Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, pictured in a 2009 file photo, died Feb. 29, 2024, at age 84. From 1984 to 1993, Mulroney led the country as the Progressive Conservative prime minister and is being remembered as one of Canada's most consequential prime ministers.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, pictured in a 2009 file photo, died Feb. 29, 2024, at age 84. From 1984 to 1993, Mulroney led the country as the Progressive Conservative prime minister and is being remembered as one of Canada’s most consequential prime ministers. OSV News photo/Chris Wattie, Reuters

When St. John Paul II arrived in Ottawa in 1984, the first pontiff to visit this country, greeting him in Ottawa was Canada’s 18th prime minister, Brian Mulroney, one of 10 Catholics who have held that office since 1867.

The “little guy from Baie Comeau,” raised by Irish Catholic working-class parents, had come a long way from his childhood job of distributing advertising flyers to receiving dignitaries of the pope’s stature.

From 1984 to 1993, Mulroney led the country as the Progressive Conservative prime minister, after steering his party to a landslide victory and breaking 26 years of consecutive Liberal rule (minus the short-lived government, 1979-1980, of Canada’s 16th prime minister, Joe Clark, and his Progressive Conservatives).

But now the booming baritone voice that famously broke into the song “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” with U.S. President Ronald Reagan has been stilled forever, and the smile that charmed friends and political opponents alike will become a distant memory.

The flag on Parliament Hill in Ottawa has been flying at half-staff since Mulroney’s death Feb. 29 at age 84 shook the nation. An outpouring of condolences and tributes is still flowing in from across the country and around the world, while a state funeral in Montreal is being planned. No date has been set.

“We join with so many from throughout Canada who are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. As with all those who are called to the vocation of political life, we give thanks to the Lord for his many years of service to our country, most notably as the 18th Prime Minister of Canada,” read a statement from Toronto Archbishop Francis Leo.

Mulroney’s religious and personal identities were forged by his upbringing as a Catholic of Irish descent. Born and raised by working-class Irish Canadian parents in Baie Comeau, a small, isolated town about 260 miles northeast of Quebec City, daily life in his childhood home centered on the Catholic faith.

The first school young Brian attended was the Académie St. Amélie, a Catholic primary school run by nuns, within easy walking distance of his home. An honor student, he also was an altar boy in his parish.

At age 14, he was sent to Catholic-run St. Thomas College in Chatham, New Brunswick, and he later attended St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where he excelled at public speaking and debating. After graduating with a degree in political science, he went to law school at Quebec’s Laval University where he built a network of friends who would play a prominent role in Canadian politics for years to come.

He achieved success as a lawyer and businessman before he was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, leading the party to one of the biggest landslide victories in Canadian history in the 1984 election. Winning 211 of 282 seats in the House of Commons, including more than three-quarters of the seats in Quebec, was a remarkable breakthrough for the Progressive Conservatives. Riding a wave of popularity, particularly with Quebec voters, he won a second majority government in 1988.

But shortly before the election of 1993, unpopular measures such as a Goods and Services Tax and the failure of an accord intended to include Quebec in the constitution, had seen his approval rating plummet to an all-time low. He resigned and handed over power to Kim Campbell, and the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two seats.

Throughout his career, as he moved from political and professional success to defeat and disappointment, Mulroney remained a steadfast Catholic in his private and family life. He did not, however, indulge in overt displays of his faith in his public life or allow his religious beliefs to override what he thought was good for the country.

“Compared to some other prime ministers, whatever faith he had was pretty private. John Turner was known to take his faith seriously, prioritizing attending Mass for example, and I think the same can be said of Paul Martin,” Jonathan Malloy, a political science professor and expert on prime ministerial leadership at Ottawa’s Carleton University, told The Catholic Register, Canada’s national Catholic newspaper based in Toronto. “Pierre Trudeau was also a person of faith, though somewhat more in an intellectual sense.”

Malloy added that Mulroney’s approach to keeping his religion more as a private matter is best illustrated in how he approached abortion.

“Like his Catholic contemporaries Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, he felt that religion and politics were mostly separate and should remain that way,” he said. “This is best seen in how each approached abortion; in most cases expressing personal hesitancy and yet being more or less pro-choice politically. Mulroney was the only one that actually pursued abortion legislation, but only because the existing law was struck down; he pursued compromises that satisfied no one and eventually abandoned them.”

Aside from abortion and euthanasia, also central to Catholic social values are peace, social justice, and care for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. His actions in these areas included supporting Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid in South Africa; launching the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People, created in 1991 created to help “restore justice to the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada; and backing the Acid Rain Accords aimed reducing pollution on both sides of the border.

U.S. President Joe Biden in a March 1 statement called Mulroney “fearless” and “not afraid to stand up for causes he cared about.” Biden said he got to know him when he served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I saw firsthand his commitment to the friendship between our two nations, as well as his abiding love for Canada and its people,” he said.

“Politicians have a unique opportunity: they can help individuals, yes, but they also have the power to create the very conditions by which people can flourish, which has a much larger impact,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.” “What we need is a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good.”

Measured against this standard, Mulroney will be remembered as one who sought the common good, and in so doing, changed the economic and social landscape of Canada.

He is survived by his wife, Mila, and four children: Caroline, Ben, Mark and Nicolas.

Susan Korah is Ottawa correspondent for The Catholic Register, Canada’s national Catholic newspaper based in Toronto.

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