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Former prime minister Brian Mulroney phoned James Kelleher the night before he died to ‘say good bye.’

You would be forgiven for thinking that, when it came to free trade between Canada and the United States, the most gung-ho guy in the room was the minister for international trade. But James Kelleher seemed awfully cautious.

In the months following the March, 1985, "Shamrock Summit" in Quebec City between prime minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Mr. Kelleher beavered away, consulting with anybody and everybody, and finally came up with what The Globe and Mail called a careful statement of good intentions.

So careful, pronounced Globe columnist Hugh Winsor, that the paper Mr. Kelleher tabled in the fall of 1985 stressed that "while the Government of Canada has decided to propose to enter into trade negotiations with the Reagan Administration, it is not committed to concluding a trade agreement."

As minister for international trade in Mr. Mulroney's first cabinet, the phlegmatic Mr. Kelleher went on to lay the groundwork for the historic free trade deal with the Americans, and did the initial heavy lifting to allay concerns on this side of the border.

For these were unchartered waters: How would Canadian identity be maintained? Could the Americans be trusted? Were the premiers on the same page as Ottawa? What did labour and business think? What about ordinary Canadians?

Opinion polls told different stories. Tory surveys at the time suggested 80 per cent of Canadians believed the country should seek "closer ties" with the United States, up from 60 per cent three years earlier. But a 1984 Gallup poll found that 54 per cent of Canadians said the country would be "better off" with "free trade" with the U.S. – a figure that had not changed in 30 years.

For six weeks in the spring of 1985, Mr. Kelleher and a deputy hit the road on a 15-city cross-Canada tour to gauge feelings and whip up support for free trade. Mr. Kelleher had overruled his department's recommendation that consultations take place behind closed doors in Ottawa. He was adamant they be public and happen locally, and "it turned out, [he was] right," Michael Hart argued in his 1994 book Decision at Midnight: Inside the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Negotiations.

The trade department was worried that people would have negative things to say about the subject, recalled James McIlroy, Mr. Kelleher's senior policy adviser at the time. "He said: 'Well, I've got to hear that.' He didn't feel it was his role to be a cheerleader."

As The New York Times reported: "Time and again on a day's campaigning, Mr. Kelleher heard vocal mistrust of Americans and ingrained fears of their domination. 'The Americans will bring their workers over and take our jobs and pensions,' said one woman."

In any case, pure free trade was unattainable, he believed, as it had been everywhere else. The best that could be hoped for, he was quoted as telling journalist Claire Hoy in Friends in High Places, a 1987 indictment of those years, was a comprehensive trade agreement eliminating most barriers. Which is how the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement, passed on Jan. 2, 1988, saw it, too.

While The Globe endorsed free trade, Mr. Winsor was unimpressed with the minister's approach: "The thrust of all Mr. Kelleher's comments on a new trade agreement concentrates on the problems we face from U.S. protectionism if we don't make a deal, rather than the bold new challenges and opportunities a genuine free-trade deal could represent," the columnist wrote. "This super-cautious approach has certainly not tickled the Canadian imagination, nor has it had much impact on the other side." Local media were much more positive.

But Mr. Mulroney understood Mr. Kelleher's prudence. "No, it didn't surprise me," the former prime minister told The Globe in an interview. "We just didn't know what was out there. We even failed to fully appreciate the ferocity of the opposition. It was brutal. I understand what Jim was trying to say."

Mr. Kelleher was "an ardent supporter of free trade and a committed advocate for Canada who was instrumental in recommending the removal of protectionist barriers between Canada and the United States," Ed Fast, the current Minister of International Trade, said in a statement.

James Francis Kelleher was born Oct. 2, 1930, in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., to James Kelleher Sr., an engineer, and Dorothy Berthon, the granddaughter of Georges Berthon, one of Canada's premier portrait painters. The younger James inherited a love of Canadian art; as a penurious third-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, he wandered into a studio and admired a small oil by Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris. Pleased at a young person's interest, the gallery owner agreed to a layaway plan: $200 for the painting, titled Agawa Canyon, starting with the contents of Mr. Kelleher's pockets, $20. The Harris work now hangs in the Kellehers' Toronto apartment, above an oil by fellow Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson.

Back in the Soo as a lawyer, he was heavily involved in the local community, serving on the boards of the YMCA, Great Lakes Power, Ontario Housing Corp. and the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge Authority. He chaired the United Way campaign and the board of a local hospital. He played a lead role in the establishment of the Art Gallery of Algoma. The list went on.

Mr. Kelleher first came to Mr. Mulroney's attention when he supported the latter in his run for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1976, and again in 1983. Mr. Kelleher "was always a backroom boy," said his wife of 58 years, Helen, and in 1984, he became the local riding's first Conservative MP. Ontario premier Bill Davis had stumped for him.

Asked why he appointed a political neophyte to the signal portfolio of trade, Mr. Mulroney bristled. "I didn't consider him a neophyte. He had great instincts and personal charm. He was thoughtful and generous and people responded to that. Trade is about that. Trade is about how you treat others. And if you're lucky, they treat you the same way in return. And Jim had experience in collective bargaining. He was a skilled negotiator. He was one of nature's gentlemen."

All of which stood him in good stead with the Americans. "In Washington, preparation is everything," Mr. Mulroney went on. "You've got to know the players and win their trust. So I put Jim in charge of this and he began the work of the pilgrim, and worked those vineyards in Washington until his feet hurt."

Mr. McIlroy, Mr. Kelleher's adviser at the trade ministry, rejected the characterization of his old boss as cautious. "I wouldn't use that word. He was very methodical. One of the reasons the prime minister picked him was because he was from a border town. He understood Americans."

And contrary to the popular image of Mr. Reagan as being out of it, Mr. Kelleher was impressed by the U.S. president in trade talks. "He found him very well-prepared," said Mr. Kelleher's daughter, Martha. "Sharp as a tack." Mr. Kelleher even ended up befriending his hard-headed counterpart, United States trade representative William Brock.

Two years into his government, Mr. Mulroney shuffled his cabinet and "reluctantly" moved Mr. Kelleher to the post of solicitor-general (Mr. Kelleher was reluctant to switch jobs, too, his wife noted).

Still, he cleaned house, replacing eight of the nine deputy heads reporting to him, and he appointed Gordon Osbaldson, a former Clerk of the Privy Council, to study reforms that Mr. Kelleher would implement to Canada's nascent spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, including the disbanding of the countersubversion unit.

He encouraged the recruitment of women, francophones and visible minorities into the RCMP, and oversaw the wrenching debate over whether to allow Sikh Mounties to wear turbans (he personally approved). In introducing adult basic education programs in Canada's federal penitentiary system to tackle illiteracy among inmates, he helped reduce the rate of recidivism. "He got things done," said his former chief of staff, Bill Pristanski.

But in the tumultuous "free-trade election" of 1988, Mr. Kelleher lost his seat to the New Democrats, despite polling more votes than four years earlier. His family says the opposition parties successfully sowed fear in Sault Ste. Marie that free trade would wreck heavily unionized local industries. Mr. Kelleher practised law in Toronto for two years until Mr. Mulroney named his old friend to the Senate, where Mr. Kelleher served until 2005.

He leaves his wife, Helen (née MacDonald), daughters Martha and Sarah, and two sisters. A memorial service is planned.

Mr. Mulroney called Mr. Kelleher the night before he died in a Toronto hospital on June 1 of lung disease at 82. Family members held the phone to his ear. Said Mr. Mulroney: "I had a brief chat with Jim to say goodbye."

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