Trumping Brian Mulroney

So we got a visit from Brian Mulroney last week.
That kind of a sentence carries a vastly different flavour than it did only 25 years ago, when Bruce MacKinnon summed up a Prime Ministerial arrival in Nova Scotia with this exchange between two average Joes in one of his political cartoons:
“Well, Mulroney’s in town.”
“Why?”
“He wants to see why party morale is so low.”
“And why IS party morale so low?”
“Well, Mulroney’s in town.”
By the early ’90s, Mulroney’s name and the Progressive Conservative brand were political poison on the East Coast. Rightly or wrongly, his government was seen as uncaring and aloof when it came to the Maritimes.
But last week’s visit to Antigonish wasn’t about fighting yesterday’s battles or re-opening old wounds. The self-described Boy from Baie Comeau arrived at StFX University to help launch the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, a training centre for Canada’s next generation of leaders that will be housed at Mulroney Hall, which is designed to replace Nicholson Hall over the next four years.
To Mulroney’s credit, the former PM is putting $1 million of his own money into the venture and played a key role in raising an additional $55 million in private donations. The Nova Scotia government is kicking in another $5 million, and StFX president Kent MacDonald told last Wednesday’s launch event that the university expects to have a combined $75 million raised for the new programs and facilities by the time the doors open.
MacDonald also suggested that “perhaps if Canada is so fortunate,” StFX’s new Institute of Government could dig up “the next Brian Mulroney.”
The teenage and young-adult version of me winced a little at that concept. That shouldn’t really surprise you, as I had my political coming-of-age at a time, and in a part of the country, when it was relatively easy to demonize Brian Mulroney.
Locally, government-run facilities were shutting down and other job sources dependent on federal policy, such as the Atlantic cod fishery, were in tatters. The regional wings of two national institutions that I had come to admire and treasure – CBC and VIA Rail – were gutted. So it wasn’t hard to find anyone in the Strait area with a dislike for the Mulroney Tories.
To be fair, some of Mulroney’s difficulties during his time in office resulted from factors far out of his control. I didn’t appreciate his attempts at constitutional reform at the time, but the fact remains that, on three separate occasions, he and his government got the signatures of all 10 provincial premiers on the Canadian Constitution. (The third time, he also had the signatures of both major opposition party leaders and Canada’s aboriginal leaders. History will decide whether Mulroney erred in subjecting that agreement, the Charlottetown Accord, to the whims of an angry, fractured electorate in a national referendum.)
And, despite his penchant for running off at the mouth during his time in office – including a 1990 chortling that he had “rolled the dice” on a plan to salvage the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which died only days later – I appreciate the fact that, unlike many other retired politicians, Mulroney has pretty much stayed out of the public eye over the past quarter-century and allowed his successors to get on with their work.
Last week’s StFX visit marked only the fifth time that I can recall seeing Mulroney making any kind of significant post-retirement public appearance or media presence. (Two of the others, it should be noted, were charmingly self-deprecating cameos on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, including a brief interview “with Ben Mulroney’s dad” by former co-host Gavin Crawford in the guise of 22 Minutes’ dim-witted youth correspondent Mark Jackson.)
As well, the passage of time and the arrival of others on the national and international leadership stage provide some much-needed perspective. Jean Chretien’s Liberals took power from the Tories in 1993, winning 31 of 32 Atlantic Canadian seats. Finding their own creative ways to rile up Maritimers, the Grits lost every single Nova Scotia seat in 1997 and barely hung on to power across Canada.
Less than a decade later, Stephen Harper’s brand of nation-building sparked divided loyalties among mainstream East Coast voters and even self-described Conservative supporters in our region. Harper’s legacy – a goose-egg east of Quebec in last fall’s election and a sour-grapes attitude among the current leadership candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada – is impossible to ignore in these parts.
And I doubt I need to remind you that, south of the border, millions of Americans would take Brian Mulroney over Donald Trump in a heartbeat when they go to the polls next week.
So I’ll put “angry young Adam” aside and lift a glass to Brian Mulroney for his service to Canada and his contributions to StFX’s drive to find our next round of leaders. Despite the hyperbole of the early ’90s, Canada is still here a generation later, and Mulroney shares in that – and celebrates it – as much as any of us.