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The evening was part homecoming, part Conservative party love-in, part Canada-U.S. Relations 101 and part clarion call to environmental action.

There was a little something for just about everyone Thursday night as former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney made a triumphant return to the national capital he abandoned in ignominy 13 years ago.

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Mr. Mulroney, now 67 and tempered by a near-fatal illness and buffered by a decade of history, arrived at the historic Chateau Laurier hotel to a standing ovation from a group that included environmentalists, diplomats, lobbyists, business executives, bureaucrats, past and present Liberals, Conservative cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The gala dinner was billed as a chance to honour Mr. Mulroney's selection by an independent panel as "the greenest prime minister" in Canadian history.

But it served a much wider purpose, clearly signalling to the movers and shakers that the worm has turned in official Ottawa.

Mr. Mulroney joked that among his endorsements from the 12 panelists was one who called him "the best of a bad bunch."

"I want to tell you, when you've been where I've been, this is a hell of a ringing endorsement," he added to roars of laughter and applause.

Canada's 18th prime minister left office under a toxic cloud of public disdain in 1993.

How the skies have cleared.

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Speakers including Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club, comedian Rick Mercer, Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Harper lauded Mr. Mulroney's environmental record and - each with varying levels of incredulity - commented on the unlikely gathering in the packed ballroom.

Mr. Mercer joked that his mother insinuated he had a brain tumour when he described to her the event's mixed guest list and Mr. Mulroney's environmental honour.

Mr. Mulroney, clearly enjoying the limelight, initially shared in the self-deprecation but soon turned to the serious task of burnishing his record.

"Where political will prevails, solutions will follow," he intoned in his still distinctive baritone.

Mr. Mulroney said getting the United States onside is the key to the success of any environmental initiative, echoing a viewpoint offered earlier in the day by Mr. Harper during a news conference in Montreal.

Mr. Mulroney admonished the previous Liberal government for "moralizing" to Washington when Canada didn't occupy the environmental high ground.

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He also pointed to the critical importance of asserting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic given the melting polar ice cap and the potential for both environmental degradation and commercial opportunity - a theme that dovetailed neatly with Mr. Harper's election promise to build icebreakers and surveillance systems for the Far North.

Mostly, the evening drove home the point that Canada's Conservative movement is back from the wilderness.

Mr. Harper, seated with Mr. Mulroney and his wife Mila at the head table, had alluded to Mr. Mulroney's stormy past earlier Thursday in Montreal.

"At the time, I don't think there was any environmentalist who had anything good to say about Mr. Mulroney," Mr. Harper said of the back-to-back Tory majorities in the 1980s.

"Now he's regarded years later as the greenest prime minister. I believe the reason he's regarded that way is that he didn't pursue grandiose schemes and unworkable arrangements and the kind of problem we got into on Kyoto (greenhouse gas protocol). Instead, he decided to make real progress, concrete progress, on particular issues."

Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulroney's digs at the Liberal environment plan were among the few partisan shots in a surprisingly non-partisan event.

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Corporate Knights, a left-leaning magazine that likes to reward good corporate environmental citizenship in the hopes of spurring copycats, set the ball in motion last summer.

The magazine commissioned a 12-member panel comprised mostly of environmentalists - former Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps and historian Desmond Morton were the exceptions - and they wound up selecting Mulroney as Canada's greenest PM. Mulroney got the nod from five of 12 panelists, eclipsing Pierre Trudeau's three votes.

The gala proved to be the hottest ticket in town.

Corporate giants such as SunLife and Enbridge snapped up all the $2,500 tables in four days, leaving many political insiders scrambling for one of the scarce 308 seats. The waiting list late Thursday afternoon had reached 300.

Pierre Karl Peladeau, the head of media giant Quebecor World, was there, as was U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins and former U.S. ambassador James Blanchard.

Old Liberal stalwarts of the Jean Chretien era were on hand, as was Ontario MPP Gerard Kennedy, who plans to seek the federal Liberal leadership.

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Despite the lofty environmental ideals espoused, the Mulroney speech falls into something of an environmental policy vacuum in Ottawa.

Mr. Harper has promised a "made-in-Canada" approach to the global climate change treaty, yet senior bureaucrats say the government appears to be genuinely non-plussed about how to proceed.

"Our government is examining all of the options," Mr. Harper said in Montreal.

"But to solve environmental problems, it's necessary in this continent and this economy to have the participation of the United States, or our efforts will not have many results."

That's a fact of life that environmental groups now say Mr. Mulroney recognized, and to some degree overcame, during his tempestuous time in office.

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