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Brian Mulroney, former Canadian PM who forged ties with U.S., dies at 84

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  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Canada-U.S.-Mexico relationship on Jan. 30, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada, listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Canada-U.S.-Mexico relationship on Jan. 30, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

TORONTO >> Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who forged close ties with two Republican U.S. presidents through a sweeping free trade agreement that was once vilified but now celebrated, died today. He was 84.

The country’s 18th prime minister died peacefully and surrounded by family, daughter Caroline Mulroney said in a post on X. Mulroney’s family said last summer he was improving daily after a heart procedure that followed treatment for prostate cancer in early 2023. A family spokesman said Mulroney died at a hospital in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was being treated after a recent fall.

Leader of the Progressive Conservative party from 1983 to 1993, Mulroney served almost a decade as prime minister after he was first elected in 1984 after snagging the largest majority in Canadian history with 211 of 282 seats.

The win would mark Canada’s first Conservative majority government in 26 years. His government was reelected in 1988. Mulroney entered the job with widespread support, but he left with the lowest approval rating in Canadian history. His Progressive Conservative party suffered a devastating defeat just after he left office. But in the years after the loss, prime ministers sought his advice.

“He had the courage to do big things,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “He shaped our past, but he shapes our present and he will impact our future as well. He was an extraordinary statesman and he will be deeply, deeply missed.”

The man known for his charm and Irish blarney — a gift for the gab — was an ardent advocate of stronger U.S.-Canadian relations. He pushed a free trade deal forward in no small part due to his chumminess with U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Few Canadians around during his reign have forgotten the widely broadcast Mulroney-Reagan duet of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at the Shamrock summit in Quebec City in 1985, named after the pair’s Irish heritage and the fact that their meeting fell on St. Patrick’s Day. The 24-hour meeting opened the door to future free trade talks between the countries.

Along with a fan base of fellow conservative Margaret Thatcher, Mulroney also had an enduring friendship with former President George H.W. Bush.

Mulroney eulogized both Reagan and Bush at their funerals. Reagan and Mulroney became friends as two national leaders during the last decade of the Cold War. Mulroney’s nine years in power overlapped with Bush’s four.

Former President George W. Bush expressed sadness at Mulroney’s death and credited him with helping end the Cold War.

In a statement referencing the Canadian leader’s close relationship with his father, Bush quoted from Mulroney’s words at the elder Bush’s funeral: “But the best ships are friendships, and may they always be.”

“May his ship sail on in fair winds and following seas,” the statement from Bush and his wife, Laura, said.

It was Mulroney’s amiable relationship with his southern counterparts that helped develop the free-trade treaty, a hotly contested pact at the time. The trade deal led to a permanent realignment of the Canadian economy and huge increases in north-south trade. Canada is one of the most trade-dependent countries in the world. More than 75% of Canada’s exports go to the U.S.

“He unleashed free enterprise, crushed inflation, restored fiscal sanity and concluded one of the greatest free trade agreements the world has ever seen,” Canadian Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre said in a statement.

“On the world stage, he stood firmly on the side of Western allies against communism and for freedom. He was among the first and most strident to fight against South Africa’s Apartheid policy and champion the cause of Nelson Mandela.”

However, Mulroney’s administration was saddled with scandals and his time as prime minister came crashing down in 1993 when voters delivered a devastating election defeat to his Progressive Conservative Party, leaving it with just two seats in the 295-member House of Commons. He left shortly before the election result.

The defeat came amid widespread unhappiness over Canada’s then-depressed economy. Canadians blamed Mulroney for a 3-year-old recession that left a record number of people out of work or bankrupt.

Under his leadership, a much-criticized 7% sales tax was pushed through, as well as the 1988 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, after more than 100 years of tariff protection. The agreement later included Mexico in 1994, evolving into the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“Prime Minister Mulroney’s instrumental role in the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement laid the foundation for decades of economic cooperation and shared prosperity between the United States and Canada,” the U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Cohen, said in a statement.

Mulroney, the Quebec-born, half-Irish “boy from Baie-Comeau” (a small-town in the French-speaking province), campaigned hard on the trade agreement following his first term.

But many constituents opposed the treaty, concerned the agreement would jeopardize Canadian sovereignty. Critics blamed the rising unemployment during the late ’80s and early ’90s in Canada on factors such as businesses moving south to escape higher Canadian taxes and labor costs.

Former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted Mulroney was vilified for the free trade deal during his leadership but said history will remember him as the leader who set Canada on a path to unprecedented economic growth and prosperity.

Mulroney also irked Canadians by failing to unite the country’s then bickering provinces and resolve French-speaking Quebec’s desire for special status in the constitution, eventually leading to what would become a referendum on Quebec separation after he left office. The Quebec separatists lost a narrow vote.

“He helped revive the conservative party. It didn’t exist in Quebec before him,” former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said.

Mulroney was born March 20, 1939, in Baie-Comeau, an isolated smelting town on Quebec’s North Shore. The town mill was American-owned. Mulroney was raised on the notion that American investment meant jobs for his father and the other families in Baie-Comeau.

Hired as a labor lawyer by Montreal’s largest law firm, he later became the president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada, a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Hanna Mining.

In 1972, he met a bikini-clad Mila Pivnicki by the pool at the Mount Royal Tennis Club. She was 14 years his junior. She would become his wife at age 19.

His was survived by his wife, Mila, and four children: Caroline, Ben, Mark and Nicolas.

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