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There have been 23 prime ministers since Confederation, but only a handful of those have a claim to greatness, to a legacy that outlasts headlines and becomes historic. Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, is one of those few.

Mr. Mulroney was no incrementalist. He amassed great political capital and was not afraid to spend it – indeed, sometimes he overspent. Under his watch, the Canadian economy was transformed. This country’s standing as a middle power reached its modern zenith. And without him, the Liberals would not have been able to stabilize federal finances in the 1990s.

Along the way, he showed how conservative policies can make the country, and the world, a better place.

His Progressive Conservatives won in a landslide in 1984, including a decisive victory in Quebec. That set the stage for a not-so-quiet economic revolution. Air Canada and Petro-Canada were among nearly two dozen Crown corporations his government privatized. The National Energy Program, loathed by Alberta, was scrapped. His embrace of the free market rivalled that of both U.S. president Ronald Reagan and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

That was just a prelude to Mr. Mulroney’s boldest economic policy, one that laid the foundation for decades of Canadian prosperity: free trade with the United States. He had once been opposed to free trade but the threat of U.S. protectionism, combined with a landmark royal commission in 1985 and – there is no better word – vision led him to push for the creation of a North American economic space.

His close relationship with Mr. Reagan smoothed the path for a wide-ranging pact. Liberal senators blocked the agreement, saying Mr. Mulroney would have to call an election first. He did, and he went on to win a second majority, the only Conservative prime minister since John A. Macdonald to do so.

The critics were wrong, and Mr. Mulroney was right: the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, later expanded to include Mexico, transformed the stagnant Canadian economy of the early 1980s with an unprecedented boom in exports.

Equally as transformative was Mr. Mulroney’s decision to scrap the outdated and damaging manufacturers’ sales tax with a growth-friendly replacement: the value-added Goods and Services Tax. Knowing it would be unpopular – it was – he still forged ahead. It was the right thing to do for Canada. Again, events bore him out. Without the revenue from the GST, the balanced federal budgets of the 1990s would not have been possible.

Mr. Mulroney’s grit and influence showed on the international stage, too. His fierce opposition to apartheid in South Africa put him at odds with Mrs. Thatcher. It was rare for the Iron Lady to lose a battle of wills, but Mr. Mulroney prevailed within the Commonwealth. And along with U.S. President George H.W. Bush, he forged a cross-border environmental agreement that eliminated the scourge of acid rain.

Some of Mr. Mulroney’s ambitions exceeded his grasp. The Meech Lake Accord, aimed at soothing Quebec’s anger over the patriation of the Constitution, fell apart, in part due to Mr. Mulroney’s bombastic streak. His second attempt at constitutional reconciliation, the Charlottetown Accord, failed to win popular support in a national referendum, reignited Quebec separatism, and fragmented the Progressive Conservative party.

The 1993 election was as great a loss as 1984 had been a victory; Mr. Mulroney resigned before the vote, but the PCs were still reduced to two seats and would eventually be subsumed into the modern Conservative Party.

Those, at least, were failures in pursuit of worthy goals. Mr. Mulroney’s greatest failure, however, came after he left office: accepting at least $225,000 from Karlheinz Schreiber. Mr. Mulroney won a settlement and an apology from the federal government over allegations that he had accepted kickbacks. But that was before a public inquiry found that he had accepted cash-stuffed envelopes in a hotel room, something he never credibly explained. Mr. Mulroney always denied wrongdoing, but the episode was unworthy of a prime minister.

Like every great leader, Mr. Mulroney had his faults. But at his best, he was more than a mere steward of the country. He was a navigator who charted a new course – a better, more prosperous future – for Canada.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the National Energy Program as the National Energy Policy. This version has been updated.

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