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‘One of the greatest’: Former prime minister Brian Mulroney commemorated at state funeral

Prominent Canadians, political leaders, and family members remembered former prime minister and Progressive Conservative titan Brian Mulroney as an ambitious and compassionate nation-builder at his state funeral on Saturday.

Taking place at the iconic and ornate Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, the ceremony celebrating his life and legacy began at 11 a.m. EDT and lasted just over two hours.

Saturday’s commemoration started with the tolling of the cathedral’s carillon bells, 84 times, representing Mulroney’s age at the time of his death.

The funeral procession — including a Royal Canadian Mounted Police escort, a guard of honour, military bands, and honourary pallbearers — then made the snowy kilometre-long journey from Saint-Patrick’s Basilica to the cathedral.

Following behind the cortege leading Mulroney’s insignia-adorned casket into the grand space, were his wife Mila, their four children Caroline, Ben, Mark and Nicholas, and his grandchildren. 

‘No one gave a speech like my dad’

First to deliver a eulogy was Mulroney’s daughter and Ontario cabinet minister Caroline Mulroney, who regaled the rapt cathedral with memories of her father, his humanity and ambitions, and the indelible mark he made on her life and career.

“No one gave a speech like my dad. With his beautiful baritone voice, his sense of humor, and his impeccable timing, my dad held an audience in the palm of his hand. Speeches were such a major part of his life that he told us that, when it was his turn to go up to what he called ‘that great political rally in the sky,’ he wanted us to bury him with his podium,” she began, to light laughter.

Caroline Mulroney

“I miss you daddy,” she concluded, after sharing a deeply personal anecdote about her father’s final words to her mother.

It was then Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s turn.

“First and foremost, Brian was motivated by service. He was motivated by leadership, by getting the big things right,” he said. “Of all the great things he accomplished, none brought him more pride and joy than the loving family he built.”

Following the prime minister were prominent Canadian businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, former U.S. secretary of state James Baker—whose address was delivered by colleague Timothy McBride—and former Mulroney-era cabinet minister and premier of Quebec Jean Charest.

Brian Mulroney's state funeral

The great reverence these men had for Mulroney, as a nation-builder who rose above political divides and will go down in history as one of Canada’s greatest leaders, was a thread running throughout these eulogies.

“I’m so proud to be Canadian today. To see past prime ministers here, the current prime minister, that’s what our country is all about. Coming together, being friendly, helping other people, and paying respects,” Gretzky said. “Mr. Mulroney was one of the greatest prime ministers we’ve ever had.”

Emotional musical performances

Interspersed between these grief-filled but light-hearted eulogies were musical interludes, including a rendition of Frederic Weatherly’s ‘Danny Boy’ by international vocal group the Tenors.

During the Catholic mass component of the service, sons Mark, Ben and Nicolas gave readings, local religious leaders presented prayers, and celebrants received communion. 

Then, Mulroney’s granddaughter Elizabeth Theodora Lapham sang what she said was his favourite song: ‘Mais qu’est-ce que j’ai?’ As she belted the notes, Mulroney’s wife could be seen singing along from the front pew, before the cathedral rose in a standing ovation.

Elizabeth Theodora Lapham

She was then joined by Marc Hervieux to sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ and midway a recording of the former prime minister singing the tune played, a nod to the iconic moment at the 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City.

Following a moment of silence and final commendation, was the singing of ‘O Canada.’

Possibly the most moving, was the choice of music for the recession: a recording of Mulroney singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’, fulfilling the former prime minister’s wish.

“We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, I don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day. Keep smiling through, just like you always do, ’till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away,” he sang.

“So will you please say hello to the folks that I know, tell them I won’t be long. They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go, I was singing this song.”

Symbolic moments, high-profile guests

The funeral concluded with the tolling of the carillon bells 18 times — reflective of his tenure as 18th prime minister of Canada — and a 19-gun salute conducted from the clock tower pier in the Old Port of Montreal.

According to a federal government official, the family has planned a private burial for the former prime minister following the funeral. 

Chretien, Harper

Guests invited to the ceremony included family, friends, current and former government representatives from a cross-section of political backgrounds, foreign dignitaries, prominent businesspeople, as well as representatives of organizations to which Mulroney had a close connection.

Among those in attendance were Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, actor Ryan Reynolds, the Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Loblaws’ Galen Weston, Quebec Premier Francois Legault, former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper, and former broadcaster Peter Mansbridge.

As VIP attendees—largely dressed in black— milled about ahead of the ceremony, there was a buzz in the air. They fell silent as Mulroney’s casket arrived.

Funeral concludes week of mourning

Saturday’s events followed a week of commemorations both in that city and in the nation’s capital, providing Canadians an opportunity to reflect on his contributions and offer their condolences.

Federal party leaders and MPs paid tribute to Mulroney’s political legacy on Monday in the House of Commons, regaling his family seated in the viewing gallery, with their memories.

Then, over Tuesday and Wednesday, approximately 2,000 members of the public and numerous other dignitaries attended Mulroney’s lying in state where his casket was placed on a pedestal and draped in the Canadian flag, while his family — pillars of strength amid their own grief — stood for hours accepting condolences.

The Ottawa portion of the commemorations concluded with the Mulroney funeral procession doing one final sombre but symbolic drive by Centre Block and the Centennial Flame.

The cortege then travelled to Montreal for two additional days of lying in repose at Saint-Patrick’s Basilica, a location of close personal significance for the Mulroney family. 

To help usher Mulroney in and out of the state funeral, 17 honourary pallbearers were chosen, including close friends of the former prime minister, reflective of the various chapters of his life.

Brian Mulroney family

Among those tapped to take on this role were: Former Mulroney chief of staff and ambassador Derek Burney; former senator and progressive conservative stalwart Michel Cogger; Grammy-winning songwriter David Foster; prominent lawyer Jacques Jeansonne; former journalist and Mulroney director of communications William J. Fox; biographer L. Ian MacDonald; and Norton Rose Fulbright chair Walied Soliman.

Mulroney’s daughter noted in her eulogy that her family was “comforted and so grateful for the universal outpouring of affection and admiration” on display over the last week.

“While he didn’t care for polls, he did like good headlines, and those of the past few weeks would have pleased him immeasurably,” she said. 

Canada’s 18th prime minister 

Mulroney died surrounded by family in February, at age 84. 

Over his impressive — yet at times divisive — political career, Mulroney left an unmistakable mark on the country as he pressed forward on a series of what he later described as “big ticket items.”

Born in 1939 to a working class family in Baie-Comeau, Que., he worked behind the scenes in conservative politics for years before clinching the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1983. Mulroney went on to run a commanding 1984 federal campaign, winning a majority with the largest number of seats in Canadian history.

As Canada’s 18th prime minister, Mulroney embarked on an at-times stormy prime ministership that in nine years both strengthened and tested the country.

He took Canada on a forced march through two major efforts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, secured the Acid Rain Accord among numerous other environmental initiatives, and introduced the reviled Goods and Services Tax (GST).

On the international stage, Mulroney gave Canada a new sense of respect and presence. He rallied countries against apartheid and built stronger trade ties with the United States.

Though, as a weary country drifted into a recession, Mulroney’s polling numbers plummeted to a historic low, and in 1993 he declared in a Centre Block meeting room that the time had come “for me to step aside,” after doing his “very best” for his country, handing the reins over to Kim Campbell a few months later.

After navigating some post-politics reputational turmoil, Mulroney went on to cement himself as a trusted adviser to his political successors both Conservative and Liberal, leading prominent Canadians and elected officials of all stripes to remember him as a formidable leader, who never hesitated to pick up the phone.