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Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney meets with the Globe's editorial board on Oct. 3, 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s relationship with the West was a complicated one, with anger from decades of grievances erupting during his time in office even as he sought to address issues from the Senate reform to the National Energy Program.

Resentment toward the implementation of the GST and the rise of the Reform Party saw Mr. Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives lose their long hold on parts of the Prairies and British Columbia. Fissures between PC and more Reform-like elements of Canada’s conservative movement linger to this day.

But his longtime political rival, former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, praised Mr. Mulroney on Friday for inking the free trade deal with the United States in 1988 – doing then what westerners had wanted for a century, since the time of Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy. That policy was long seen as protecting central Canadian manufacturers to the detriment of westerners.

“The western populist parties, all the way from the United Farmers right up to Reform, have been strong advocates of free trade. It’s not just for the advantage to the West, but for the advantage of the country,” Mr. Manning said in an interview.

And while Mr. Mulroney’s Meech Lake Accord was viewed primarily as a vehicle for bringing Quebec into the constitution, it would – if it had survived – required the prime minister to appoint senators from lists compiled by the relevant provinces.

Former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said as a young political “nerd” in university, and was such a fan of Mr. Mulroney’s that he kept a campaign poster of the PM on his dorm room wall. He said Meech Lake was the “last best effort” to try to fulfill the long-held wish of westerners for Senate reform. And Mr. Mulroney’s dismantled the last of the NEP in 1985, and created a billion-dollar “deficiency payment” package to Saskatchewan farmers helped saved them from drought and low prices in 1986.

“Never had the West been more in in a federal government since Diefenbaker was the prime minister,” said Mr. Wall, teasing off a Reform Party slogan.

Mr. Manning said, however, Mr. Mulroney was motivated simply by politics in many regards. “These changes were made not out of passionate devotion to agriculture by a Quebec lawyer, but by his pollsters who said, ‘If you don’t have a strong ag policy, you’re going to lose Saskatchewan.’ ”

By the early 1990s, Mr. Mulroney had realized that the Reform Party wasn’t a flash in the pan, and had pivoted to often attacking the upstart party and promoting western MPs, such as Don Mazankowski, to key cabinet roles. He also moved the National Energy Board to Calgary as a political gift. At that time, a young Stephen Harper – then a Reform policy analyst – quipped that every time Mr. Mulroney mentioned the new party, it helped raise their profile.

In British Columbia, Gerry St. Germain, who won his Mission-Port Moody seat for the PCs as Mr. Mulroney was elected as party leader, said his party didn’t do enough to counter the rise of Reform.

The antipathy toward Ottawa began under Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, he said.

Mr. St. Germain sounded the alarm about the political threat from the growing populist party, “but it was like a grassfire: the moment it started, it was out of control.”

John Cummins was one of the first organizers for Reform and he ran under the banner in 1988, before the party found its footing. “A lot of people liked what we were saying, but they wanted free trade, so they voted for Brian Mulroney,” he recalled.

He joined because he felt there was no future in B.C. for his son. “We were treated like an afterthought here in the West.”

In 1993, Mr. Cummins was back on the hustings as the Reform candidate for Delta-Richmond East, and early on found voters weren’t ready to commit. It wasn’t until the PCs elected Kim Campbell as leader when everything changed. “Mulroney, even at the end of his second term, had loyalty and respect for some of the things that he had done.”

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