Brian Mulroney, Canadian prime minister who shook up economy, dies at 84

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Brian Mulroney, an electrician’s son who served two terms as Canada’s prime minister, forging close ties with President Ronald Reagan as a fellow conservative and Cold War ally and becoming one of the first Western leaders to formally recognize the perils of climate change, died Feb. 29 in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 84.

His daughter Caroline Mulroney announced the death in a post on the social media platform X. A spokesperson for her office said Mr. Mulroney was hospitalized after a fall at his home in Palm Beach. Mr. Mulroney had a heart procedure following treatment for prostate cancer last year.

Mr. Mulroney pursued a path to leadership in the early 1980s that was as improbable as it was meteoric — vaulting from relative political obscurity to take the helm of Canada’s conservatives in a moment of internal party disarray.

He had already made himself rich as a corporate lawyer and displayed some innate political skills. He could work a crowd, wear down opponents in marathon negotiations and was unafraid to take bold economic steps, such as selling off state companies and hammering out the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Mexico.

Tall, square-jawed and with a beaming smile, he even looked the part of a studio-cast leader in an age defined by Reagan, a real former film star.

Mr. Mulroney knew soaring highs and dark lows. In 1984, he led one of the biggest political landslides in Canadian history but plunged to almost unmatched levels of unpopularity less than a decade later.

He often was criticized for shifting his views and policies to fit the moment and for possessing a runaway ego. Political observers speculated that Mr. Mulroney, who came from humble roots in Quebec, saw himself as an outsider constantly needing to prove his mettle.

Power-abuse allegations surfaced after his political career was over. A government inquiry in 2010 found Mr. Mulroney accepted envelopes filled with cash totaling at least $225,000 after his departure from the prime minister post. The payments were allegedly part of an effort by an aviation lobbyist, Karlheinz Schreiber, to win Canadian contracts for his clients, including Airbus.

The panel’s report called Mr. Mulroney’s apparent actions “inappropriate” but did not trigger new legal proceedings. Mr. Mulroney had denied previously any wrongdoing and, in 1997, had been awarded $2.1 million by the government in a defamation case stemming from investigations into the allegations.

In the end, Mr. Mulroney left a complicated legacy.

“Mulroney has multiple images,” Jonathan Malloy, a political scientist, wrote in 2008. “Among them are a harsh ideologue, a milquetoast pleaser, an obsession with polls, deep indifference to public opinion, a slick operator whose slickness was exposed continually, a statesman and possibly a crook.”

But there was no denying his impact on Canada. His government signed NAFTA in 1992 and accelerated the sell-off of state-owned companies, including iconic holdings such as Air Canada in the late 1980s and energy giant Petro-Canada in 1991.

One of his government’s most stunning — and controversial — moves came in 1991 with the introduction of a nationwide 7 percent Goods and Services Tax that raised prices across Canada but helped stabilize state finances.

On social issues, Mr. Mulroney also emerged as a trailblazer. He spurred greater recognition of rights for Indigenous people and led Canada to become one of the first Western nations to ratify an international biodiversity convention and a climate change accord, each signed in 1992.

His deputy prime minister, Don Mazankowski, once described Mr. Mulroney’s main achievement as having dragged Canada “kicking and screaming” toward the 21st century.

Martin Brian Mulroney was born in Baie-Comeau, Quebec, a paper mill town on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River, on March 20, 1939. His parents traced their roots to Ireland but raised their children as loyal Quebecois, with Mr. Mulroney and his siblings slipping seamlessly between English and French.

Mr. Mulroney attended a Catholic boarding school in New Brunswick and, in 1959, graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. While studying political science, he took on local organizing roles for conservatives. He obtained a law degree in 1964 from Université Laval in Quebec City and joined a powerful Montreal law firm now known as Norton Rose Fulbright.

He kept a hand in politics as an organizer and adviser for the Quebec branch of the Progressive Conservative Party, which had been pushed from power by the rising Liberal Party of Pierre Trudeau.

Mr. Mulroney built national political connections as a member of a commission in 1974 created to investigate union practices at the James Bay hydroelectric project. The commission’s bombshell findings — including claims of underworld infiltration into unions — gave Mr. Mulroney his first taste of the national political spotlight.

In 1976, the Progressive Conservative leader, Robert Stanfield, resigned after a string of election losses. Mr. Mulroney lacked hands-on political experience but made a bid for the party leadership post.

He waged a free-spending run — a “sexy, razzmatazz campaign,” he later said — that included his private jet and earned him the nickname the “Cadillac candidate.”

After a third-place finish, he went into a tailspin even as he held down a job as an executive at Iron Ore of Canada. He battled alcohol abuse and apparent bouts of depression, according to several biographies.

A pivotal moment for Mr. Mulroney came during a business trip to Romania in 1980. He had multiple glasses of Rémy Martin lined up in front of him at closing time in the Intercontinental Hotel lobby in Bucharest and exploded in anger at his friends who seemed concerned about his drinking.

The next morning, according to a 2005 biography “The Secret Mulroney Tapes” by Canadian author Peter C. Newman, Mr. Mulroney announced: “Boys, I’ve just made a decision. I’m going on the wagon. I’m going to play tennis this summer and get my [stuff] together and my head in shape.”

Mr. Mulroney kept his word. He later credited his rebound — and return to politics — to his wife, Mila Pivnički, the daughter of a Serbian doctor who immigrated to Canada. She threatened to leave him and take the children if he did not halt his drinking and notorious carousing, Canadian political journalist John Sawatsky wrote in “Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition” (1991).

Mr. Mulroney and his wife had four children, Ben, Caroline, Mark and Nicolas. His daughter entered provincial politics in Ontario. His son Ben is a well-known Canadian television personality. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In 1983, Mr. Mulroney won a parliament seat from Nova Scotia and assumed leadership of the Progressive Conservatives. By the next year, Trudeau’s government was sinking, and opinion polls pointed to a surging Conservative opposition. Mr. Mulroney and the Tories seized the moment — nearly doubling their seats in the then-282-seat parliament in one of the biggest political romps in Canadian history.

Mr. Mulroney soon faced his first crisis: the bombing in 1985 of an Air India Boeing 747 on a Toronto-to-New Delhi route. The attack over the Atlantic claimed 329 lives, including those of 268 Canadians. Years later, Canadian officials apologized for shortcomings in the investigations and possibly ignoring warnings from India of an impending attack by Sikh militants.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mulroney cultivated ties with Reagan — bonding over their shared Irish backgrounds, Cold War policies and belief in deregulation. At what was called the “Shamrock Summit” in Quebec City in 1985, the two leaders, dressed in tuxedos, belted out “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Yet Mr. Mulroney also offered public rebukes of U.S. foreign policy during his two terms, which included reelection in 1988. He told C-SPAN in 1993 that he believed Washington often ignored Canada, its largest trading partner, while it lavished attention on “tin-pot dictators” in Central America during the 1980s. He opened Canada to refugees fleeing repression by U.S.-backed regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala.

By the early 1990s, Mr. Mulroney’s political fortunes were in free fall. The Goods and Services Tax gave opponents a major weapon. In one 1992 poll, Mr. Mulroney’s approval rating stood at a devastating 11 percent. He retired from politics in 1993 and was replaced as prime minister by then-Defense Minister Kim Campbell.

The 1993 election was a disaster for the Tories. The party went from 156 seats in parliament to two.

“Popularity is bad for you,” Mr. Mulroney had once quipped in a 1992 campaign speech, according to the Toronto-based National Post newspaper. “I try to avoid it like the plague, and I’ve been reasonably successful.”

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