A way with words: Political leaders past and present pay tribute to Brian Mulroney

OTTAWA — Former prime minister Brian Mulroney was remembered by politicians of all political stripes Thursday as a "giant" and a "visionary," as the country absorbed the news of his death at the age of 84.

"Mr. Mulroney was one of the greatest prime ministers in Canadian history," said former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who served in Mulroney's cabinet.

Mulroney died peacefully while surrounded by his family, his daughter Caroline, an Ontario cabinet minister, said on social media. Her spokesman later said he had been hospitalized in Palm Beach, Fla., after a recent fall.

His wife, Mila, and all four of his children — Caroline, Ben, Mark and Nicolas — were at his side, the spokesman said.

Mulroney died at around 5 p.m. and just over an hour later, as the House of Commons was debating child-care legislation, the news landed gently but sharply among the small number of MPs present.

"It is obviously with great regret that this House has learned of the passing of this country's 18th prime minister," Conservative MP John Nater said, in announcing the death to the Commons.

He sought and received unanimous consent to suspend the proceedings.

The news was so sudden that deputy Speaker Chris D'Entremont had to stall briefly while the appropriate official could be summoned to remove the ceremonial mace and close the House for the night.

Mulroney led the country as the leader of the Progressive Conservatives from 1984 until 1993.

He championed free trade and ushered in the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988, the precursor to the North American Free Trade Agreement that took effect in 1994. Many Canadians also remember him for bringing in the GST.

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who was the last opposition leader Mulroney faced before he retired, recalled his rival's penchant for trying "controversial things" — including twice unsuccessfully trying to amend the Constitution, with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords.

In a rare appearance on Parliament Hill, Chrétien paid tribute to his former opponent, saying it was better to try something hard than not to try at all.

"I was an opponent of him all my political career, but in politics, opposition is opposition," Chrétien said.

"It's like playing hockey. You can fight on the ice and have a beer together after that. And we had a lot of things in common."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was travelling in Thunder Bay, Ont., said he was "devastated" by Mulroney's death. He said his first thoughts were for Mulroney's family, and also for Canada.

"He shaped our past but he shapes our present and he will impact our future as well," Trudeau said.

"There are many many people across the country tonight who are reeling and feeling a deep absence."

Trudeau said Mulroney was a champion for the environment and stood up for Canada's values against communism, authoritarianism and apartheid.

A spokesman for Trudeau said the prime minister had spoken to Mulroney's family directly to offer his condolences.

Many politicians spoke about how much they leaned on Mulroney for advice, including Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre. He shared a photo of himself with Mulroney, thanking him for his "candid advice and generous mentorship."

Mulroney brought "transformational change" to Canada, said Poilievre.

"He unleashed free enterprise, crushed inflation, restored fiscal sanity and concluded one of the greatest free trade agreements the world has ever seen, which remains largely in place today," Poilievre said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called Mulroney "a giant" who leaves behind an "unmatched legacy."

"Brian was also so generous with his time," said Ford. "When faced with tough decisions, I often leaned on him for advice and benefited from his experience and his political instincts. He was a role model to me and taught me countless lessons on how to be a better leader."

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland reflected on turning to Mulroney for counsel as she worked to renegotiate the North American free trade pact in 2017 and 2018.

"I will miss his wise counsel," she said.

From across the political spectrum, politicians young and old recalled their own meetings with Mulroney.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who has been targeted with hate for his outspoken defence of Israel and the Canadian Jewish community in recent months, said Mulroney reached out to him just a few months ago.

"In December 2023 I was going through a pretty stressful time and Brian Mulroney took the time to call me and encourage me," Housefather said.

"That was the kind of man he was. He cared about people. A true gentleman."

Sen. Leo Housakos said Mulroney was his "personal inspiration for entering politics."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh praised Mulroney's contributions to the environment, including "leading the world in tackling acid rain and banning chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer."

Former U.S. President George W. Bush said Mulroney was "charming, fun and kind" in a statement published to X, formerly known as Twitter.

"As Prime Minister of Canada, Brian helped end the Cold War, working closely with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He developed a very close friendship with my dad," said Bush.

Mulroney gave a eulogy at the state funeral of George H.W. Bush in 2018.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2024.

The Canadian Press