A closer look at the legacy of former prime minister Brian Mulroney

  • Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Former prime minister Brian Mulroney died Thursday in Palm Beach, Fla., at the age of 84. He was first elected in 1984 following the largest majority mandate in Canada’s history, and was re−elected in 1988.

Here are some of the key moments that helped to shape his legacy.

The Shamrock Summit

The March 1985 meeting in Quebec City between Mulroney and U.S. President Ronald Reagan would come to symbolize a key turning point in the relationship between Canada and the United States, with two gregarious leaders of Irish descent belting out "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" and visibly enjoying each other’s company. The meeting itself proved foundational for a number of major bilateral agreements on shared security, the environment and cross−border trade, eventually culminating in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Free Trade

Before NAFTA, there was CUSFTA — the Canada−U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which eventually came to be known in Canada simply as free trade. The agreement, which took effect in 1987, codified one of the most important and lucrative trade relationships in the world, eliminating a range of trade barriers over the course of a 10−year period. Mulroney staked the future of his Conservative government on the agreement, which became a central issue in the 1988 federal election. It would also comprise the foundation of the deal that the following decade would include Mexico, bear the signature of George H. W. Bush and come into effect in 1994 as NAFTA.

Acid Rain

The 1991 acid rain accord between Mulroney and Bush was focused on reducing the level of pollution — much of it from the U.S. — that eventually found its way into Canadian rivers, lakes and forests. The original 1991 agreement was updated in 2000 to include ground−level ozone. A 2016 report by the International Joint Commission marking the 25−year anniversary of the accord found significant declines in the amount of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, particularly in the U.S., from 1990 levels. Mulroney also brought in the Environmental Assessment Act and the Environment Protection Act, and created eight national parks.

NAFTA

Arguably one of Mulroney’s singular achievements as prime minister, the continental — and controversial — trade accord created what he once described as "the largest and richest free trade area in the history of the world." Designed primarily as a way to facilitate trade between the three countries, the agreement eliminated a wide array of export tariffs as well as non−tariff trade barriers, liberalizing trade in agricultural products, autos and textiles, while protecting intellectual property rights, establishing environmental and labour safeguards and setting up tools for resolving trade disputes. Mulroney also proved a valuable adviser to the federal Liberal government during the negotiations for NAFTA’s eventual successor, the U.S.−Mexico−Canada Agreement, known in Canada as CUSMA.

Apartheid 

In the 1980s, Mulroney supported the liberation movement in South Africa, which opposed colonialism and white−minority rule in that country. He called for the release of Nelson Mandela and imposed sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime, while pushing U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to do the same. When Mandela was released from prison, he called Mulroney and reportedly said, "We regard you as one of our great friends because of the solid support we have received from you and Canada over the years." On Friday, South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a statement giving condolences to Canada on behalf of his nation, saying Mulroney was a "leader that holds a special place in South Africa’s history."

Quebec

Mulroney delivered the Progressive Conservatives 58 of Quebec’s 75 seats during the 1984 election. He promised a "new day for Quebec," and years later tried to secure the province’s support for changes to the Constitution. Known as the Meech Lake Accord, it proposed strengthening provincial powers and declaring Quebec a "distinct society." It never came into effect, thwarted by provincial and Indigenous concerns over the ’distinct society’ language, echoes of colonialism and a lack of consultation, although it remained popular in Quebec. In 1990, Lucien Bouchard, one of Mulroney’s trusted cabinet lieutenants, walked away from the government, joining PC and Liberal backbenchers to form the Bloc Québécois. The new party served as a huge political blow for Mulroney and forever soured ties with his old friend, but he forged ahead with a new round of constitutional talks — the Charlottetown Accord — to gain favour with Quebec. It also proposed recognizing Quebec as a distinct society, extending provincial powers, and extensively changing the Constitution. It was defeated in a national referendum.

Goods and Services Tax 

In his 1984 speech from the throne, Mulroney said: "That we must deal urgently with the deficit is beyond dispute. If allowed to continue to grow out of control, it will consume our available financial resources, undermine our capacity to respond to new opportunities, put increased pressure on interest rates, and inhibit investment and growth in our economy.” He privatized several Crown corporations, including Air Canada, reduced spending on foreign aid and defence, and announced cuts and freezes. Among his most controversial was the seven per cent GST, which replaced the federal sales tax. "You know, when I started cutting the deficit, my support was down to my immediate family," Mulroney told U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993 phone call. But the GST became such a revenue−raiser for the government of Canada that former prime minister Jean Chrétien later apologized for not following through on his election promise to get rid of it.

The Reform Party

The Reform Party grew out of a populist movement in Western Canada, playing a key role in the demise of Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative party. Its architects opposed the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, while Mulroney was facing dwindling popular support thanks to his constitutional projects and tax changes. When the 1993 federal election came, the Bloc Québécois stole votes from the PCs in Quebec while Reform did the same in the West. In 1993, after Mulroney had stepped down, the party was reduced to just two seats in the House of Commons, while the Bloc won 54 seats and Reform claimed 52. When Mulroney entered the job, he had the largest majority mandate in history. When he left, he had the lowest approval rating in the history of polling.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2024.

The Canadian Press

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