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Brian Mulroney was elected in 1984 in a time-for-a-change landslide, but when he stepped down in 1993, he was one of the most disliked prime ministers in Canadian history.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The tributes to Brian Mulroney this week should offer Justin Trudeau some comfort. They remind us that a politician’s legacy is not determined on the day they leave office, but much later. This was true for Canada’s 18th prime minister. It will be true as well for its 23rd.

Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Justin Trudeau all won the prime ministership on a wave of hope for change. Pierre Trudeau and Mr. Mulroney shared something else in common: Both were deeply unpopular when they left.

Pierre Trudeau swept the 1968 election buoyed by hysterical levels of Trudeaumania. By the time he took his famous walk in the snow sixteen years later, many Western Canadians loathed his National Energy Program (they still do); the economy had experienced the terrible trifecta of double-digit unemployment, inflation and interest rates; deficits were chronic; and Canada played a diminishing role on the world stage.

Nonetheless, when Pierre Trudeau died in September, 2000, the nation mourned. Here was the man who had fought the separatists and won, who bequeathed the country a patriated Constitution with a bill of rights. In 2016, Maclean’s magazine asked a group of scholars and journalists to rank Canada’s prime ministers. Mr. Trudeau came in fourth, after Mackenzie King, Wilfrid Laurier and John A. Macdonald.

Brian Mulroney, Canada’s deal maker, played for keeps

Mr. Mulroney was elected in 1984 in a time-for-a-change landslide after Mr. Trudeau’s departure. But when he stepped down in 1993, he was one of the most disliked prime ministers in Canadian history, and the Progressive Conservatives were polling near or below 20 per cent. The country was frustrated with the failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. People hated the new Goods and Services Tax. And there had been another brutal recession.

But on Thursday night, when news arrived of Mr. Mulroney’s passing, the tributes flowed from every direction. He had transformed Canada’s economy through the free-trade agreement with the United States, signed landmark environmental accords, led the fight against apartheid in South Africa. And the GST had stabilized federal finances, as he predicted it would.

“A magnificent leader has passed from a world he did so much to improve,” former treasury secretary and secretary of state James Baker eulogized in these pages.

On Oct. 19, 2015, Justin Trudeau grinned in exaltation after winning a decisive majority government on a promise of “Sunny ways, my friends, sunny ways.” Once again, voters hoped for change after a decade of Stephen Harper’s able but grumpy Conservative administration.

More than eight years later, the Liberals are beset by controversies at every turn. The abuses of the international students program, the leaks at the top-secret lab in Winnipeg, foreign interference in elections, the ArriveCan app.

Not to mention SNC Lavalin, WE Charity, and those Caribbean vacations.

It would be tempting to dismiss Mr. Trudeau’s legacy as little more than a litany of scandals, misdeeds and cover-ups.

But future analysts may look at things differently. They may note that the troubled international students program was a blip, next to the landmark decision to increase the immigration intake to 500,000 permanent residents a year by 2025.

They may focus less on people who took advantage of Canada’s flawed asylum system and more on the airlift of Syrian civil-war refugees in the early months of the government, and the 210,000 Ukrainians who were welcomed here after Russia brutally invaded their country in 2022.

The ArriveCan scandal is a byproduct of heroic measures the Liberals took to keep the country functioning during the COVID-19 pandemic. That Canada had one of the lowest fatality rates in the developed world during the pandemic will be a permanent and positive part of Mr. Trudeau’s legacy.

And then there were the new and expanded programs: health care, child care, dental care, pharmacare, environmental measures. On the other side of the ledger: a massive increase in debt, chronic deficits, and an inadequately funded military.

Historians will eventually assess the Trudeau government’s failures and successes. In the end, the fiscal and economic negatives will or won’t count more than the government’s efforts to improve lives and promote diversity. At this close range, we can’t know.

But we can say this: While a week is a long time in politics, when it comes to assessing legacies, a decade is only the beginning.

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