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Michael Wilson is seen here in Toronto in December, 2011.Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Michael Wilson, a former federal finance minister and stalwart of Canadian business who overcame personal tragedy in later life to become an advocate for mental-health support, has died at 81.

Under prime minister Brian Mulroney, Mr. Wilson helped negotiate the North American free-trade agreement and brought in the federal goods and services tax, initiatives that were controversial at the time, but have survived to become pillars of federal policy.

His death on Sunday was confirmed by Bruce Rothney, chief executive officer of Barclays Capital Canada, where Mr. Wilson was chairman. Mr. Rothney said Mr. Wilson died of cancer.

“Michael Wilson was a giant in political life,” Mr. Mulroney said. “Not only was he an outstanding minister of finance, but he was a leader in almost every important initiative the government undertook in nine years.”

Mr. Wilson went on to have a laurelled career after politics as Canadian ambassador to the United States in the late 2000s and then chancellor of the University of Toronto from 2012 until 2018.

From the archives: The late Michael Wilson on his son’s suicide and mental-health care in Canada

He was also a veteran investment banker with a career in finance that spanned more than half a century and included senior roles at UBS Canada, Royal Bank of Canada and, most recently, Barclays Capital Canada.

But, of late, he was perhaps best known for his dedication to raising awareness of mental-health issues after his son Cameron died by suicide in 1995, at the age of 29​. That work included serving as chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada for the past four years.

“Some will say that his work after he finished public office in the field of mental health rivalled his terrific achievements while in government,” Mr. Mulroney said. “Mike was a wonderful man and a loyal friend and I will miss him dearly.”

Former prime minister Stephen Harper, who appointed Mr. Wilson to the post in Washington, said he served Canada with “exceptional skill and dedication.

“From the Cabinet table to serving our country with dignity and wisdom as Ambassador in Washington, Mike embodied the best of public service,” Harper wrote on Twitter.

Michael Holcombe Wilson was born in Toronto on Nov. 4, 1937. He attended the private boys’ school Upper Canada College before taking a degree in commerce from the University of Toronto. For much of the next two decades, Mr. Wilson worked on Bay Street, rising to become executive vice-president of Dominion Securities in the mid-1970s.

Anthony Fell was Mr. Wilson’s boss as CEO of RBC Dominion Securities when Mr. Wilson was a partner in the investment bank, before entering federal politics. The two stayed close friends.

“It’s been said that one of the best thing you can leave behind is a sterling reputation for integrity and for making a positive difference in peoples’ lives, and this Michael Wilson has done throughout his life, in very full measure,” Mr. Fell said on Sunday.

The future cabinet minister entered politics in 1979 when he was elected to the House of Commons as a Progressive Conservative representing the riding of Etobicoke Centre. His early career in Ottawa was rocky: a brief tenure as minister of state for international trade in Joe Clark’s government ended when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals returned to power in 1980. Mr. Wilson then ran for the party leadership in 1983, but dropped out after a disappointing first ballot and backed Mr. Mulroney, the eventual winner.

From 1984 to 1991, Mr. Wilson served as Finance minister in Mr. Mulroney’s government, helping usher in a 7-per-cent GST that was widely reviled at the time but has since been seen as an economic success story. Finally imposed in 1991 after a political dogfight, the GST replaced a manufacturers’ sales tax that many economists and businesses said hurt Canada’s international competitiveness and was hard to administer.

In 1991, Mr. Wilson was moved to the new ministry of industry, science and technology, and the ministry of international trade, where he helped negotiate NAFTA, a groundbreaking free-trade deal with the United States and Mexico.

Mr. Wilson did not run for re-election in 1993, instead returning to a career in business. Public service would beckon again, however.

James Estey was CEO of investment bank UBS Canada for five years when Mr. Wilson was chairman of the firm, a post he held before becoming Canada’s ambassador to the United States in 2006.

“Mike dedicated his life to serving Canada,” Mr. Estey said. “For him, the country was a greater calling.”

In the final chapter of his life, after his son’s death by suicide, raising awareness about depression and mental health became another calling.

“He had such a passion for mental health,” said Louise Bradley, CEO and president of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “This was his opportunity to try to make something positive of a horrible situation.”

In a statement, U of T president Meric Gertler said: “The University of Toronto community deeply mourns the loss of our Chancellor Emeritus, the Honourable Michael Wilson. A ‘triathlete’ par excellence – in public office, business, and volunteer work - he was a great Canadian who improved the lives of so many. From spearheading public policy of the highest significance to publicly confronting the challenge of mental illness, Michael Wilson was a true champion.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory, a good friend, called Mr. Wilson “one of the most intelligent, decent people I have ever met, inside or outside of politics and public life.”

“Michael Wilson was a gentle considerate giant in business, in public life, as a diplomat in Washington, and in our community. He will be sadly missed.”

With files from Robert Fife, Andrew Willis and Erin Anderssen

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