Martin Brian Mulroney (born 1939) revolutionized Canadian politics, leading his Conservative party to its first consecutive election victories (1984, 1988) since early in the 20th century and breaking the Liberal stranglehold on the province of Quebec. As prime minister of Canada, he was responsible for a major Canada-U.S. free trade agreement and for sweeping proposals to change the national constitution.
Martin Brian Mulroney was born March 20, 1939, at Baie Comeau, Quebec, a town created by Colonel Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune to supply his papers with newsprint. Mulroney's father, Ben an electrician and later a foreman in the McCormick paper mill, was one of the town's pioneers in the 1930s. Ben Mulroney and his wife, Irene, were descended from Irish immigrants to Canada. Brian was the eldest son of their six children and the third child born. Ben had big dreams for his family, and Brian had all of his father's drive, ambition, determination, and intense loyalty to family and friends.
Mulroney grew up excelling as a public speaker in both French and English. Receiving his education at Catholic schools in Baie Comeau until the tenth grade, Mulroney then left home to attend St. Thomas High School in Chatham, New Brunswick. Mulroney was a good student and talented athlete. He had a gift for singing as well, and was often asked by Robert McCormick to perform at the company's social affairs. From there, at the age of 16, he moved farther east to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He was not only a student of political science, but a student of politics as well. He was an active member of the Conservative party both on the campus and at the national student level. In 1956, he volunteered to help in the successful provincial campaign of Robert Stanfield, the conservative Nova Scotia premier who eventually replaced John Diefenbaker as Canada's national leader. Mulroney was only 17 at the time, but made quite an impact on the older campaign workers for Stanfield. Said Finlay MacDonald in Maclean's, "One word described my first impression of Brian Mulroney—irrepressible. He was enthusiastic, charming and dogged—a doggedness he could always back up with performance. If you told him, for example, to tie a pink ribbon to a dog's tail, it was tied—and in the right spot." Mulroney was soon given such responsibilities as making speeches and writing radio commercials, duties not normally assigned to teenagers. When asked why he became a Tory, he recalled that the other party, the Liberals, were just no fun. They took themselves too seriously. Even as a child, recalled a boyhood friend, Wilbur Touchie, Mulroney had political aspirations, always saying he wanted to be a Prime Minister one day. He was well on his way.
By 1961 Mulroney was back in Quebec as a law student at Laval University after a year at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1964 he went to work at Montreal's largest law firm, specializing in labor matters. Still very thin (his nickname was "Bones"), eager to please, obviously effective at bringing people together, he was quickly well-connected in Quebec business and political circles. Mulroney was also becoming one of the key Conservative political organizers and fund-raisers in the province. He was on the rise.
Mulroney also served as the vice-chair of "Youth for Dief" in Diefenbaker's 1956 campaign. When Diefenbaker won the Prime Minister spot in 1957, the two remained in touch, with Diefenbaker calling and visiting Mulroney on campus. Students who weren't sure whether to believe the relationship between the two was indeed real, changed their minds quickly when Diefenbaker was spotted eating lunch with Mulroney in the cafeteria.
Mulroney always believed in the value and strength of friendships, perhaps as a result of his alliance with Diefenbaker, relying on them for support. He maintained his connections from St. Francis Xavier and expanded his circle of contacts once he reached Laval. Many of the people he met along his political journey were rewarded with positions in his government when he reached power.
Continuing to build friendships and influence people, Mulroney's performance with Montreal's Howard Cate Ogilvy law firm propelled him into the labor lawyer spotlight; and it was here where his affinity for late-night deal-making started to put down the groundwork for his future political career. After fighting imposing cases in 1966, Mulroney was getting noticed by political leaders who wanted to work with him.
First Try for Party Leadership
The 1970s brought public attention. Mulroney was a tough-minded and articulate member of the Cliche Commission on violence and corruption in the construction industry in 1974-1975. In 1976, building on that experience, he declared for the vacant leadership of the national Conservative party. It was too soon. His conscious efforts to imitate the appeal and oratory of fellow Irishman John F. Kennedy fell flat, and both the delegates and political professionals doubted that he had sufficient substance. For all that, "the boy from Baie Comeau" finished in a solid third place behind the eventual winner, Joe Clark. All the characteristics that made him likable among his friends—loyalty, industry, generosity—didn't help his politics. He was instead perceived as too well-packaged, slick, manipulative, free-spending, thin-skinned, and of course, inexperienced.
It was not easy for Mulroney to accept defeat. He was frequently depressed in the years that followed, drinking often and putting a strain on his marriage. Furthermore, he was not above undermining Clark's leadership from his still powerful position within the party. He became vice-president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada in 1976, and president in 1977. Iron Ore was an American branch plant not unlike Colonel McCormick's operation in Baie Comeau, and Mulroney had the diplomatic and labor relations talents to run it skillfully. He demonstrated that skill in deftly closing down the company's operations in Schefferville, Quebec, in 1983.
Mulroney had his eye on more than Schefferville. Clark had decided to put his position as party chief on the line in another leadership contest. Mulroney could not believe his good luck; Clark would almost certainly have won the next election, despite widespread criticism from within his own ranks. Learning from his 1976 defeat, Mulroney operated a careful, low-key campaign. On the final ballot, June 11, 1983, there were only two candidates left; Mulroney defeated Clark by a narrow but clear margin. Mulroney now made his first bid for electoral office, becoming the member for Central Nova (Nova Scotia) in August 1983 and assuming the role of leader of the opposition in Parliament. He made a measured case against the controversial policies of longtime prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which he said had needlessly divided Canadians and brought Canadian-American relations to their lowest state in decades. Along the way, he took a brave stand for minority French language rights in the province of Manitoba. That was his finest hour.
Role as Prime Minister
Trudeau retired in 1984. His successor, John Turner, promptly called an election after only nine days in office, ensuring that he would be one of the shortest-lived leaders in Canadian history. Mulroney proved a brilliant campaigner, capitalizing on Trudeau's unpopularity and pinning Turner down on the Liberals' record of handing out the best jobs to their friends. The Conservatives took the most seats in Canadian parliamentary history, 211 out of a total of 282. Mulroney, moreover, seized Quebec from the Liberals, beating his rival 28,208 votes to 9,640. He had, since a young man, been arguing that the Conservatives must succeed in his mostly French-speaking and traditionally Liberal home province if they were to achieve lasting power. He took what seemed like a big chance by running in Manicouagan, the riding (election district) that contained Baie Comeau; his Conservatives won not only there but in 58 of Quebec's 75 constituencies. Mulroney was elected as Canada's Prime Minister on September 4, 1984.
It was easier to get power than to govern. Within days, Mulroney was in President Ronald Reagan's Washington, promising to dismantle Trudeau's controversial policies on energy and investment. Canadians wanted better relations with the Americans, but they soon were criticizing Mulroney for being in Reagan's "hip pocket." In a similar vein, the new prime minister took strong action to sweeten the poisoned atmosphere between the federal government in Ottawa and the provinces, signing important agreements with the energy-producing regions in 1985. That helped to ease the tension, but critics wondered if Mulroney had simply opened up a federal candy store to dispense power to the provinces. As part of an effort to reduce the federal government's huge deficit, Mulroney announced the partial de-indexing of old age pensions and family allowances. The outcry was so great, however, that he had to back down. It was a crucial early mistake. He appeared weak and indecisive to many. Others would never forgive him for his betrayal of what he had once called a sacred trust. Canadians, indeed, were finding that they did not like or have respect for their leader, whose high living and high sounding platitudes had begun to grate already. By the end of 1985, his first full year in power, 60 percent of Canadians thought Mulroney had not kept his promises. After two years in office, the same number wanted another prime minister.
Mulroney persevered in the face of growing unpopularity, demonstrating a particular ability to keep his own members of Parliament on his side. One of his goals had been to win Quebec over to the 1982 Canadian constitution, and in 1987 that apparently was accomplished with the Meech Lake Accord, which proposed new powers for all the provinces. This was naturally popular in provincial capitals, and it seemed accepted throughout the country, and it certainly was in Quebec. Mulroney was the only prime minister able to get all premiers to sign a constitutional accord—three times—but was still unable to pass it through. In 1987, too, an important agreement was reached between Canada and the United States; the Free Trade Agreement was signed by Mulroney and Reagan on January 2, 1988. The prime minister made the agreement the centerpiece of a campaign for reelection. On November 21, 1988, he was returned to power, having made a magical comeback from disastrously low personal and party popularity ratings, outdoing his Liberal party opponent 33,730 votes to 5,994. Free trade, getting ever closer to the United States, was a deeply divisive issue, but Mulroney was able to convince enough Canadians of his case to win a solid parliamentary majority. No one doubted that 1988 was his victory.
Mulroney did not have much time to savour it. Support plummeted again, this time to historic new lows. He introduced a detested new goods and services tax, indulged shamelessly in the patronage he had so criticized, and aligned his government unquestioningly with the foreign policy aims of the United States. The Meech Lake Accord, still unratified by two provinces, blew up in an angry round of meetings in the summer of 1990, leading Quebec to make louder noises than ever before about separation from the rest of Canada. There were failures enough to go around—of policy, of vision, of generosity—but Canadians kept returning to the man himself, a man seen as too obsessed by power and its exercise to be interested in anything else.
In 1992 the Charlottetown accord was presented to the polls, touting "something for everyone," The Economist reported. Instead of asking voters if Canada should remain unified or break off into self-governing units, it asked that they approve of a constitutional deal devised by Mulroney. In it, he tried to appease the smaller issues in order to get voters to believe that their interests and concerns were being addressed. Each group wanted its individual claims recognized. As a result, the new constitutional order wasn't particularly concerned with larger issues, such as freedom as speech. Since Mulroney's popularity had sunk to extremely low levels, instead of a pact that could make everyone happy, most everyone hated it because they weren't happy with their leader in the first place. Voters turned it down, and Mulroney's campaign for the accord got him twice as many no votes as yes votes in a popularity survey conducted soon after the vote.
Mulroney Steps Down
Signing the first trade agreement with President Reagan and the United States led to larger agenda in 1992. On December 17 Mulroney signed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the United States and Mexico. Presidents Bush and Salinas, along with Prime Minister Mulroney, felt that the agreement would eliminate most trade and investment barriers among the three countries for the next 15 years. When George Bush signed NAFTA, he was in the last days of his presidency, having lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. Clinton assured Mulroney he would not renegotiate any part of the agreement without him during Clinton's scheduled trip to Mexico. Mulroney, who was fishing buddies with Bush, hoped for little change in the generally warm rapport between the neighboring countries and governments.
Mulroney took much heat from Canadians for his attraction to controversial, unpopular issues and his attempts to persuade the people that his policies would be for their own good. Few were pleased when following the Free Trade Agreement, statistics indicated a loss of 130,000 jobs and consistently rising unemployment rates. His Goods and Services Tax, which replaced a hidden manufacturers' sales tax was deemed "political suicide" by Diane Francis in Maclean's. Not since 1990 had Mulroney's approval ratings passed 20 percent, and on February 24, 1993, Brian Mulroney announced that he would be stepping down as Canada's 18th prime minister after his party chose a successor in mid-June of that year. The party settled on Kim Campbell, a former litigation lawyer and political philosophy teacher who was Canada's first female defense minister.
A commentary by Hershell Erzin published in Maclean's soon after Mulroney's announcement said that he "gave good ideas a bad name." While Mulroney acted earnestly to help Canada change for the better and keep up with the rest of the world, the issues he took on were not satisfactorily addressed and the people could not successfully adapt to the changes. In addition, Erzin noted, he wavered on policy issues, often contradicting himself. Still, Mulroney maintained that he was pleased with his life and with what he tried to do for his country. He felt that even when he stepped down that the Conservative party was in good shape and the country was improving. He took on quarrelsome causes and essentially reinvented Canada while doing so. His reasons for leaving, he told Maclean's, were simply that his priorities had changed. "I don't know what comes over you, but all of a sudden the kinds of things that were important when you were 23 aren't important when your [sic] 53. I don't know if it is called perspective or if it's called growth or if it's called what. But it's just there."
When Mulroney and his family left their Ottawa prime ministerial residence for the last time in June of 1993, they returned to Quebec where Mulroney went back to practicing law in Montreal. He was unable to entirely leave controversy behind him, however, when Stevie Cameron's 1994 book On The Take portrayed Mulroney as a prime minister who obtained a fortune well above that of most leaders by curious means. She alleged that the Tory party supplemented the family income to help support their lavish lifestyle. She charged that Mulroney, as Prime Minister, was involved in "flagrant kickback schemes, bid-rigging of government contracts, misappropriation of parliamentary budgets, favors to corporate supporters of the party, and an unprecedented orgy of patronage appointments that didn't end until the day Mulroney left office." Cameron was also sure to mention the generous consulting feels and director-ship payments he earned after leaving his post from the boards on which he sat: Horsham Corporation, American Barrick Resources Corporation, and the food-processing giant Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, in addition to his hefty salary from his job as a partner with the Ogilvy Renault law firm.
A second book that poked at Mulroney was Marci McDonald's Yankee Doodle Dandy: Brian Mulroney and the American Agenda, released in 1995. In it, she points out how Mulroney's decisions in regards to the Persian Gulf War were influenced by President Bush's. Canadians were not happy when Mulroney's judgment to send troops into battle without passing it through Parliament and his zeal for committing more power didn't win him much respect.
Even more distressing controversy reached an extreme personal level when Mulroney was mentioned in an investigation of the 1988 purchase of 34 Airbus A-320 passenger planes from a European firm for $1.8 billion. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Swiss authorities alleged that Mulroney was directly involved in conspiracy to defraud taxpayers and that he had accepted a $5 million kickback as a result of the airbus purchase. In addition, Swiss bank accounts records appeared, indicating that one account was for Mulroney. Mulroney flatly and fiercely denied all allegations by filing a $50 million action suit for libelous damage to his character, accusing the government and the RCMP of making "false and reckless" accusations against him—$25 million in actual damages to Mulroney's reputation and $25 million in punitive damages, which he planned to donate to charity if he won the case.
To prepare for the case, Federal lawyers sent Mulroney's attorneys some 40 pages of questions for which they said they needed answers to defend their clients. Mulroney's lawyers said the request for such detailed information was unnecessary and they won an appeal in Quebec to deny the attorneys access to such material. At pretrial hearings held in April 1996 Mulroney called the Canadian government and the RCMP Kafka-esque fascists, saying he was set up and accused without proof. His appearance at the hearings was intended to be for the government to assail him with questions to use as ammunition in the actual trial. Instead, a strong, composed Mulroney lashed out at the government, presenting his own case, banking on his skill for exploiting questions to deliver a speech.
A January 6, 1997 date was set in Quebec Superior Court for Brian Mulroney to take his suit to trial, where his lawyers tried to blame the department of justice for maligning Mulroney and accuse them of witch-hunting. Instead of walking away with the $50 million he wanted from the case that was initially estimated to last no less than three months, Mulroney agreed to settle for an decisive apology and a promise that the government would pay his $1 million in legal fees. The Economist reported that although both sides claimed victory, it was Mulroney's testimony that was more convincing. His reputation was at least somewhat restored and the government just appeared to be vindictive and sloppy.
When asked what he hoped the history books would say about him, Mulroney told Maclean's that he wants people to remember that he had never been elected anywhere, but made it to the House of Commons as leader of the Opposition and led his party to the greatest victory in Canadian history. His back-to-back triumphs were the first accomplishment by a Conservative in 100 years. He kept his party together and won a majority in the Senate for the first time in 50 years. Mulroney believes that he made a "profound and fundamental" difference and hopes that the future will prove that they were beneficial.
Brian Mulroney is married to the former Mila Pirnicki. They were wed in 1972 and had four children: Caroline, Nicolas, Mark, and Ben.
Further Reading on Martin Brian Mulroney
L. Ian MacDonald, Mulroney: The Making of the Prime Minister (Toronto: 1984) admiringly takes the story to the election of 1984. Mulroney's early years in power are critically examined in David Bercuson, J. L. Granatstein, and W. R. Young, Sacred Trust? Brian Mulroney and the Conservative Party in Power (Toronto: 1986) and in Michael Gratton, "So, What Are the Boys Saying?" An Inside Look at Brian Mulroney in Power (Toronto: 1987). A fine book on the 1988 election is Graham Fraser, Playing for Keeps: The Making of the Prime Minister, 1988 (Toronto: 1989). See also articles in the following periodical sources: Business Week, June 28, 1993, p. 49; Chinatown News, April 15, 1995, p.2; Congressional Quarterly Report, December 19, 1992, p. 3883; The Economist, October 17, 1992, p. 18; January 11, 1997, p. 43; Maclean's, January 18, 1993, p. 12 and p. 19; February 1, 1993, p. 16 and p. 46; March 8, 1993, pp. 9, 10-13, 22-3, 24-9, 30-3, 34-5, 36-40; March 15, 1993, p. 37; October 31, 1994, p. 20; September 25, 1995, p. 46; November 27, 1995, p. 20; January 29, 1996, p. 17; February 26, 1996, p. 27; April 29, 1996, p. 24; September 9, 1996, p. 19; December 30, 1996/January 6, 1997, pp. 74-5, 79-81; Newsweek, June 14, 1993, p. 43; Time, November 9, 1992, p. 21; March 8, 1993, p. 18.