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JOHN DeMONT: Brian Mulroney giving back in a prime ministerial way


Brian Mulroney is a talker. So things had naturally gotten a little backed up at the media availability session with the former prime minister at St. Francis Xavier University on Tuesday.

The CTV folks were circling, his handlers making it’s-time-to-go faces when Mulroney decided to use the privilege that comes from being a former PM and the man whom the university’s new $100-million Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and Mulroney Hall is named for.

“I’ve been reading The Chronicle Herald for 64 years,” said the graduate of St. F.X.’s class of ’59, in his familiar basso profundo. “They get one more question.”

Which, let’s face it, is the proper thing.

The exchange turned out to be the most newsworthy of our conversation: during his two terms as prime minister Mulroney had enjoyed notably cordial relationships with American presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

In fact, Donald Abelson, director of the university’s newly minted Mulroney Institute of Government, told me Tuesday, “it is difficult to think of another prime minister who has had such a significant impact on that (Canada-U.S.) relationship in terms of strengthening Canada’s ties, in terms of nurturing that relationship.”

On the eve of the new building’s grand opening, such talk might be viewed as suspect.

Except Mulroney’s government brought in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. As prime minister, he signed the Canada-United States Air Quality Management Agreement in 1991 and, a year later, inked the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico’s Carlos Salinas de Gotari and the U.S.’s George H.W. Bush.

So when Mulroney says “you cannot succeed (as prime minister) unless you have a strong working relationship with the president of the United States,” his words have resonance.

As prime minister from 1984-93, his instincts were to get along with people. But he also concedes that he was “blessed:” his counterparts in the United States “were excellent leaders” and “great friends of Canada” who became “very close friends of mine.” (He eulogized Reagan, and his wife Nancy, along with Bush senior.)

Brian Mulroney meets with people at St. Francis Xavier University on Tuesday afternoon. - John DeMont
Brian Mulroney meets with people at St. Francis Xavier University on Tuesday afternoon. - John DeMont

Our current prime minister, he said, has it harder than he did. Mulroney said that Justin Trudeau isn’t, for starters dealing with free-traders like Reagan, but with an administration that “has a different approach that makes it more difficult ... than I had.”

In his view that doesn’t change the reality of things, “that anybody who thinks that he can strike off as prime minister of Canada on his own in major international initiatives without a strong working relationship with the president of the U.S. is going to be very disappointed when he confronts reality.”

Mulroney’s voice rose when he said that, as it memorably did so many times during his political career.

Anyone could see that, on that special day, he was in his element decrying the rise of nationalism everywhere, and the growing anti-free trade sentiment, which he did by quoting his old friend Reagan’s “protectionism is destruction” line and listing off all of the benefits that NAFTA has brought to Canada.

And of course he talked of his connection to his alma mater. The place where, at 16, he arrived from Baie-Comeau, Que., his fathers words — which any visitor can now read on a plaque at Mulroney Hall — echoing in his ears: “the only way out of a mill town is through a university door.”

It all started in Antigonish, he told me. Not just the education and the friendships, but student politics, which absolutely “captivated” him.

Sometimes they all overlapped: Mulroney met his great political ally Lowell Murray at St. F.X. When it came time for the leader of the opposition to take a seat in the House of Commons it was in nearby Central Nova.

Over the years, he’s tried to pay back that debt. Tuesday, in a detailed replica of his prime ministerial office in the new facility, he talked about how he raised millions while president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada and just kept on helping the school since leaving politics.

He personally raised $65 million for the institution and hall, which becomes the educational core of the school. It will also serve as the central repository of the memorabilia from his political career, which, after all, began right there.

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