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Friends, family pay heartfelt tribute as Brian Mulroney remembered in Montreal

MONTREAL — Members of the Canadian establishment gathered Saturday to laud Brian Mulroney as a loyal architect of modern-day Canada, one whose love of life and family transcended the rough-and-tumble world of partisan politics.

But in the end, it was Canada's 18th prime minister himself who would have the last word.

Mulroney's distinctive baritone filled Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica, posthumously accompanying granddaughter Elizabeth Theodora Lapham in a version of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" — the song he famously sang with former U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the 1985 "Shamrock Summit."

And as his state funeral wrapped up, his rendition of "We'll Meet Again" echoed off the rafters of the cavernous church as his flag-wrapped casket was escorted away by an RCMP honour guard.

The day's elaborate farewell began at nearby St. Patrick's Basilica, where family members gathered around to escort Mulroney's funeral procession through the streets of Montreal.

Minutes later, a solitary drumbeat heralded their arrival at Notre-Dame, already teeming with friends, business associates and a significant portion of the country's political elite from the present day and the last half-century.

The first in a long list of speakers was Mulroney's daughter, Caroline, who described her father as an attentive and caring parent, grandfather, political mentor and friend.

"My dad saw the world in a bigger way than most," said Mulroney, an Ontario cabinet minister.

"His humanity defined him, which is why he transcended politics and connected with people in a way that left an indelible mark on their hearts and souls."

The crowd laughed as Caroline poked gentle fun at her father's love of the spotlight — including a suggestion he wanted be buried with a podium to make speeches — and heard her voice waver as she told more personal stories of his love for her, her three brothers, and his wife Mila Mulroney, his partner of 51 years.

"Every day of my life, my Dad told me that I was the greatest daughter that God put on this earth," she said.

"Now, we all know how much he liked hyperbole. But how lucky am I that for almost 50 years I was told something so wonderful every single day."

Through tears, she ended her speech, "We adored him. I miss you, Daddy."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described Mulroney as a man motivated by service, leadership, and "getting the big things right."

In his eulogy, he said Mulroney fought for important causes including free trade, standing up against apartheid in South Africa, and repairing the ozone layer.

"As he put it himself, leaders must have vision and they must find the courage to fight for the policies that will give that vision life," Trudeau said.

And he made a thinly veiled jab at Canada's current federal political landscape: "Leaders must govern not for easy headlines in 10 days, but for a better Canada in 10 years."

The casket was carried to the church under a steady curtain of falling snow, in a funeral procession accompanied by an RCMP mounted escort, a Canadian Armed Forces honour guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force band.

Music filled the church as the casket was carried inside, followed by family members and a group of honorary pallbearers made up of his closest friends.

The church bells tolled 84 times before the service — one for each year of Mulroney's life — and 18 times afterwards for the 18th prime minister.

His eulogizers represented a diverse cross-section of Canadian society, from Trudeau to hockey great Wayne Gretzky, as well as a wide spectrum of political affiliations.

Pierre Karl Péladeau, the former leader of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, described Mulroney as a second father, while, from the other side of the partisan aisle, former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest lauded him for helping build Canada into "one of the greatest countries in the world."

Gretzky, for his part, expressed his pride at seeing past and present prime ministers together.

"That's what our country is all about," the Great One said. "Coming together, being friendly, helping other people and paying respects."

Many speakers paid tribute to Mulroney’s love for his large family, which includes 16 grandchildren. His sons Mark, Ben and Nicolas each gave readings.

Mulroney, who died Feb. 29 at age 84, was prime minister for nine years between 1984 and 1993 and led the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

His legacy includes the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico; his participation in the fight against South African apartheid; the 1991 acid rain accord; and the introduction of the GST.

James Baker, a legendary former U.S. secretary of state, could not be present for health reasons, but described Mulroney in a written eulogy as "one of the great leaders to walk this good earth."

"Above all, to those of us south of the Canadian border, Brian Mulroney was a friend," Baker said in a message read by Timothy J. McBride.

Mulroney wasn't afraid to say when he thought a different American approach would better serve both countries, he added: "We always listened to Brian Mulroney."

In addition to Trudeau, the guest list included four former prime ministers — Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark and Stephen Harper, as well as 12 current provincial premiers or territorial leaders, the leaders of all the major federal opposition parties, and several foreign ambassadors.

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was also on the list, as was former British prime minister John Major, actor Ryan Reynolds and members of prominent business families such as Molson, Irving and Bronson.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, her head draped with a green scarf, highlighted Mulroney's legacy on climate action, including the acid rain treaty. She also praised his kindness and generosity, saying he would send the "funniest" greetings by text or video.

"I'm so grateful for his friendship," she said before the service.

Michel Morin, 65, travelled from Quebec City to pay his respects to Mulroney, a fellow Quebecer who Morin described as the "little guy from our home."

"I thought it was important to come here to say a last goodbye," Morin said as he sought shelter from the snow in a nearby doorway.

The funeral ended with 19-gun salute in Montreal's Old Port, ahead of a private family burial in Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2024.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press