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Brian Mulroney, former Canadian PM who clashed with Thatcher over apartheid, dies aged 84

Brian Mulroney was a fierce critic of apartheid in South Africa
Brian Mulroney was a fierce critic of apartheid in South Africa - REUTERS

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who clashed with Margaret Thatcher over apartheid in South Africa, died on Thursday at the age of 84.

“It is with great sadness we announce the passing of my father,” Caroline Mulroney, a politician in Ontario, said on X. “He died peacefully, surrounded by family.”

Brian Mulroney, Canada’s last Cold War leader, opposed apartheid in South Africa and helped secure a landmark treaty on acid rain with Washington.

But he brought in a consumption tax still reviled by Canadians to this day, and his efforts to drive constitutional reform, in large part to bring wayward Quebec into the fold, ended in failure.

Mulroney, right, with his wife, Mila, left, and the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1991
Mulroney, right, with his wife, Mila, left, and the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1991 - GETTY IMAGES

A lawyer by training, Mulroney was ambitious and charming, with twinkling blue eyes and a baritone voice. He was at ease in both of Canada’s official languages, French and English.

He briefly came out of retirement to advise current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on a revamped continental trade deal.

“I’ll never forget the insights he shared with me over the years - he was generous, tireless and incredibly passionate,” Mr Trudeau said, hailing “Mr Mulroney’s role in building the modern, dynamic and prosperous country we all know today.”

In 1984 Mulroney led his Progressive Conservatives to power, bringing an end to almost two decades of Liberal rule in Ottawa with the largest majority government in history.

Mulroney and wife Mila with John Major in Texas in 1997
Mulroney and wife Mila with John Major in Texas in 1997 - GETTY IMAGES

That resounding victory was built on a pledge to bring his native Quebec into Canada’s constitutional fold.

On the world stage, Mulroney led a charge against the pro-apartheid regime in South Africa, putting him at odds with Mrs Thatcher.

Landmark free trade deal with US

But his greatest foreign policy achievement would be the rapprochement with the United States under Ronald Reagan - and the resulting watershed in commercial ties.

“I told him: Ronald, I want a comprehensive free trade agreement with you and the United States,” he recalled in an interview with Radio-Canada.

The two leaders, both of Irish descent, sparked a media sensation when they capped the “Shamrock Summit” by singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”

Mulroney in 2009
Mulroney in 2009 - REUTERS

Mulroney’s second term was marked by a harsh recession, which forced the government to raise taxes to try to slash a deficit that hit a record high in his final year in office.

His proposed constitutional reforms imploded - they were seen as too favourable to Quebec and rejected.

“It was the worst moment of my life,” he would later recall.

Mulroney also introduced a goods and services tax, and oversaw the privatisation of one-third of more than 60 state-run corporations including Air Canada.

By the time he retired in 1993, his popularity had plummeted; his 11 per cent support made him the most unpopular prime minister in Canadian history.

Less than three months after his exit, the Tories suffered a humiliating election defeat that saw the party’s number of seats in the House of Commons reduced from 151 to two.

Bribery scandal taints his legacy

Shortly afterwards, Mulroney was caught up in a bribery scandal.

A commission of inquiry criticised him for taking more than $200,000 in cash from Karlheinz Schreiber, a German-Canadian arms dealer and broker for Airbus in dealings with Air Canada.

He was made a Commander of the National Order of Legion of Honour in 2016
He was made a Commander of the National Order of Legion of Honour in 2016 - GETTY IMAGES

The money had changed hands in brown paper bags at three secret hotel meetings. Mulroney ultimately admitted his error in accepting the cash.

Mulroney briefly came out of retirement in 2017 at Trudeau’s behest to advise on a new continental trade deal.

He worked behind the scenes for months to convince his occasional golfing buddy Donald Trump not to walk away from the talks to revamp NAFTA.

A new agreement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, came into effect in July 2020.

Mulroney married his wife Mila in 1973 and the couple had four children.