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A framed photograph hanging in the front entrance of the home at 99 Champlain Ave. in Baie-Comeau, Que., where former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney grew up, on March 1.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Benedict Mulroney died in 1965, Mary Ellen Beaulieu, who was a student at the local English Catholic elementary school, walked down to the Sainte-Amélie church in Baie-Comeau, Que., to attend the viewing.

The school’s nuns, Ms. Beaulieu said, had told her to kneel in front of the casket and recite three prayers: one Hail Mary, one Our Father, and one Glory Be. “It takes a while, right?” she recalled. “So then I felt a hand on my shoulder and it was Brian,” Mr. Mulroney’s son, the future 18th prime minister of Canada. He was a young lawyer at the time.

The Mulroneys were family friends, so the two started to chat. When Ms. Beaulieu went back home, her mother said the younger Mr. Mulroney had called to inquire about the girl, wondering if she was feeling okay after spending so long in front of the casket. He didn’t know about the mandated prayers.

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Mary Ellen Beaulieu sits in the pew that Brian Mulroney sponsored when a church was sold to a non-profit in Baie-Comeau.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“Brian thought maybe I was afraid, he thought I was frozen there and was too afraid to get up and leave,” Ms. Beaulieu said, laughing. “It just goes to show how much of a caring man he was, even as a young man, to worry about some kid being upset because she saw a corpse.”

Brian Mulroney died Thursday in a Florida hospital after a recent fall at his Palm Beach home. He was 84.

By all accounts, the great statesman, who called himself “le p’tit gars de Baie-Comeau” (the small boy from Baie-Comeau), continued to take care of his home community, a mill town of about 20,000 people nestled on Quebec’s remote North Coast, not only during his terms but long after leaving office.

In his memoirs, Mr. Mulroney wrote fondly of the village, its picturesque vistas, its harsh winters and too-short summers, and its warm-hearted, hard-working people. He also praised the mixture of English and French languages and Catholic and Protestant faiths in his neighbourhood, avenue Champlain, where his former childhood home still stands.

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The home Brian Mulroney grew up in at 99 Champlain Ave. in Baie-Comeau.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Journalist and consultant John Sawatsky, who wrote the 1991 biography Brian Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition, said Mr. Mulroney’s drive to build his legendary Rolodex and make a name for himself was partly shaped by his coming of age in Baie-Comeau as a “double minority.”

“He was English in a French town. And within the English community, he was Catholic, in a Protestant grouping. He was a double minority, and so he felt the need to connect with people and not get left out,” Mr. Sawatsky said.

Marc Lefebvre, a long-time friend and collaborator, got to know Mr. Mulroney when the future prime minister landed his first job: a position at the local grocery store, owned by Mr. Lefebvre’s father. “All 15-year-old boys came to work at the grocery store before they could enroll at the paper mill,” Mr. Lefebvre said. Mr. Mulroney’s father toiled at that mill for decades as an electrician.

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Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Lefebvre kept in touch. They later organized political fundraising events together.

“Brian was very grateful to the people of Baie-Comeau, and when he had the chance to invite people from Baie-Comeau to official dinners, or things like that, he did it all the time,” Mr. Lefebvre added.

Mr. Mulroney also delivered or facilitated many projects, both in Baie-Comeau and throughout the region, Mr. Lefebvre said. He cited the extension of Road 138 from Havre Saint-Pierre to Natashquan, the inauguration of the Relance Dock in Sept-Îles, and the opening of a detention centre in Port-Cartier.

These in turn connected communities and created precious jobs. Sept-Îles is now the location of Aluminerie Alouette, a major aluminum producer.

Arthur Milnes, a former speechwriter for prime minister Stephen Harper who worked closely with Mr. Mulroney on his memoirs, said there was no question Mr. Mulroney’s hometown shaped him.

“Part of him never left Baie-Comeau,” Mr. Milnes said. “There was this young guy, he was already writing newspaper columns when he was 13 or 14, and he never lost that small-town boy. What I loved about him was that he had been to the mountaintop in Canadian and world politics, but he still at heart was that young guy fascinated by it all, and excited by it all.”

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Buttons with the likeness of Brian Mulroney pinned to a board in the front entrance of the home at 99 Champlain Ave.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Michel Desbiens, the mayor of Baie-Comeau, met Mr. Mulroney only once, in 1991, when Mr. Desbiens was a young worker at Alcoa, an aluminum-producing company. “I didn’t say a word to him. I was too impressed. I only shook his hand,” Mr. Desbiens recalled.

He, too, witnessed the former prime minister’s dedication to his hometown. “Any time my predecessors needed something, through his friends … they were able to make files move forward,” he said. He gave as an example the creation of the riverside Les Pionniers Park, now a fixture of the town’s social and cultural life.

“Even though he became prime minister of Canada, he always stayed close to his people,” Mr. Desbiens said.

A bust of Mr. Mulroney, Baie-Comeau’s “illustrious son,” as a plaque says, has been sitting in front of the town’s city hall since 2019, watching over the paper mill on the other side of the street.

The city hall’s Canadian and provincial flags were flying at half-mast Friday, as was a flag with Baie-Comeau’s coat of arms. The town’s motto, “De puissance comblée” (“Of fulfilled power”) flapped in the biting cold.

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The Canadian flag lowered outside Baie-Comeau city hall, where a bronze bust of the former prime minister stands.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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