In one of the major criticisms levelled at him during and after his time in office, Brian Mulroney was accused of cozying up too much to the Americans.
For some, it reached its nadir when Canada’s 18th prime minister and the 40th president of the United States – two men who took pride in their Irish roots – joined their voices proudly together in a rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” in Quebec City on St. Patrick’s Day 21 years ago.

Canadian historian Jack Granatstein reportedly said this “public display of sucking up to [Ronald] Reagan may have been the single most demeaning moment in the entire political history of Canada’s relations with the United States.”

But for Mulroney – who a year earlier won the largest majority in Canadian electoral history – that so-called Shamrock Summit proved to be a lucky charm.

Wanting to “do something for Brian,” according to a recent account by Jeffrey Chidester, research director for presidential and special projects at the University of Virginia, Reagan ordered his officials to move on several Mulroney government files, including free trade and acid rain.

Two years later, when Reagan travelled to Ottawa and addressed Parliament, he said he had “agreed to consider” a bilateral agreement with Canada over acid rain.

It would take four years, but Reagan’s successor who served as his vice-president, George Bush, signed the Acid Rain Treaty with Mulroney in 1991.

As the 67-year-old former PM recently said: “Anyone who fails to appreciate that there is an important connection between good personal relationships among leaders and success in foreign policy understands nothing about either.” Mulroney made those remarks last month at the historic Fairmont Château Laurier in Ottawa at a dinner where he was honoured as the “greenest” prime minister in Canadian history.

The accolade certainly didn’t refer to Mulroney as being the greenest in the sense of his skill at personal diplomacy, which, in Chidester’s view, “was the only way to break the bureaucratic inertia” on such issues as acid rain.

That personal touch with Reagan and Bush, which continued after they all left office, helped Mulroney forge an almost unprecedented friendly relationship between a Canadian PM and a U.S. president.

So close that Mulroney and Bush reportedly nudged along the recent softwood lumber deal reached between Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government and the administration of Bush’s son, the current U.S. President.

So warm has Mulroney’s relationship been with his former American counterparts that the boy from Baie Comeau became the first foreigner to attend a state funeral and eulogize an American head state, as Mulroney did for Reagan two years ago.

And it is partly through that rapport with Reagan – especially on the environmental front – that Tory-blue Mulroney earned the greenest-PM distinction.

Last year, Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based magazine focused on corporate responsibility and distributed to Globe and Mail subscribers, asked 12 people – 10 environmentalists, a former federal environment minister (Sheila Copps) and a historian (McGill University’s Desmond Morton) – to identify Canada’s most environmentally friendly PM.

Five of the dozen chose Mulroney, with the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau – perhaps the more likely choice, given his well-known (and well-documented) love for canoeing trips in the wilderness -in second place with three votes.

“I almost fell off my chair when Mulroney’s name started popping up,” says Toby Heaps, the 29-year-old editor-in-chief of Corporate Knights, who helped organize the Earth Week Gala Dinner that paid tribute to the former PM – an event originally scheduled to take place last year but was postponed when Mulroney fell gravely ill as a result of a severe attack of pancreatitis following lung surgery.

Among those who endorsed him for the green award was Elizabeth May, who recently announced that she would step down as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada in June. Citing his accomplishments in an interview with The Canadian Press, May presented Mulroney’s environmental record as sans pareil when compared to his prime ministerial successors.

In addition to the acid-rain treaty that reduced sulphur emissions in eastern North America, he was one of the first world leaders to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a forerunner to the Kyoto Protocol – at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio – and among the first to sign the UN Convention on Biological Diversity to slow the extinction of species.

During Mulroney’s almost nine years in office, Canada hosted a conference in 1987 that led to the landmark Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer; a $3-billion Green Plan (never fully implemented) was created to commit the federal government to specific environmental targets; and the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy and the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development were established.

Other accomplishments, as cited by Corporate Knights, include the implementation of both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act; the creation of eight national parks; strategies to protect the Arctic and to clean up the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River; funding to improve water and sewage services on all reserves; and a sustainable agriculture initiative.

And, Mulroney made Lucien Bouchard, the first federal environment minister to serve on the influential planning and priorities committee of Cabinet.

Partisanship and other criticisms of Mulroney’s years in office aside, that’s an impressive legacy – a point comedian Rick Mercer, who spoke at the recent tribute dinner – echoed when he said there are only two words separating “greatest” from “greenest.”
However, at the Corporate Knights’ dinner in Ottawa, Harper said that Mulroney is regarded as the greenest prime minister because “he didn’t pursue grandiose schemes and unworkable arrangements and the kind of problem we got into on Kyoto [the UN protocol to deal with greenhouse gas emissions].”

“Instead, he decided to make real progress, concrete progress, on particular issues.”

But Professor Michael Behiels, who teaches Canadian political and constitutional history at the University of Ottawa, says that any initiatives Mulroney undertook were based on pragmatic considerations and not the result of his being an environmentalist.

“He was never a person of principle – he was a very opportunistic politician who got done what had to be done,” says Behiels. “He probably would have also signed Kyoto.”

Though the green label may provide some vindication for the ignominious manner with which he left office 13 years ago, Mulroney’s “real comeback,” according to Behiels, may be in “pulling the strings behind the scenes for Harper.”

Introducing Mulroney at the green tribute in Ottawa, the current PM acknowledged that his predecessor has given him advice and that Mulroney played “a private but indispensable part” during the negotiations that led to the unification of the PC party and the Canadian Alliance in 2003.

Certainly, Mulroney has an unmistakable presence on Parliament Hill, as a result of several linking links to the two successive majority governments (a first for a Conservative PM in a century) he headed from 1984 to 1993.

In early February, Michael Wilson – one of the most powerful Cabinet ministers in the Mulroney government who held the finance portfolio from 1984 to 1991 – told The Canadian Press that he had talked with his old boss shortly after the Jan. 23 election. Mulroney told Wilson that he “might give some thought” the ambassadorial posting in Washington, D.C.

About a week after the chat, Wilson was offered the job.

Another previous Canadian ambassador to the U.S., Derek Burney, who was Mulroney’s chief of staff, headed the Harper government’s transition team.
The Mulroney-Harper connection can be found elsewhere.

In 1992, Mulroney appointed Marshall Rothstein to the Federal Court. Fourteen years later, Rothstein became the latest addition – and the first Harper appointment – to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Then there’s Harper’s Cabinet.

Three ministers (Rob Nicholson of Ontario, New Brunswick’s Greg Thompson and Quebecer Jean-Pierre Blackburn) served in Mulroney’s caucus. MacKay’s father, Elmer, held various Cabinet portfolios in the Mulroney government, while Industry Minister Maxime Bernier’s dad, Gilles, sat as a Tory MP in the same riding (Beauce, Que.) when Mulroney was PM.

On the Senate side, close Mulroney friend Marjory LeBreton served as his director of appointments and was appointed by him to the Upper Chamber in 1993. She is now in Harper’s Cabinet as Government Leader in the Senate. Appointed by Mulroney to the Senate in 1990, New Brunswick’s Noël Kinsella was named Speaker of the Senate by Harper.

Meanwhile, Michael Fortier, whom Harper named to the Senate and his Cabinet as his Public Works Minister, is a Mulroney friend and was a partner at Ogilvy Renault, the Montreal law firm where Mulroney is a senior partner.

Also in the Senate: Hugh Segal, Mulroney’s former chief of staff, who served as co-chair of Harper’s election campaign; and Pierre-Claude Nolin, who helped organize Mulroney’s first run at the PC leadership in 1976 and who is now one of the Conservative Party’s major powerbrokers in Quebec.

But Behiels warns that Nolin and some of the other influential members of Mulroney’s unofficial Quebec camp could take Harper down the same road followed by Mulroney when he twice attempted (with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords in 1987 and 1992 respectively) to grant Quebec “distinct society” status and give it more autonomy within Canada.

Though Mulroney’s accomplishments elicited varied reaction – from anger (introducing the Goods and Services Tax in 1991) to elation (by advocating international economic sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime that led to Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, the former PM “really blew it on the Quebec file,” according to Behiels.

“The heart of the Mulroney’s crisis was the temptation to get power. But it meant giving Quebecers an offer in the end he could not deliver on,” says Behiels, who is writing a chapter on Mulroney’s efforts in Quebec as part of a book on the former PM to be published by the University of Toronto Press next year. “Harper is now convinced by Mulroney that he should take the same tack with Quebec – that this time it will work,” says Behiels.

In the recent federal budget, Harper’s government addresses the fiscal imbalance, which the Bloc liked, but cut funds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which presumably Mulroney would not like.

And, on May 5, Harper and Premier Jean Charest signed an agreement that gives Quebec a former role in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

During an address to a luncheon meeting of the Montreal Board of Trade in April, Harper committed his government to “a new era” in which Quebec would be “confident, autonomous and proud” and have a “strong sense of identity.”

At that event, he also said his approach would lie somewhere between the one taken by Mulroney, who “tried to change everything and it ultimately wasn’t successful,” and the direction of the subsequent Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, which made the decision “to change nothing and reform nothing.”

Ultimately, though, Harper’s direction may follow the advice Mulroney gave the more than 300 dinner guests in Ottawa last month in his familiar, statesman-like mellifluous baritone voice: “Where political will prevails, solutions will follow.”


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