FROM A YOUNG AGE, HE KEPT HIS EYE ON THE PRIZE
We have never forgotten what Baie-Comeau has meant, still means and will always mean for us. It has defined our perspective of Canada. It has shaped our idea of the country.
—Brian Mulroney, Baie-Comeau, Que., July 1,1987
Canadians would not always take their 18th Prime Minister at his word, but there could be little doubt about the sincerity of that deeply felt address, delivered to an audience of 2,000 in a local park on the 50th anniversary of his hometown’s founding. Indeed, in many ways Baie-Comeau exemplifies the bilingual vision of Canada held by many Canadians. The town was carved out of Quebec’s North Shore rock and wilderness in the mid-1980s by laborers and tradesmen, including Mulroney’s father, Ben, an electrician from the Quebec City area. Frenchand Englishspeaking, Catholic and Protestant, the settlers of Baie-Comeau reached an easy modus vivendi in the pulp-and-paper mill company town where, on March 20,1939, Martin Brian Mulroney was bom in a busy frontier hospital already filled with twice as many beds as it was designed to accommodate.
Although he left the tightly knit community to pursue high-school and university studies and, later still, work and political opportunity,
he returned to Baie-Comeau again and again—first for jobs over 11 summers, then as a native son bent on representing his former neighbors as a federal politician. Says Lloyd Duhaime, a BaieComeau-bom lawyer who wrote a book commemorating the community on its 50th anniversary: “Mr. Mulroney may not get buried in Baie-Comeau, but he has always had a very intense personal connection with the town and its people.”
From the start, the young Mulroney was a highly social—and political—individual. The third of six children born to Ben and Irene Mulroney, he gre'w up in two modest rented homes, both on Champlain Street and a short walk from the Quebec North Shore Paper Company mill where Ben worked. An eager student and a determined, if not naturally talented athlete, Mulroney possessed other gifts as well. He was called on repeatedly by the mill’s owner—and town founder—American newspaper publisher Col. Robert McCormick, to perform his wide repertoire of popular songs at the company’s social affairs. He also won several speaking contests.
But more than that, he had the ability to build bridges between the community’s two language groups—and make and keep friends in both. Says boyhood friend Wilbur Touchie, now a 56year-old accountant for Canadair Ltd. in Montreal: “He was the
type of kid who could go easily from one level to another—one day playing with the children of the English top-management families, the next with the kids in the French-Canadian group.” That quality was to serve him well in future leadership and election campaigns for a party badly in need of allies in French-speaking Quebec.
Indeed, Touchie and others say that Mulroney wore his political ambitions on his sleeve at a young age. “Even as a little kid,” Touchie recalled, “he was always saying what he wanted to be one day—Prime Minister.” And he immersed himself in electoral politics with a passion, becoming an ardent Tory almost as soon as he arrived at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., in 1955. In 1956, he volunteered his services in the successful provincial campaign of Robert Stanfield, the Conservative Nova Scotia premier who later replaced John Diefenbaker as national leader. Recalls Finlay MacDonald, a Halifax radio station owner who was appointed to the Senate by the new prime minister in 1984: “We shared the same tremendous admiration for Stanfield.”
MacDonald, then a senior campaign worker for g Stanfield, says that he was immediately struck by 5 Mulroney’s maturity and verve. “One word,” 8 he recalls, “described my first impression of g Brian Mulroney—irrepressible. He was en| thusiastic, charming and dogged—a dogged| ness he could always back up with perforin mance.” Adds MacDonald: “If you told him, for example, to tie a pink ribbon to a dog’s g tail, it was tied—and in the right spot.” 5 Mulroney, then just 17, was quickly entrusted with major campaign responsibilities, g travelling around the province, making £ speeches and writing radio commercials. A Says MacDonald: “At a very, very young age he inherited campaign responsibilities that, ordinarily, his age wouldn’t warrant.”
And even as an undergraduate, Mulroney had political connections that would rival those of seasoned politicians.
Charles Keating, a 59-year-old lifelong Liberal who is now proprietor of a Dartmouth, N.S., cable television firm, was studying engineering at St. Francis Xavier when he and Mulroney joined forces on a championship debating team.
By then, Mulroney had become a friend of John Diefenbaker while serving as vice-chairman of “Youth for Dief” in his winning 1956 leadership campaign. Keating recalls that after Diefenbaker’s 1957 election victory, he and several other students were sitting with Mulroney in the student dining room “when an announcement came over the loudspeaker saying, ‘Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister Diefenbaker is on the phone.’ ” Says Keating: “You can imagine the catcalls and the spoofing from the boys when they heard that. But Mulroney was very cool about it.”
Adds Keating: “In fact it was Diefenbaker, and shortly afterwards he came to the campus to see Brian. He sat in that same dining room and had lunch with him for all to see. That restored Brian’s credibility in a hurry.”
Respect: Keating, unlike many who crossed Mulroney’s path, never became a member of Mulroney’s network of | friends and contacts from university. But he maintained a | healthy respect for his former debating partner. He recalls 5 that when Mulroney lost his first bid for the Tory leadership in 1976, Keating told Liberal friends, “Thank God he didn’t win—because if he had we’d never get rid of him.” Mulroney would one day enlist other classmates in his cause—among them Fred Doucet, who later served Mulroney as a senior adviser, and Lowell Murray, who became a senator and member of Mulroney’s cabinet.
Others, too, would be deeply marked by their brush with the energetic student leader: one was Terry McCann, a onetime Liberal from Pembroke, Ont., who, with a $500 donation, became the first contributor to Mulroney’s 1976 leadership campaign. Indeed, McCann joined the Conservatives on the day that Mulroney finally became party leader seven years later. McCann, now mayor of Pembroke, says that he has never lost touch with Mulroney. He added: “Friendships to him are golden, they are precious. He relies on them, values them and gives of himself to his friends in a tremendous way.”
Glamorous: Mulroney’s network of connections from St. Francis Xavier became the nucleus of a wide and ever-expanding circle of allies. He established even more close friendships at Quebec City’s largely francophone Laval University—and more still in Montreal’s legal, business and media communities. Mulroney chose to study law in 1960 at Laval after a year at Dalhousie University in Halifax. At Laval, he was one of a number of students—among them an array of anglophones—who would later carve out reputations for themselves in national life. According to Mulroney’s friend, sometime speechwriter and biographer L. Ian MacDonald, the Prime Minister’s generation was deeply influenced by the “mystique” of President John F. Kennedy. As a result of Kennedy’s 1960 election victory, said MacDonald, “Public service was glamorous—it was the thing to do.”
Mulroney’s intimates at Laval included Michael Meighen and
Michel Cogger (later appointed by Mulroney to the Senate after working as Conservative organizers), Bernard Roy (a future Mulroney principal secretary) and Peter White (who became a trusted political adviser). He also forged a close friendship with Lucien Bouchard, a Quebec nationalist, who Mulroney persuaded to enter politics after he named him ambassador to France. Wrote MacDonald in his 1984 biography Mulroney: The Making of the Prime Minister. “Of all the people who he would meet in the many worlds he would inhabit, none understood him better than Bouchard.” Bouchard’s 1990 defection from the Tories in a dispute over the Meech Lake accord, and his subsequent establishment of the separatist Bloc Québécois, shattered that bond. Since then, the two men have scarcely acknowledged each other.
After graduating from Laval in 1964, Mulroney flirted briefly with the notion of returning to booming Baie-Comeau to practise law. Instead, the glamor of Montreal beckoned and he took a position in the firm of Howard Cate Ogilvy, where he shone as a labor lawyer with a fondness for late-night deal-making. In that capacity, Mulroney began to pave the way for his eventual political career. In 1966, he represented shipping interests before a royal commission studying labor-management relations on the Montreal waterfront. That experience laid the groundwork for an even more prominent assignment as co-counsel for the 1974 Cliche commission studying corruption and violence in Quebec’s construction industry.
Robert Cliche, himself, asked Mulroney to serve on the commission. The widely respected former Quebec NDP leader had taught Mulroney trial procedure at Laval. His commission, replete with revelations of vice and corruption that Mulroney later told broadcaster Barbara Frum “curled my hair,” propelled the confident, media-sawy Mulroney into the spotlight. Indeed, Mulroney later told biographer MacDonald that it was “most unlikely that I could have done what I’ve done on the public side without that boost from the commission.”
Smitten: Before his involvement in the Cliche inquiry, Mulroney had lived the carefree life of a Montreal bachelor with many women friends. Then, in 1972, he met Mila Pivnicki, the 18-year-old daughter of Serbian-born Montreal psychiatrist Dimitrije Pivnicki and his wife Bogdanka. Mulroney was smitten. Although he was almost 15 years older than her, they married after 10 months of courtship and settled in Westmount.
At that point, Mulroney’s political career took a new, more active tum. In 1975, after three successive losses to Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau, Conservative party Leader Robert Stanfield announced
that he was resigning. Mulroney announced his candidacy on Nov. 13, 1975. But in the Ottawa leadership convention three months later, he faced an imposing array of Tory aspirants, among them Claude Wagner, Flora MacDonald, Paul Hellyer and Joe Clark.
Mulroney’s first foray into the rough-andtumble of convention politics was ill-starred from the start. Never before had he faced the blinding and merciless glare that the media and public reserve for those who aspire to national leadership. The qualities that had endeared him to his friends—loyalty, industry and generosity—were of little use in that wider forum. Instead, critics said that he was too well-packaged, slick, manipulative, freespending and thin-skinned—qualities that would be ascribed to him in later years, as well. Others within the party faulted him for his electoral inexperience.
Still, Mulroney had some strong supporters. One was Heath Macquarrie, an MP from Prince Edward Island since the Diefenbaker victory of 1957. With a handful of others,
Macquarrie argued that for the party to recapture the power it had lost 13 years earlier, it had to win seats in Quebec. Says Macquarrie, appointed a senator by Joe Clark in 1979:
“Mulroney was a bright, engaging man who spoke French as if it were no burden.” Added Macquarrie: “I was impressed by the need to make the Quebec electorate more supportive of the Conservative party—and I was very resentful at the smoke screen thrown up by some more establishment types in the party who said we could not have someone who was not from caucus.”
Mulroney’s former political mentor, John Diefenbaker, was among those who had doubts about the young Quebec lawyer’s qualifications. Diefenbaker’s remarks to the convention seemed aimed directly at Mulroney, who in 1966 had worked behind
the scenes to oust Diefenbaker from the Tory leadership. Said the former prime minister: “In the British parliamentary tradition, those that achieve the prime ministership must have had years of experience.” In the voting three days later, Mulroney hung on for three ballots, placing far behind both Wagner and the successful Clark.
Sorrows: The loss embittered the 36-yearold Mulroney. A two-fisted drinker who enjoyed the company of fellow politicians and journalists in Montreal watering holes—one of his favorites was the Ritz-Carlton Hotel— he tried and failed to drown his sorrows. His marriage consequently suffered strains. Not even a job paying $180,000 a year (U.S.) as executive vice-president of the Americanowned Iron Ore Company of Canada soothed him. Still, Mulroney made a success of the position, becoming president of the company and achieving labor peace among
its 7,000 employees, turning a record profit and surviving a controversial reduction in the size of the company’s workforce that entailed the shutdown of an entire town—
Friends say that the birth of Mulroney’s second son, Mark, in 1979 had a profound effect on his personal life. Recalled MacDonald: “It was an important event. He did the coaching and went into the delivery room. He and Mila became quite close after that. And it was around that time he decided he could do without a drink.” Those close to him insist that he has not touched alcohol since. (Later, in 1983, Mulroney broke a heavy cigarette habit.)
Mulroney’s leadership ambitions quickly reignited when Joe Clark, who became Prime Minister as head of a short-lived minority government in June, 1979, returned to the Opposition benches after the defeat of his government. While publicly supportive of Clark’s party leadership, he lobbied tirelessly behind the scenes for Clark’s job.
But it was Clark himself who, in the end, provided the opportunity that Mulroney had been seeking. At the party’s January, 1983, convention in Winnipeg, the then-Opposition Leader received a fraction more than two-thirds of delegate support—marginally more than he had won in a similar 1981 leadership review. Despite that respectable showing, Clark said that such a mandate was “not clear enough” and called for a leadership convention.
Mulroney was determined to avoid the same mistakes that had bedevilled his candidacy seven years before. No longer a brash newcom-
er, he entered the leadership race on March 21, 1983, the day after his 44th birthday, as a seasoned professional. He took care not to antagonize delegates and he planned a frugal, quiet campaign out of the media spotlight, concentrating on winning votes rather than headlines. He emerged on June 11 as the clear victor, with 1,584 votes to Clark’s 1,325 on the fourth ballot. In his 19-minute victory speech, Mulroney told delegates at the Ottawa convention, ‘We reach out to Canadians and together—ensemble—together, we’re going to build a brand new party and a brand new country.”
Gracious: Mulroney moved quickly to heal the wounds in the battle-weary party— wounds that some Tories accused him of inflicting. Gracious in defeat, former leader Clark said that “Brian and I are old friends,” adding that he would work hand-inhand with his successor. Mulroney, too, was ready to work with his former rivals. Said Finlay MacDonald: “Even though I was working for Clark, Brian soon put me in charge of his transition team. There were no hard feelings of any kind at all.” Mulroney quickly laid the groundwork for the next election. His friend and colleague Elmer MacKay vacated his Nova Scotia seat for the new leader, setting the stage for an August byelection victory. Then, only nine days after he had taken over the Liberal leadership from Trudeau, Prime Minister John Turner called an election for Sept. 4,1984.
To the wider Canadian public, Mulroney was still largely an unknown. He ran a low-key but resoundingly successful campaign, offering brief broadcast sound bites rather than detailed descriptions of the policies he planned to pursue in office. He would fight to safeguard the free enterprise system, give “pink slips and running shoes” to unco-operative bureaucrats and, above all, work to create “jobs, jobs, jobs” for an economy that was still struggling to recover from the 1981-1982 recession.
But months before that election, in January, 1984, he had laid the foundations of a program that was substantial rather than rhetorical. According to MacDonald, he told senior policy adviser Charles McMillan that he would like to be remembered for four things: producing a constitutional settlement that would include Quebec, restructuring the Canadian economy to meet increasing global competition, consolidating an international role for Canada and improving the lives of natives. For the most part, Mulroney attempted to carry out that agenda after he coasted to victory on Sept. 4, 1984. In some areas, the man from Baie-Comeau succeeded—in others he will be remembered as a dramatic failure.