Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, credited with closer ties to the US, dies at 84

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who forged closer ties with the United States through a sweeping free trade agreement and whose Progressive Conservative party suffered a devastating defeat just after he left office, died Thursday. He was 84.

The country’s 18th prime minister died peacefully and surrounded by family, his daughter Caroline Mulroney said in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Mulroney’s family said last summer he was improving daily after a heart procedure that followed treatment for prostate cancer in early 2023.

Leader of the Progressive Conservative party from 1983 to 1993, Mulroney served almost a decade as prime minister after he was first elected in 1984 after snagging the largest majority in Canadian history with 211 of 282 seats.

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The win would mark Canada’s first Conservative majority government in 26 years. His government was re-elected in 1988.

Mulroney entered the job with massive support, but he left with the lowest approval rating in Canadian history. In the years since more recent prime ministers sought his advice.

“Brian Mulroney loved Canada. I’m devastated to learn of his passing. He never stopped working for Canadians, and he always sought to make this country an even better place to call home,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.

“As we mourn his passing and keep his family and friends in our thoughts, let us also acknowledge – and celebrate – Mr. Mulroney’s role in building the modern, dynamic, and prosperous country we all know today,” Trudeau said.

The man known for his charm and Irish blarney — a gift for the gab — was an ardent advocate of stronger U.S.-Canadian relations. He eulogized two American presidents.

He pushed a free trade deal forward in no small part due to his chumminess with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Few Canadians around during his reign have forgotten the widely broadcast Mulroney-Regan duet of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at the Shamrock summit in Quebec City in 1985, named after the pair’s Irish heritage and the fact that the summit fell on St. Patrick’s Day. The 24-hour meeting opened the door to future free trade talks between the countries.

Along with a fan base of fellow conservative Margaret Thatcher, Mulroney can also boast of an enduring friendship with former President George H.W. Bush.

Mulroney delivered a eulogy for Bush’s state funeral.

Mulroney also eulogized Reagan in 2004. Mulroney, Reagan and Bush became friends when they shared the world stage as leaders of their countries during the last decade of the Cold War.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney arrives at Christ Church Cathedral for the National Commemorative Ceremony in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, in Ottawa, Ontario, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. Mulroney has died at the age of 84, his daughter Caroline Mulroney posted on social media, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

Mulroney’s nine years in power overlapped with Bush’s four.

It was Mulroney’s amiable relationship with his southern counterparts that helped develop the free-trade treaty, a hotly contested pact at the time. The trade deal led to a permanent realignment of the Canadian economy and huge increases in north-south trade.

However, Mulroney’s administration was saddled with scandals and his near decade reign as prime minister came crashing down in 1993 when voters delivered a devastating election defeat to his Progressive Conservative Party, leaving it with just two seats in the 295-member House of Commons. He left shortly before the election result.

The defeat came amid widespread unhappiness over Canada’s then-depressed economy. Canadians blamed Mulroney of failing to address a three-year-old recession that left a record number of people out of work or bankrupt.

Under his leadership, a much-criticized 7% sales tax was pushed through, as well as the 1988 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, after more than 100 years of tariff protection. The agreement later included Mexico in 1994, evolving into the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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The Quebec-born, half-Irish, “boy from Baie-Comeau” (a smalltown in the French-speaking province) leader campaigned hard on the trade agreements following his first term.

But many constituents were opposed to the treaty, concerned that the agreement would jeopardize Canadian sovereignty. Critics blamed the rising unemployment during the late ’80s and early ’90s in Canada on factors such as businesses moving south to escape higher Canadian taxes and labor costs.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that Mulroney was vilified for the free trade deal during his leadership but said that history will remember him as the leader who set Canada on a path to unprecedented economic growth and prosperity.

Mulroney also irked Canadians by failing to unite the country’s then bickering provinces and resolve French-speaking Quebec’s desire for special status in the constitution, eventually leading to what would become a referendum on Quebec separation after he left office. The Quebec separatists lost a narrow vote.

Mulroney was born March 20, 1939, in Baie-Comeau, an isolated smelting town on Quebec’s North Shore.

Hired as a labor lawyer by Montreal’s largest law firm, Ogilvy Renault, he later became the president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Hanna Mining.

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Mulroney leaves behind wife Mila Mulroney and four children: Caroline, Ben, Mark and Nicolas.

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