen, which remains largely in place today,” Poilievre said. 

After leaving the role of Prime Minister, Mulroney stayed involved with the Canadian government, advising many in Ottawa over the years. His work has been commended by leaders south of the border who worked with Mulroney over his career in the federal government, including President Joe Biden, who worked with Mulroney while serving on the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. 

“Mulroney was fearless and not afraid to stand up for causes he cared about, like advocating against racial apartheid in South Africa,” Biden said. “I got to know the prime minister when I served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I saw firsthand his commitment to the friendship between our two nations, as well as his abiding love for Canada and its people.” 

In 1988, Mulroney created the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement with then-president Ronald Reagan. These negotiations set the framework for what eventually became NAFTA, which Mulroney and later President George H.W. Bush decided should include Mexico. However, the final agreement was enacted soon after Mulroney had left office. In 2020, Mulroney was a major asset during trade negotiations with the United States for what is now the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, much of which is built upon the pillars Mulroney and his government built.  

NAFTA, its predecessor agreement and the current trade agreement have had substantial lasting power due to the tremendous economic benefits brought to all three countries involved. 

“With his characteristic upbeat nature, Mr. Mulroney upheld the interests of Canada with a bold vision,” wrote James A. Baker, former US Secretary of the Treasury. “But he also understood the importance of securing, at the same time, mutual benefits that would enhance the prosperity and security of North America as a whole.” 

While acting as Prime Minister, Mulroney took an active stand in opposition to apartheid in South Africa as well as the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. This was against the advice and desires of many Western ally leaders, including then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. Mulroney threatened substantial sanctions against South Africa if they did not end their apartheid regime. This created immense tension with Thatcher, which led to one interaction Mulroney later described as “one of the stormiest meetings I’ve ever been party to.” 

Mulroney was a key part of creating the Nassau Accord, which stated Commonwealth nations would take an economic stand against South Africa if they failed to make progress to remove apartheid within six months. 

“Prime Minister Mulroney led Canada during a critical decade in which our struggle for freedom culminated in the dismantling of apartheid,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in a statement. 

In 2015, Mulroney was awarded the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, the highest honour in South Africa for non-citizens. Mulroney was given the prestigious award for his “exceptional contribution to the liberation movement of South Africa.” 

In 1991, the Government Sales Tax (GST) was introduced by the Mulroney government to replace the Manufacturers’ Sales Tax (MST), which at the time was 13.5 percent nationally. The GST initially was 7 per cent while today it stands at 5 per cent. The new tax was incredibly unpopular among Canadians, leading to a steep decline in his approval rating. 

When he took office, Brian Mulroney had the largest elected house, the majority of any Prime Minister, at that point in time (75 per cent, June 1985). When he left office, his party had the lowest approval rating of any federal government ever (12 per cent, November 1992). Mulroney won two majority governments and ended his run as Prime Minster by stepping down as Conservative Party leader, leaving Kim Campbell to fill the role until the next election. 

While he is among Canada’s most impactful prime ministers, he is also among the most controversial. Mulroney was accused of accepting a bribe from businessman Karlheinz Schreiber to invest Crown funds in Airbus planes for Air Canada, to which Mulroney sued his accusers. Later inquiries found Mulroney had accepted a quarter-million-dollar bribe, which in 2007 Mulroney described as the second “biggest mistake in life,” with the first being “ever agreeing to be introduced to Karlheinz Schreiber in the first place.” 

While he was, at times, controversial, he was a powerful leader. His skills as a productive politician were matched by his ability as an orator, which helped him win two majority governments. Mulroney was a substantial influence as Prime Minister, leaving Canada recognizably different after he left office. 

“Whether one agrees with our solutions or not, none will accuse us of having chosen to evade our responsibilities by side-stepping the most controversial issues of our time,” Mulroney said in his resignation speech in February 1993. 

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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