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'Quite an extraordinary figure': Former prime minister Joe Clark reflects on passing of Brian Mulroney

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Former prime minister Brian Mulroney had a “quite remarkable” ability to bring people together and draw out the best in them, says Mulroney’s former political rival turned member of cabinet, former prime minister Joe Clark.

“One of the things one talks about regarding Brian Mulroney was his capacity to draw people together. What we overlook sometimes, is how determined he was to do that, and how good he was at it,” Clark told CTV’s Question Period host Vassy Kapelos, in an interview airing Sunday.

“And it meant recognizing the strengths of others and drawing them out,” Clark added. “And again, for all of the power he had himself, the personal power, the capacity, he recognized capacity of others.”

Mulroney died Thursday at age 84.

This country's 18th prime minister — who served in the country’s top job from 1984 to 1993 — is being remembered as a consequential leader with an indelible political legacy and an even greater personal one.

Mulroney entered politics to run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1976, ultimately losing to Clark before going back to private life and business.

But he returned to politics in 1983 to defeat none other than Clark himself, when the latter held a convention in an attempt to silence his growing number of critics within the party.

It was a significant defeat for Clark, who had served as prime minister from 1979-80.

Later, when Mulroney won the 1984 federal campaign with the largest number of seats in Canadian history, he and Clark mended fences, and he made him a member of cabinet, where he worked as secretary of state for External Affairs — now called foreign affairs minister — for six and a half years.

"We knew that there was nothing fundamental on which we disagreed,” Clark said. “We had a disposition towards the future of the country that was quite compatible one with the other. So we got over the personal stuff, and I think made a quite remarkable success of it.”

In his interview, Clark also discussed the standout accomplishments from his work with Mulroney, including opposing apartheid, and negotiating NAFTA.

This transcript of Clark’s interview with Vassy Kapelos for Sunday’s episode of CTV’s Question Period has been edited for length and clarity.

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Vassy Kapelos: Hello, Mr. Clark, Mr. Prime Minister, it's great to have you back in studio. Although I do wish it were under different circumstances.

Joe Clark: Yes

Kapelos: Thank you for making the time. You were defeated by Brian Mulroney …

Clark: I defeated him too, of course.

Kapelos: This is very true. And you served however, after that, in some incredibly significant and important portfolios, foreign and external affairs, what was your relationship with him like during that period?

Clark: "Well, it changed it. First of all, it was a long relationship. We were both young Progressive Conservatives back in the day. Everyone else in the world has forgotten John Diefenbaker. But he brought us into public life.

"It's interesting, because his theme was a vision for a new and greater Canada. It was a vision, not division. And that was the inspiration, I think, that both Brian and I followed.

"Afterwards, we worked together for a lot of things, we were on common causes at early leadership conventions. Some time ago, we both supported the late Davie Fulton for the leadership of the party that Mr. Stanfield won, we then became antagonists in two conventions. And we both deliberately got over that. And we had a quite strong working relationship, friends, but sort of friends of necessity, but friends with a background of friendship.

"And I think a sense of having grown up with similar kinds of aspirations, and learned to work quite well together. There were times that were tough after both campaigns. It's more fun winning than losing. But, we both made a point after he won the leadership, to recognize that we would better serve the country and ourselves together, and we did our best to do that."

Kapelos: I was going to ask, when you say you deliberately got over it, both of you? What was the motivation for that, do you think, in both your cases?

Clark: The Progressive Conservative Party at that time was a very valuable institution, it had made a decision. Each of us was disappointed when it went against us, but both of us remained very active in the party.

"We think national parties were important, we thought government was important. We knew that a convention could lead to internal divisions that if that were encouraged, the party would come apart would not be able to fulfill its function.

"And we knew that there was nothing fundamental on which we disagreed. We had a disposition towards the future of the country that was quite compatible one with the other. So we got over the personal stuff, and I think made a quite remarkable success of it.

"I've heard people say they were surprised that I was appointed to external affairs, the foreign ministry, I wasn't surprised.

Kapelos: Why not?

Clark: "Well, because it was an important portfolio. Brian knew he had to have me in the cabinet. I don't want to put it in that negative way. A foreign minister is also away a lot, which is, a convenience for when there had been the kind of relationship we had. But he was immensely supportive of me there. We tried to run an aggressive foreign ministry, with which we tried to do a lot of things. He supported us every bit of the way. And in times when it took a head of government rather than a mere foreign minister, to go in and make a case, Brian did that, and he did it with great effectiveness."

Kapelos: I wanted to ask you about, in particular, one instance. There were some incredibly significant things that you both oversaw, that have had a huge impact on not only the fabric of our country now, but also the way in which we're perceived by the rest of the world. And in particular, one thing so many people have been talking about over the last number of days, is this country's position on opposing apartheid. What was that like, behind the scenes, to go against the posture of some of our closest allies?

Clark: "Well, first of all, I'd mentioned the Diefenbaker influence, Mr. Diefenbaker made his mark internationally as a vocal opponent of apartheid. Brian and I both admired that, we felt there was something of a legacy. We also felt it was a problem that should not go unaddressed. And, yes, we ran some risks. A lot of the countries with whom, to whom we were close, the United Kingdom and the U.S. at that point, were more cautious than we were.

"But we plotted our own course. We had a standing there, Canada did at that time, we had a standing in Africa. We had friendships with the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement… others, and so we saw it as an opportunity for Canada to make a real difference on an important issue. To put a lot of resources in it.

"I chaired the Commonwealth committee of foreign ministers, Brian was a constant supporter at G7 and other meetings, Commonwealth meetings, he led the fight, and we gained the respect of others.

"We encouraged other Commonwealth countries who might have been reluctant to be more straightforward, we established a good bond with the African countries who began to regard Canada as not simply a friend, but an advocate on that issue. And he played a central role, and I played a central role, and for two former adversaries that had a very good result for Canada, as it did on a number of other issues."

Kapelos: What, to you, stands out as the most consequential issue that the two of you worked on?

Clark: "Well, that was one of them. Obviously, the Free Trade Agreement was important. But, I think also, we had a common interest in making sure that a national government over two terms was able to work and to function.

"One of the things Brian did that was quite remarkable was he would draw a group of, in those days it was the boys, our ministers together in his office often. I wasn't part of that. Because I think in a sense, I didn't need to be, our personal relationship was strong. But one of the things one talks about regarding Brian Mulroney was his capacity to draw people together. What we overlook sometimes, is how determined he was to do that, and how good he was at it. And it meant recognizing the strengths of others and drawing them out. And again, for all of the power he had himself, the personal power, the capacity, he recognized capacity of others.

"I looked back at some of the ministers with whom he was close, people who were not necessarily like him in the terms of a great friend, but he brought out the best in them. He made them feel that they were important contributors, that they had things to offer… They felt at ease with him, and he worked at it.

"That's the other thing, as I've watched him in recent years, I think that the extent to which he worked so hard at his public responsibilities, probably did in fact have some impact on his health going forward, because he was on top of the game almost all the time."

Kapelos: What do you think it says that, in that process, the degree to which I have seen people respond to his passing, from the widest possible scope of the political spectrum, you could imagine, the number of people who can say ‘I have received a phone call from him,’ is in this day and age, of such high polarization, is almost shocking.

Clark: "But it was always a hallmark of Brian Mulroney. He was always in touch with people. And it wasn't phony. It was real. He was interested in them, he didn't underestimate his own strengths, but he understood that he had weaknesses, too.

"He had deficiencies, others had to bring that forward, and he needed them. And he reached out to them extensively.

"He had a gift, not just when things were tough, he had a gift for bringing people together, for getting them on a common track. That came up with a lot of the negotiations, some of the stories about the personal role he played in the Free Trade Agreement, going in when the negotiations had failed, and playing a high stakes game that worked to make sure we got that agreement.

"That was a characteristic of the way he applied himself to the job. It's not an easy job."

Kapelos: You would know

Clark: "I would know, but I wasn't there as long as he was, and the years take their toll.

"But as time went on, he continued to draw the best out of his diverse group of colleagues.

"He was unpopular in some parts of the country, that goes without saying. Undoubtedly, that troubled him. But it didn't deter him. He went ahead trying to do the best that he could and encouraging others with him to do that.

"He's going to be missed. It was a very different time in public life in the country. He was a quite extraordinary figure. He was in the lives of so many people whom he didn't actually meet or with whom he had a phone call. They remembered, and probably he did. But, he made a real difference in the way he used his authority as prime minister."

Kapelos: I'm going to leave it on that note. Thank you very much, Mr. Clark. I appreciate your time and your insights, as always.

Clark: Thank you.

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