Former Quebec premiers, citizens pay tribute to native son Brian Mulroney in Montreal

MONTREAL — After two days of public tributes in Ottawa, it was Montrealers’ turn on Thursday to pay respects to Brian Mulroney — who was lauded by one citizen as "a little guy" from Quebec’s North Shore who never forgot his roots, even as he rose to become prime minister.

Former premiers, old friends and members of the public gathered at St. Patrick’s Basilica to remember Mulroney, who died Feb. 29 at age 84. Mourners who lined up in frigid cold remembered his achievements when it came to free trade, the fight against apartheid in South Africa and forging a strong relationship with the United States, but also his love for Quebec and his efforts to bring it closer to the rest of Canada.

Joan Gauthier, who hails from Sept−Îles, Que., near where Mulroney was born in Baie−Comeau, said Mulroney was a source of pride and inspiration for the region. "He’s a little guy from the Côte−Nord who did a lot for our region, and I came to salute his departure," she said.

Lucien Bouchard, Quebec premier from 1996 to 2001 and a cabinet minister in Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government until a falling out over the Constitution, was one of the first to enter the basilica on Thursday morning and greet the Mulroney family.

"It’s a page that is turning in history," Bouchard told reporters upon exiting the basilica. "It’s not a happy moment, but we need to salute the life of a remarkable man."

Bouchard said he had reconciled with Mulroney after a long period of frosty relations, and it led to some cherished moments toward the end of Mulroney’s life.

"Those were great times and sad at the same time because we lost so much time .... But we were young — ego, strong convictions from a very legitimate question at stake. It’s a lesson," he said. "Politics is necessary, but it’s also necessary to deal with it in a human way."

Earlier, Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine led a procession into the church, with Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in dress uniform carrying the casket draped in a Canadian flag and Mulroney’s family walking behind. Inside the church, the family greeting line included Mulroney’s wife Mila and their children Caroline, Ben, Nick and Mark, along with Mark’s wife Vanessa and Caroline’s husband Andrew Lapham.

Many who came to pay their respects remembered him not only as a prime minister but as a friend.

Daniel Colson, who knew Mulroney for 40 years, said his old friend didn’t hesitate when he asked him to become chairman of a charity he had started for people living with mental illnesses in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. "He was extremely hands on, very generous. He was a great guy," Colson said.

Even in the last year of his life, "in spite of his deteriorating health and the problems he was having health−wise, he never lost his sense of humour, never."

Denis Scherrer recalled babysitting Mulroney’s son Ben while his father campaigned near a hotel where he worked in eastern Quebec.

Years later, he worked at private clubs where Mulroney was a member and hosted dinners for him, including one recently when he accidentally dumped an entire shaker’s worth of pepper onto the former prime minister’s plate. Mulroney and his wife were gracious enough to laugh, he said.

"He was always a man who, when you were in his presence, you felt important," he said outside the church.

Gilles Gaudreau, who founded a Conservative association in Quebec’s Richelieu region, said Mulroney had tried to bring Canada and Quebec together. As prime minister, Mulroney twice tried to secure the province’s support for the Constitution with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, though he was ultimately unsuccessful.

"At the federal level there was nobody who did half of what he did to try so that Quebec was accepted in Canada, but Canada refused at each time," he said.

Visitation will continue Friday at the Catholic basilica in downtown Montreal. A state funeral is set for Saturday at the nearby Notre−Dame Basilica, with eulogies from Caroline Mulroney, former Quebec premier Jean Charest and hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

Brian Mulroney’s casket left Ottawa on Wednesday after two days of lying in state that included visits from Canada’s prime minister, other political dignitaries and members of the public.

Charest, Quebec premier between 2003 and 2012 and a member of Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative cabinet before that, told reporters this is a time for Canadians to reflect on what Mulroney gave to the country during his time as prime minister from 1984 to 1993.

"These moments in the life of Canada are important," he said, "and I sincerely hope that a lot of Canadians will take a moment to stop and reflect and think about what we’ve built together and the very important role that Brian Mulroney has played."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2024.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press