Former prime minister Brian Mulroney dies at 84

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney dies at 84

Former Canadian prime minister and Conservative stalwart Brian Mulroney has died at age 84.

The former Tory leader died peacefully, surrounded by family, his family announced “with great sadness” late Thursday.

The House of Commons adjourned its proceedings on Thursday after learning of Mulroney’s passing, and reaction from political figures poured in from across Canada.

Over his impressive — yet at times divisive — political career, Mulroney left an unmistakable mark on the country.

Early political ambitions

Born to a working class family in Baie-Comeau, Que., as a university student studying political science Mulroney became an adviser to Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker.

He worked behind the scenes in conservative politics for years and earned a law degree before finally running to become the next federal Progressive Conservative leader in 1976, only to lose to Joe Clark.

Defeated but not discouraged, Mulroney joined corporate Canada as a senior executive, but continued plotting a campaign to oust Clark.

His pursuits for power culminated in 1983, when he won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party.

Brian Mulroney

“Together we’re going to build a brand new party and a brand new country,” he vowed at the time. He was then elected as MP for Central Nova, N.S., promising to push for more jobs in the riding.

Mulroney went on to run a commanding 1984 federal campaign, winning a majority with the largest number of seats in Canadian history, after delivering what may be his most memorable political line.

When then-Liberal prime minister John Turner’s honouring of Pierre Trudeau’s controversial patronage appointments came up during an election debate, Mulroney stated: “You had an option, sir.”

‘Very tough decisions’

As Canada’s 18th prime minister, Mulroney, then sitting as the MP for Manicouagan, Que. embarked on an at-times stormy prime ministership that in nine years both strengthened and divided the country.

“Mr. Mulroney took some very tough decisions which only in retrospect people are appreciating,” former diplomat and Mulroney’s former chief of staff Derek Burney, once told CTV News.

He took Canada on a forced march through two major efforts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, “with honour and enthusiasm.” Both tries, Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord, failed, meaning his proposed amendments to the Canadian constitution and the reforms they would have instilled, did not become a reality.

On the international stage, however, Mulroney gave Canada a new sense of respect and presence. He rallied countries against apartheid, and imposed sanctions on South Africa.

And, while building stronger ties with the United States, Mulroney and his wife Mila developed close friendships with Nancy and Ronald Reagan, leading to the iconic “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” moment at the 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City.

Mulroney and his wife also forged a closeness with Barbara and George Bush Sr.

George Bush, Brian Mulroney

This led to the Canadian leader advising his American counterpart to seek international consensus before launching Operation Desert Storm to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, as Fen Osler Hampson details in his book Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy.

These relationships outlasted the leaders’ respective political careers, seeing Mulroney deliver eulogies for both former presidents.

It wasn’t just friendships Mulroney forged stateside. One of the marquee pieces of his legacy is his work to establish first a free trade agreement between Canada and the United States, which became a lightning rod in the 1988 campaign.

And then, after winning a second Progressive Conservative majority, Mulroney pushed on and cemented an expanded trade deal that included Mexico: the North American Free Trade Agreement.

It was also in his second mandate that Mulroney secured the Acid Rain Accord, and introduced the reviled Goods and Services Tax (GST).

The tax, which came into effect in 1991 and remains in place today, was deeply unpopular, and as a weary country drifted into a recession, Mulroney’s polling numbers plummeted to a historic low in 1992.

Time ‘to step aside’

It was then in 1993 that he declared in a Centre Block meeting room that “the time has come for me to step aside,” after doing his “very best” for his country.

Mulroney said then that he’d be resigning as soon as his party had elected a successor. The reins were then handed over to Kim Campbell a few months later, making her Canada’s first female prime minister.

After leaving office, his party was decimated in the 1993 federal election, seeing the Liberals led by Jean Chretien win a landslide majority government.

Under Chretien, Mulroney was accused by the government of accepting $5 million in kickbacks on the sale of Airbus jets to Air Canada from German-Canadian arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber.

After much attention around the corruption allegations, in 1997, the RCMP cleared him of any involvement and the Chretien regime apologized.

In a remarkable legal saga, Mulroney successfully sued the government for defamation and received $2 million.

But, a few years later as Schreiber faced extradition to Germany for tax evasion, he revealed a bombshell, that Mulroney accepted a $300,000 secret cash payment from him shortly after he left office.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper was forced to call a public inquiry, led by Justice Jeffrey Oliphant, a scarring event for Mulroney and his family, he told the inquiry in 2009.

Ultimately in 2010 the inquiry found that the financial and business dealings between the two men were inappropriate, tarnishing his legacy.

That same year, Mulroney was diagnosed with a rare blend of diabetes that he said turned his life upside down.

It was amid these challenging early aughts for Mulroney that he released his own memoir, after settling a public and scathing dispute over former confidant Peter Newman’s biography The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister based on hours of recorded interviews that cast the former prime minister in an unflattering light.

Mulroney and Justin Trudeau

In the more than a decade since, however, Mulroney defended his record, becoming one of Canada’s top statesmen.

When NAFTA was thrust back to the renegotiation table in 2017, Mulroney helped Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stickhandle the at-times tense talks, by leveraging his relationship with then-U.S. president Donald Trump.

That same year, Mulroney returned to his alma mater St. Francis Xavier University to break ground on the $100-million Brian Mulroney Institute of Government.

Brian Mulroney, Justin Trudeau

In a 2019 CTV News interview, Mulroney advocated for Canada to do more to raise its global profile on international causes.

“The world doesn’t want more Canada until it bellies up to the bar,” he said.

Trudeau ‘devastated’ by Mulroney’s death, says he ‘never stopped working for Canadians’

And, as the current Conservative party has worked its way through successive leadership searches and failed election campaigns over the last eight years, Mulroney became a recurring presence, offering his insight and at times, criticism.

In 2021, Mulroney endorsed then-leader Erin O’Toole the same day he vowed he wasn’t leading “your dad’s” Conservative party, but within weeks he made headlines for criticizing O’Toole’s leadership over his handling of vaccine mandates.

A Companion of the Order of Canada, Mulroney received numerous awards and considerable recognition for his leadership and contributions to Canada.

He was also a mentor to his four children, including Ben Mulroney who became a top entertainment host, and Caroline Mulroney who is a cabinet minister in the Ontario government.

In 2023, Mulroney spoke publicly about his battle with prostate cancer, telling CTV’s Question Period in May that his doctors had done a “spectacular” job and he was not ready for the Olympics yet, but was “improving.”

A month later, when speaking at the Atlantic Economic Forum at St. Francis Xavier University, Mulroney offered a thoughtful perspective on the legacies of political leaders, in paying tribute to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“It takes years, and not a few months or a few years… before one can make a judgment as to how a prime minister, or premier, has handled his responsibilities,” he said.

“History is only concerned with the big ticket items that have shaped the future of Canada.”