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October 2010 - Nr. 10

Brian Mulroney came from an Irish-Canadian working class family in the remote Quebec town of Baie-Comeau. He rose to be one of Canada’s most successful Conservative prime ministers, serving for two terms and nine years in the country’s highest office. In retirement Mulroney was proud of his achievements, especially the negotiation of free trade with the United States. But he also had to explain significant failures and defend his reputation for personal integrity.

As a young Quebecer (born in 1939), Brian Mulroney learned to speak French as fluently as English. He graduated from Laval University’s law school and became prominent in Montreal legal and business circles. He worked very hard to try to build the Progressive Conservative Party in Quebec, where it had been historically weak. When he won the party leadership in 1983, his supporters hoped he could win many more Quebec seats than the Albertan, Joe Clark.

Mulroney did. In the 1984 election the Progressive Conservatives won 211 of the 282 seats in the House of Commons, the biggest victory in Canadian history. After years of Trudeau Liberalism, the country now seemed set on a Conservative course.

Prime Minister Mulroney worked hard to improve relations with the United States, which had deteriorated in the later Trudeau years. He also tried to make Canada a good team player in global affairs. He courted Western Canada by undoing the Liberals’ National Energy Policy, and won support from business groups by privatizing several government-owned companies. Above all, he tried to build support in Quebec by negotiating changes to the constitution that would give it, and the other provinces, significantly more power. The Meech Lake Accord of 1987 at first seemed like a triumph for Mulroney, but never came into effect because of resistance in Manitoba and Newfoundland. A second plan for constitutional reform, the Charlottetown Accord, was defeated in a national referendum in 1992.

Mulroney had more success in negotiating the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988. It removed most tariff and other barriers to trade between the two countries. This was a fundamental change in policy for Canada (and the United States) after more than 100 years of tariff protection. The agreement was fiercely debated in the 1988 election, and passed after Mulroney’s government was returned with another majority. It later evolved into the current North American Free Trade Agreement, which includes Mexico. NAFTA led to a permanent re-alignment of the Canadian economy and huge increases in north-south trade.

The Mulroney government hoped to reduce the large deficits in public spending it inherited from the Trudeau era but there was much resistance to its attempts to reduce social programs and spending. The government attempted to modernize Canada’s taxation system by introducing the Goods and Services Tax (GST), a seven percent levy on almost all sales. It was deeply unpopular across the country.

Resentment in Western Canada at what seemed to be Mulroney’s pandering to Quebec led to a political rebellion within the Conservative Party. Preston Manning, the son of a former premier of Alberta, created the Reform Party, which attracted a number of former Progressive Conservatives across Western Canada.

By 1993 the Mulroney government stood very low in popular opinion. Rather than contest a third election, Mulroney resigned. His replacement, Canada’s first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, led the Progressive Conservative Party to the worst defeat in the history of Canadian politics — only two seats in the 1993 election. It was not clear whether the voters were most angry at Campbell, Mulroney, the GST, a recession, or failed constitutional deals. For the next decade Canadian Conservatives were divided and powerless.

There had been several minor scandals during the Mulroney years, and there were continuing rumours that the prime minister might have been too friendly with free-spending lobbyists trying to get government contracts. These issues came to haunt Mulroney during his retirement; he had to admit that soon after leaving office he had taken large cash payments from a notorious agent for European companies, Karlheinz Schreiber; this sparked a major judicial investigation.

Justifiably proud of his government’s achievements, Mulroney and his friends fought hard to clear his name and preserve his reputation as a major prime minister. He had always been loyal to his family and his supporters; he had many friends both in Canada and around the world. Not all Canadians had warmed to his style of Irish blarney, though, and it seemed clear that there would always be vigorous debates about his place in Canadian history.

Further Reading: Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Chrétien, by Michael Bliss; Memoirs, 1939-1993, by Brian Mulroney.

Next Instalment: Jean Chrétien: The Lucky Prime Minister

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright ©2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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