Brian Mulroney choked back tears as he recalled the words of his father, when as a young boy in Baie Comeau, Que., the future prime minister of Canada volunteered to take an apprenticeship program at the local paper mill.
His father, Benedict, was an electrician at the mill, working odd jobs on weekends while his mother raised six children and took in boarders to make ends meet.
“My father’s reply is engraved in my memory: ‘I know, Brian, that times are tough and we could sure use the extra money you would bring in,'" Mr. Mulroney recalled on Wednesday.
"'But I have learned one thing: the only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door – and you are going to university.’”
That university was St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., where Mr. Mulroney’s political ambitions were born. And it is the place Canada’s 18th prime minister, now 80, returned on Wednesday to launch the $100-million Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and Mulroney Hall.
In the crowd were prominent Liberals – former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil (“I’ve met Prime Minister Mulroney, and I think he might have charmed me,” Mr. McNeil recalled telling his wife years ago) – as well as former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay, and Mr. Mulroney’s wife, Mila, and their four children, including Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney.
The 93,000-square-foot modern white building, designed by Moriyama and Teshima, the architectural firm behind the Canadian embassy in Tokyo and the National War Museum in Ottawa, sits in the centre of campus, its bright common spaces and modern classrooms already in use by some of the university’s 5,000 students.
The school now offers a new bachelor’s program in public policy and governance, with $25-million raised for more than 200 scholarships and bursaries a year, including awards specifically designed for African Nova Scotians and Indigenous communities.
Most notably, the building houses memorabilia highlighting Mr. Mulroney’s near-decade in office, including negotiating the North American free-trade agreement, the acid rain treaty and ending apartheid in South Africa.
Included in displays are a painting of a Cape Cod house sent by the late U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy; a personal letter from 2004 from South African leader Nelson Mandela; and a walking stick given to Mr. Mulroney at Camp David by George H.W. Bush, with whom Mr. Mulroney had a close friendship, on his final weekend as U.S. President. (“A very emotional time for us," Mr. Mulroney said.)
But the centrepiece of the space is the recreated Prime Minister’s Office, complete with walnut desk, yellow patterned chairs, family photos – and a view of Parliament Hill.
“Exactly the view that I had when I was sitting there,” Mr. Mulroney said in an interview.
He notes that in Canada, a prime minister’s historical achievements are stored in basement archives in Gatineau, Que. “No children ever see them,” he said.
But when asked if he views the space as his own version of a presidential library, Mr. Mulroney said, “Hell no."
“This is all for the students,” he said.
He talks of his legacy, the way difficult decisions such as his pursuit of free trade, or the introduction of the goods and services tax – evolve in the public consciousness.
“It takes time for controversial matters or significant matters of state to be fully understood or appreciated," Mr. Mulroney said.
“It can’t happen overnight. So the prime minister has to ... govern not for easy headlines in 10 days, but for a better Canada in 10 years.”
After his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Mulroney said he paused with emotion while thinking about what his father has missed.
“He died when he was only 61 – 53 years ago. So he never saw anything of the good things of his hard work," Mr. Mulroney said. “He would have been surprised that something like this exists, and he would have been happy for everybody.”
And greeting visitors as they enter Mulroney Hall, his father’s words live on.
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