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When his tenacity and charm paid off, Canada’s 18th prime minister secured free trade with the U.S. and helped the global struggle against South African apartheid. When it didn’t, Meech Lake and the Airbus scandal cast long shadows over his achievements

On the evening of Oct. 3, 1987, five hours before a congressionally imposed deadline, Derek Burney phoned prime minister Brian Mulroney from Washington. The free-trade negotiations had failed, Mr. Mulroney’s chief of staff reported, grimly. The Americans wouldn’t accept a dispute-resolution mechanism, and the Canadians wouldn’t sign without one.

Facing a humiliating defeat, Mr. Mulroney prepared to brief cabinet and the media. But there was one last card to play. He talked on the phone with James Baker, the treasury secretary and lead negotiator for the U.S. side, saying he was about to call president Ronald Reagan to ask a simple question. What was the question, Mr. Baker asked. “I’m going to say, ‘Now Ron, how is it that the Americans can do a nuclear-reduction deal with their worst enemy, the Soviet Union, and they can’t agree to a free-trade agreement with their best friend, the Canadians?’ ”

Mr. Baker was not happy. “Prime minister, can you give me 20 minutes,” he asked. “Sure,” Mr. Mulroney replied.

At 9 p.m., Mr. Baker burst into the room where Mr. Burney and the rest of the Canadian delegation were waiting and flung a piece of paper on the table. “All right,” he said, “you can have your goddamn dispute settlement mechanism. Now can we send the report to Congress?”

This was Mr. Mulroney at his very best: taking risks, working every angle, playing his hand with consummate skill, exploiting his personal connections to the limit, and at the very last minute, sealing the deal. But sometimes his deals fell through. In the case of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords, their failures almost wrecked the country. Win or lose, Brian Mulroney never thought small.

Canada’s 18th prime minister died at the age of 84, his daughter, Caroline Mulroney, said Thursday in a posting on X, formerly Twitter.

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Mr. Mulroney and U.S. president Ronald Reagan smile at 1988's G7 summit in Toronto.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Quick-witted, far-sighted, able to blend impeccable logic with personal charm, Mr. Mulroney helped revive the Canadian economy, negotiated the most important trade agreement in the country’s history, reformed the nation’s finances, signed ground-breaking environmental agreements and helped lead the global fight against apartheid in South Africa.

He also led round after round of failed constitutional negotiations, so angered Western voters that they supported a new political protest party in response, even as much of his Quebec caucus deserted. By the time he left office in 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party was so unpopular that it won only two seats in the fall election. The PCs never recovered.

For years after he left office, he relentlessly sought to defend his record as prime minister and to put his spin on the latest events, calling journalists and talking their ears off. But he could never satisfactorily explain the hundreds of thousands of dollars he took in cash-stuffed envelopes from a German arms dealer. The Airbus affair cast a shadow over his reputation that he was never able to shake off. For some, it confirmed their worst suspicions about Lyin’ Brian. “I apologize and I accept full responsibility for it,” he later told a parliamentary committee, while insisting he had done nothing wrong.

Yet fair-minded history, while remembering that asterisk on his honour, will remember also his courage, how willing he was to take on the most unpopular of causes, and shoulder the resulting opprobrium, if he felt that cause was necessary and just. And it will remember how intensely he fought to bequeath a Canada at peace with itself and proud in the world. If he didn’t quite get there, it was not for lack of trying, or passion.

Mr. Mulroney's family: Children Caroline, Ben (rear), Mark and Nicolas and wife Mila wave goodbye to the Progressive Conservatives at a farewell tribute in 1993. Jeff Vinnick/Reuters
Mr. Mulroney’s contemporaries: At 1988’s G7 summit in Toronto, the Canadian leader takes a stroll with his counterparts, flanked by Mr. Reagan and French president François Mitterrand. Rob Taggart/Reuters

Martin Brian Mulroney was born March 20, 1939, in Baie-Comeau, Que., on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, to Benedict and Mary Irene (née O’Shea) Mulroney, the third of six children who survived infancy, and the first son. Ben worked as an electrician in the local pulp-and-paper mill; Irene looked after the home and the children. They took in boarders and Ben had an electrical repair business on the side. Even so, meat with dinner was often a once-a-week thing.

Brian was bright and ambitious, with a winning smile and a prominent jaw. He could also sing; Robert McCormick, the Chicago newspaper publisher who owned the mill that was the reason Baie-Comeau existed, once slipped him a $50 bill – a princely sum – after the boy regaled him with Irish songs. Brian became an altar boy, “proving, if nothing else, my adaptability and my unquestioning acceptance of rules of conduct and values if they gained me approval and advancement,” he wrote, revealingly, in his memoirs.

The Mulroneys scrimped and saved; Brian went off to St. Thomas College in New Brunswick, then to his beloved St. Francis Xavier University, followed by law school at Laval University, immersing himself in politics and the Progressive Conservative Party along the way. He worshipped John Diefenbaker, but turned on him when he realized The Chief didn’t understand Quebec and didn’t want to.

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In 2016, Mr. Mulroney visits Xavier Hall, near his former residence on the St. Francis Xavier University campus in Antigonish, N.S.Darren Calabrese / The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Mulroney's St. FX yearbook from 1959. He would go on to study law at Laval.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

One day Mr. Mulroney spied a beautiful teenager by the pool at Montreal’s Mount Royal Tennis Club. Mila Pivnicki, born in Sarajevo, was only 18, and Brian was 33. Ten months later they were married. Ontario premier Bill Davis told Mr. Mulroney that during the 1984 election Mila won him more votes than he won for himself. Despite their age difference, she was always the more mature and steady one. They had four children; Ben became a popular TV host and Caroline a lawyer and consultant who ran for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership and serves in Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet.

Mr. Mulroney’s star rose as a labour lawyer who could bring management and unions together, rose further when he sat on the Cliche Commission, which exposed corruption in the Quebec construction industry. It was enough, he thought, to win the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1976. No, it wasn’t; Joe Clark took the prize. Mr. Mulroney sulked, became president of Iron Ore Canada, then manoeuvred to replace Mr. Clark after his government was defeated in 1979.

He also quit drinking: By his own admission alcohol had become a serious problem. (It took him another four years to give up cigarettes.) He won the leadership in 1983 and the country – in a landslide – in 1984, when John Turner turned out to be an imperfect saviour for a Liberal Party rendered toxic by Pierre Trudeau’s unsuccessful and often counterproductive efforts to promote economic growth.

Mr. Mulroney stands between fellow party leaders Ed Broadbent of the NDP and John Turner of the Liberals ahead of the first of two televised debates in the 1984 election. UPC
Mulroney supporters jump for joy at election headquarters on Sept. 4, 1984, when Mr. Mulroney unseated Mr. Turner's Liberals in a landslide. UPC

As prime minister, Mr. Mulroney set about restoring economic growth and national confidence by dismantling restrictions on foreign investment, scrapping the hated National Energy Program and privatizing Crown corporations.

But his administration was beset by a series of petty scandals: a minister found in a strip club; another approving the sale of “tainted tuna”; a third found in conflict of interest (the ruling was later voided). More worrisome, it seemed impossible to balance the budget, despite strong economic growth.

All this was made incidental by Mr. Mulroney’s decision to pursue free trade with the United States, despite initially being opposed to the idea. A royal commission on the economy, established by Mr. Trudeau and chaired by Donald Macdonald, his former finance minister, recommended that Canada take “a leap of faith” on free trade as a cure for Canada’s economic ills. Mr. Mulroney decided to take that leap, inviting U.S. president Ronald Reagan to Quebec City for the Shamrock Summit on St. Patrick’s Day 1985, where they agreed to launch the talks. Notoriously, the two leaders sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling together, causing much of the nation to cringe. (Thirty-two years later, Mr. Mulroney sang it again for the new American president, Donald Trump. More cringing.)

Watch: Brian and Mila Mulroney, alongside Ronald and Nancy Reagan, sing When Irish Eyes are Smiling in 1985. Video from the Reagan Presidential Library.

But if Brian Mulroney was able to seal the deal by strong-arming U.S. negotiator Jim Baker – no mean feat – at the eleventh hour, he wasn’t able to get the agreement past Liberal leader John Turner, who made preventing free trade with the United States “the cause of my life.” Mr. Mulroney went to the people for a verdict. The 1988 election was like no other: fought on the single issue of yes or no to free trade. Yes won, the treaty was ratified, and Brian Mulroney had his second term.

After that, nothing went right. People loathed the new Goods and Services Tax, created to streamline and improve federal finances. (Mr. Mulroney loved to say that in the fight against the deficit, he sowed the field and Liberal finance minister Paul Martin reaped the harvest.) A crippling recession sent unemployment and deficits soaring. Worst of all, it seemed the country was coming apart.

Mr. Mulroney was incensed that Mr. Trudeau had patriated the Constitution and forged the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 without the consent of the Quebec government. His solution was the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, a federal-provincial agreement that met Quebec premier Robert Bourassa’s demands. But delays ratifying the agreement led to increasing opposition. Last-ditch efforts to secure the assent of all the provinces in June, 1990, appeared to succeed, but then unravelled – in part because Mr. Mulroney bragged to Globe and Mail journalists about being willing to “roll all the dice” to get a deal. Furious at the rejection of Meech, Mr. Bourassa threatened a new referendum on sovereignty.

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Mr. Mulroney and Robert Bourassa exchange words at a constitutional conference in June, 1990, before the final demise of Meech Lake.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Endless commissions and talks ultimately produced the Charlottetown Accord, which seemed to satisfy all sides. It didn’t, however, satisfy the Canadian public, who voted it down in a 1992 referendum.

By now, Mr. Mulroney’s administration was a shambles. Deficits and a weak economy plagued federal finances. The GST and failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords had sent his poll numbers into the basement. Reform, a new populist protest party, rose in the West, even as Mr. Mulroney’s old friend Lucien Bouchard crossed the floor with an assortment of Quebec MPs to create the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois.

In a desperate bid to rescue the party’s fortunes, Mr. Mulroney stepped down, effectively handing the prime ministership to his defence minister, Kim Campbell. Under her leadership, the Progressive Conservatives were decimated in the 1993 election, and never recovered.

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Kim Campbell looks back at union demonstrators, including one in a Mulroney mask, as she arrives for an early-morning radio show in Toronto in 1993.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Hatred for Mr. Mulroney was so intense by then that it took many years before the real accomplishments of the government shone through.

It didn’t help that his legacy was seriously damaged by the Airbus Affair. The RCMP suspected Mr. Mulroney had received kickbacks in exchange for influencing Air Canada’s decision to acquire passenger jets from the European airliner manufacturer.

Mr. Mulroney, alleging a political smear campaign, successfully sued Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, winning an apology and the payment of his legal fees. But in 2003 he acknowledged receiving $225,000 from Karlheinz Schreiber, a business operative with fingers in many unsavoury pies. The money was for consulting work, Mr. Mulroney insisted. No charges were laid, but that didn’t stop Stephen Harper from cutting all ties with his predecessor. It was unclear why Mr. Mulroney, who had a lucrative law practice, would have taken the cash.

Despite the scandal, the former prime minister still had much to contribute. Behind the scenes, he had helped set the stage for the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties in 2003, with Mr. Harper eventually taking the new Conservative Party of Canada to power. A decade and a half later, Mr. Mulroney kept back-channels open between Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government and the new populist U.S. president, Donald Trump. He was always at his best bringing apparent foes together and helping them find common ground, preferably behind closed doors.

He seemed most proud of a minor award declaring him to be Canada’s greenest prime minister. The award was well deserved: On his watch, Canada led the global campaign in which nations committed to drastically reducing the use of chlorofluorocarbons; he negotiated a treaty with the United States to reduce pollutants that cause acid rain, and in 1988 he hosted the World Climate Change Conference in Toronto, which has been credited with putting the issue of global warming on the international agenda.

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Mr. Mulroney welcomes African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to a state dinner in Toronto in 1990.Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Mulroney was equally proud of his greatest foreign policy achievement: helping lead the fight against apartheid, despite the indifference or hostility of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who considered sanctions counterproductive and Nelson Mandela a communist. The day after the ANC leader was released in February, 1990, he called Mr. Mulroney to thank him, and four months later addressed the House of Commons.

“I actually did govern not for good headlines in 10 days but for a better Canada in 10 years,” Mr. Mulroney concluded in his memoirs. “I paid the price in media hostility and public disapproval. But I did so knowingly and willingly. Leadership … is about taking positions you believe to be in Canada’s long-term interest and sticking to them.”

That he did so made his prime ministership, at its best and despite its failures, heroic.

Mr. Mulroney leaves his wife, Mila; children, Caroline, Ben, Mark and Nicolas; and many grandchildren.

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