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World Files show what U.K. diplomats really thought of 1980s Canada, but were too polite to say

POLITICS

Files show what U.K. diplomats really thought of 1980s Canada, but were too polite to say

European correspondent Paul Waldie digs through newly declassified documents whose undiplomatic language paints a clearer picture of how Mulroney's rise and Canada's political upheaval were perceived behind the scenes

The British government viewed Brian Mulroney as "glib," "superficial" and "almost paranoid" in the months leading up to him becoming prime minister in 1984 while outgoing prime minister Pierre Trudeau was seen as "bloodless" and "over-intellectual."

In depth

See how the U.K. documents compare Mulroney with Trudeau

The assessments are contained in thousands of confidential documents from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office dating back to 1984. The files are being released Wednesday by Britain's National Archives under legislation that declassifies government documents after 30 years.

The material covers a remarkable time in Canadian history; the resignation of Mr. Trudeau, the brief term of his successor John Turner and the election of Mr. Mulroney, who won a massive majority on Sept. 4, 1984. It was also René Lévesque's last full year as premier of Quebec.

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Party leaders John Turner of the Liberals, Ed Broadbent of the NDP and Brian Mulroney of the Progressive Conservatives pose for a portrait before an election debate on Aug. 15, 1984.

Party leaders John Turner of the Liberals, Ed Broadbent of the NDP and Brian Mulroney of the Progressive Conservatives pose for a portrait before an election debate on Aug. 15, 1984.

TIBOR KOLLEY/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The FCO clearly kept a close watch. The files include a lengthy report titled "leading personalities in Canada" which contains personal details and frank assessments about prime ministers, premiers, the chief justice, civil servants and business people.

There's also an extensive analysis of Canada's role in the world, blunt reviews of Mr. Mulroney's early days in office and sharp criticism of Mr. Trudeau's peace initiatives.

Much of the language in the files is far from diplomatic. Conservative cabinet minister John Crosbie is described as "a rather dour, grumpy man," while former prime minister Joe Clark has "a curiously stilted pomposity." Conrad Black is "something of a pirate" and Mr. Lévesque was "boorish" on a trip to London by snubbing a British cabinet minister.

An excerpt from the documents about Mr. Lévesque’s diplomatic gaffe in London.

An excerpt from the documents about Mr. Lévesque’s diplomatic gaffe in London.

U.K. FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE DOCUMENTS

One memo on Quebec noted there was "a boorish uncouth element in French Canada manifested in corruption in government and business."

Canada's diplomatic corps also comes in for some harsh treatment in a report to the British foreign secretary from the high commissioner in Ottawa, John Wilson, the Second Baron of Moran. The Department of External Affairs was once "widely respected in the world," Lord Moran wrote, but it had "undergone changes which are converting it all too rapidly into a huge, sluggish bureaucratic conglomerate, dominated by a French-Canadian mafia, ignorant of diplomacy, who have pushed aside the leading English-speaking professionals."

Several files commented on Britain's relations with Canada. One noted that Canada has a hard time fitting in internationally as Britain grows closer to Europe and Europe deals mainly with the United States. As a result, Canada has "difficulty in finding any team that will recognize them as full playing members," it said.

Another report suggested Britain needed to take the Canadian government more seriously. The memo recommended erecting statues in London of former Canadian prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Lester Pearson "as a way of massaging the Canadian soul." It also urged Britain to consult Canada more often, but said this will be difficult "since Canadian sensibilities make it difficult for them to adjust their points of view."

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An excerpt from the documents about building statues of Canadian prime ministers.

An excerpt from the documents about building statues of Canadian prime ministers.

U.K. FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE DOCUMENTS

Mr. Mulroney is the subject of many files. Lord Moran sent a two-page report to London in March on a lavish dinner party Mr. Mulroney hosted shortly after becoming leader of the opposition. Mr. Mulroney wanted to be "seen as a sophisticated, elegant man of the world," Lord Moran wrote. "But the veneer is thin, and every so often it cracks, and the Irish political street-fighter comes through." He added that Mr. Mulroney was "almost paranoid" about Mr. Turner and "isn't interested in anything but politics."

The Queen meets with prime minister Brian Mulroney on a visit to Toronto on Oct. 1, 1984.

The Queen meets with prime minister Brian Mulroney on a visit to Toronto on Oct. 1, 1984.

THOMAS SLUKOVENYI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Lord Moran also wrote that Mr. Mulroney was "at pains to emphasize" that he "hated the IRA and had chosen not to go to Ireland for his honeymoon because of them. Clearly he thinks that we must regard him with suspicion as an Irish Canadian."

An early view of Mr. Mulroney's government by incoming high commissioner Sir Derek Day concluded it was looking "a little ragged around the edges." But Sir Derek also had high hopes for Mr. Mulroney, saying the country had tired of Mr. Trudeau and that the new prime minister was someone "who can mobilise the energies and resources of the country to an extent that none of his predecessors were able to achieve… This watershed in Canada offers opportunities to us."

However, another series of memos showed former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was not in a hurry to meet Canada's new prime minister. While the British high commission in Ottawa was eager for Mrs. Thatcher to invite Mr. Mulroney to London, Mrs. Thatcher's officials were not, saying the request was "unimaginative."

British prime minister Margaret Thatcher meets with Mr. Mulroney at the G7 summit in Toronto on June 19, 1988. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Mr. Trudeau also comes in for criticism. In late 1983, he embarked on a peace initiative to lessen tensions between the East and West. The files show that his actions were followed closely by Britain, particularly his trips to Eastern Europe. Several memos referred to the initiative as "regrettable" and "unwelcome" and one criticized Mr. Trudeau for not consulting Britain and other allies. "It was not really surprising that those proposals got a dusty reception in Paris, Peking, Washington and London," wrote Lord Moran.

There are also minutes of a meeting between Mr. Trudeau and Mrs. Thatcher during the G7 economic summit in London in June, 1984. This was Mr. Trudeau's last summit and he told Mrs. Thatcher that it will be good for Canada to have a new prime minister "even if in the event he was a Conservative, this would not be the ultimate tragedy." He also thanked Mrs. Thatcher for helping patriate the Canadian Constitution in 1982.

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During the meeting, Mr. Trudeau suggested the summit send a message to former Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko saying the East and West "had common objectives." Mrs. Thatcher replied that the best way to promote a dialogue "was to make it plain that we accepted that the Soviet system was there to stay and then work for results that were in the interests of both sides." Trudeau agreed, according to the minutes.

Mrs. Thatcher also said the West needed to be united and, in an apparent dig at Mr. Trudeau's peace initiative, said leaders should not "descend in rapid succession on Moscow without adequate consultation."

Mrs. Thatcher also told Mr. Trudeau that she disagreed with former French president François Mitterrand who told the summit that he expected the internal regimes in the communist world to collapse within 20 years. If Mr. Mitterrand's remark became known publicly, she added, "it would undo the value of any message which the Summit might send."

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diplomacy

On Her Majesty's Smarmy Service: What the British said about Trudeau and Mulroney


Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulroney, then the opposition leader, are shown on March 28, 1984.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulroney, then the opposition leader, are shown on March 28, 1984.

PETER BREGG/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Trudeau: A 'very complex man'

British officials didn't mince words when it came to Pierre Trudeau.

In a personality report compiled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the former prime minister is described as a "very complex man, full of paradoxes and enigmas."

Pierre Trudeau waves with his sons Justin, Sacha and Michel at a tribute to him in June, 1984. THE CANADIAN PRESS

"He combines great personal charm with brutal insensitivity. He can be tough and robust, especially when it comes to Quebec about which he cares the most. But he became bored with day-to-day politics and did not conceal his contempt for other MPs, the press and, sometimes the man in the street. This came from his often bloodless and over-intellectual approach."

During a lunch at 24 Sussex Dr. in June, 1984, former British high commissioner John Wilson said Mr. Trudeau, who was in his final days as prime minister, spoke "almost entirely about French Canada, French Canadians, the Jesuits, the Oblates and their respective methods of education, etc. It reminded us once more what a different world even Federal French Canadians inhabit, and how they still feel themselves an embattled minority."

The FCO filings show that British diplomats watched Mr. Trudeau closely as he embarked on a peace initiative in 1984 and never felt entirely comfortable with him. Several memos note that either former Liberal leader John Turner or former Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney would be better prime ministers for the U.K.'s interests than Mr. Trudeau.

In his first dispatch to London since taking over as British High Commissioner in November, 1984, Sir Derek Day wrote: "I had not appreciated how deep and widespread was the distrust and dislike of Trudeau. I've scarcely heard a good work for him since my arrival. He certainly aggravated the tension with the provinces by displaying a mixture of contempt and disregard."

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Mulroney: 'under his blustering exterior he is surprisingly lacking confidence'

Brian Mulroney sits for a family portrait in December, 1984, with his wife Mila, and their children Caroline, 11, Mark, 6, and Benedict, 8 PMO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When former prime minister Brian Mulroney invited former British high commissioner John Wilson to dinner in March, 1984, the diplomat was puzzled.

Mr. Mulroney had recently become leader of the opposition and with prime minister Pierre Trudeau resigning a month earlier, the Tory leader was priming for an election.

"Mulroney does not, I think, do things without a purpose," Mr. Wilson, the Second Baron of Moran, wrote in a report to the FCO office in London on March 27, 1984. "A photographer circulated and took a good many shots of us with the Mulroneys so I hope these are not going to be used to demonstrate his devotion to the mother country."

Lord Moran said the dinner, at Stornoway, the official residences of the opposition leader, was stylish; "it was black tie and long dresses, the food was superb, and a pianist played popular music in the background ("We need some class round here" said our host)."

According to the report, Mr. Mulroney went on at length about John Turner, who was expected to win the Liberal leadership race and take over as prime minister from Mr. Trudeau. At one point, Mr. Mulroney "got quite carried away talking about Turner …becoming almost paranoid about him and saying desperately 'He is just an ordinary man like us.'"

Lord Moran added that Mr. Mulroney "really wanted" a televised debate with Mr. Turner. Mr. Mulroney said he would speak "half in English and half in hard, fast, colloquial French with no translator."

Lord Moran also writes that he was not impressed by Mr. Mulroney saying that "under his blustering exterior he is surprisingly lacking confidence." He also said that "many of his present constituents in Nova Scotia are Scots, so he has banned the playing of When Irish Eyes are Smiling and tends now to talk about 'we Scots!'"

As for Mr. Mulroney's wife, Mila, Lord Moran wrote that she was "very personable" but that he "formed the impression that under the pressures of the job, her charm is tending to become a bit less spontaneous, which is sad."

"What is nice is the obvious devotion of Mulroney to her and of both of them to their three delightful small children," he added.

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