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Tom Mulcair: Brian Mulroney had a sincere desire to make life better for average folks like himself

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Brian Mulroney was one of a kind. Gregarious, thoughtful and engaging, he never forgot his modest roots. In fact it was those roots that gave him the ability to talk with everyone, from the most powerful to the most humble.

His accomplishments are many, both here at home and internationally. It’s with the benefit of time and hindsight that those realizations are starting to get the fair reading that they deserve.

Mulroney was always interested in politics. Heck, he got to know former prime minister John Diefenbaker when he was still an adolescent! But it’s why he liked politics so much that’s worth remembering. He had a sincere desire to make life better for average folks like himself and sensed that Canada could and should do better on the world stage.

Mulroney could light up a room, something I saw with a bunch of other young lawyers in Montreal during his successful election in 1984. His speaking was powerful yet not overwrought. He was confident but never cocky and knew how to connect. He always made it his business to stay in contact with everyone in his Rolodex and had a great memory for names and faces.

Mulroney's Irish roots are very much a part of his persona. Growing up on Quebec’s Lower North Shore, his Irish Catholic background made it easier for him to connect with the French majority in his town. His blarney and easy-going charm would open doors for him throughout Quebec, where his French was beyond fluent. He was considered one of “nous,” an attribute that would make him as welcome in a seniors meeting in a church basement as in a board meeting of a major company of Quebec Inc.

Mulroney's legacy

He straightened out the country’s finances and brought in the much-hated GST, which everyone now realizes was a sound economic decision.

His deep, personal connection to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did not stop him from challenging them over apartheid, which Mulroney correctly considered a racist aberration. Canada’s strong moral stance on this issue, under Mulroney’s leadership, is something we can still be proud of.

Of course the Canada-U.S. free trade deal that presaged NAFTA was one of his signal accomplishments. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing but any fair reading of its history points to increased economic activities as a result.

That deal was a direct result of the excellent personal relationships he’d built up in the U.S. over the years. He was able to simply call someone like James Baker and get the deal done before the fast approaching Congressional deadline.

But there was another treaty, less known but of such great importance to future generations, and that’s the Canada-U.S. treaty on acid rain. During a state visit, Mulroney and then-U.S. president George H.W. Bush had been greeted by angry protesters decrying government inaction. Mulroney decided to throw himself at the problem and in so doing he showed his “results-oriented” approach to public policy.

He pulled together the best minds and with the Americans put together the world’s first cap-and-trade system to deal with the emissions that were killing our forests. It worked. The results were there. He didn’t just emote or give speeches, he concentrated on the result.

The list of successes of the Mulroney years is quite long. One of his few real setbacks was the failure of his heartfelt efforts to bring Quebec into Canada's constitution “with honour and enthusiasm.”

The failure of Meech, and later Charlottetown, weighed on him heavily. He was right to try and that failure has had echoes for decades. But in trying, he again showed that fighting for Canada was always his top priority and an all-important part of his legacy.

Tom Mulcair was the leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada between 2012 and 2017

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