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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

A Fierce Determination for Redemption

Vindictiveness mars a fine political chronicle

Lloyd Axworthy

Memoirs, 1939–1993

Brian Mulroney

A Douglas Gibson Book

1089 pages, hardcover

If you want to feel the full force that motivates the once high and mighty to pen their memoirs, consider the following dialogue from the 2006 play Frost/Nixon, by English playwright Peter Morgan. In Scene 15, David Frost receives a call from a slightly tipsy Richard Nixon to discuss the final session in a series of television interviews scheduled for the next day. Both men are counting on this media extravaganza to revive their failing reputations and public standing. The exchange goes like this:

Nixon: “If we reflect privately just for a moment … if we allow ourselves … a glimpse into that shadowy place we call our soul, isn’t that why we are here now? The two of us? Looking for a way back? Into the sun / into the limelight / back onto the winner’s podium?”

Frost: “You are. Except only one of us can win. And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I’ve got.”

Nixon: “Good for you. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us.”

The memoirs of Brian Mulroney capture just how fierce is the determination for redemption as expressed by the fictional Richard Nixon. This is the former prime minister’s supreme effort to recast the judgement of Canadians who remember him through the lens of his departure from office in a cloud of suspicion and dislike. He seeks to present himself as a leader of vision, influence and resolve. And, to his credit, he does a pretty good job of presenting his case, using all the wiles and presentational skills he used so effectively during his political career. Except he cannot control that edge of vindictiveness toward those who crossed him, nor does he make an effort to understand why so many Canadians ended up not trusting him. These are flaws that seriously mar what could have been a very good chronicle of a period of Canadian politics where significant decisions were made that altered the course of the country. (And the jury is still out as to whether that has been for better or for worse.)

The opening chapters of the book describing his growing up in Baie Comeau in a working class family is a well-written Canadian version of the Abe Lincoln log cabin story. Mulroney shows at an early age the abilities and energy that would eventually propel him to the prime minister’s office. He was hard working, had the gift of the gab and knew how to make good connections and alliances. His account of family life in the hard scrabble of the north shore of Quebec is at times touching and gives a good inkling of what would become a strong commitment to his native province.

The same traits became finely honed as he progressed through St. Francis Xavier University and law school at the Université Laval and as a young lawyer in Montreal. He was a “comer” showing an ability to advance and adapt to meet the challenges of climbing the next rung on the ladder. An interesting insight into his political make-up comes when he reveals that his becoming a Conservative was not derived from any deep ideological conviction but simply an opportunity to rise in a party that was not already cluttered with young ambitious would-be politicos as was the dominant Liberal party.

Mulroney’s memoir demonstrates definitively that someone of humble origins can make it in Canadian politics, but it sure helps if you locate in Montreal. That city has been the crucible of Canadian politics from the days of the North West Company. Its business community understands the value of political power to advance their interests, and for Quebeckers generally the grand game of federalism is crucial to their cultural identity and integrity. The rest of the country, including Toronto, still does not get the centrality of politics to Montrealers in particular and Quebeckers in general. Mulroney became pals with the new French-speaking business leadership, buying into their view of how the state should be a handmaiden of the market. In his role as a labour lawyer, especially his tenure on the Cliche Commission, he was in touch with the then powerful and decidedly separatist-leaning unions in Quebec. Not only did this grant him power and money to advance his political ambitions, but it also instilled a set of predispositions that would eventually bear fruit in his most far-reaching initiatives—Meech Lake, free trade and the GST. In this way Mulroney’s telling of his tutelage in Quebec of the 1970s and ’80s is an informative piece of political anthropology.

The heart of his book begins with the chapter titled “The New Prime Minister.” Excitement over his massive win, expectations of important matters of state to master and the heady whiff of high-level international meetings give Mulroney a rush beyond imagination. His description of becoming prime minister imparts to all political aficionados just how intoxicating is the ascension to power. (As one of the survivors of the Mulroney sweep, I recall the opposite reaction: the downer of losing power and going into opposition.) It also ushers in the determined effort by Mulroney to vindicate his record, his thesis being that he was responsible for making highly significant decisions on the economy, the constitution and foreign policy, and that the successor Liberal government of Jean Chrétien lived off the benefits that his policies had set in place.

First, let’s acknowledge where in fact Mulroney and his government deserve full honours. Unquestionably, his efforts and those of Joe Clark in leading the fight against apartheid in South Africa were a hallmark of Canada using its diplomatic clout to advance human rights. It is all the more notable because Mulroney had to go head to head with Margaret Thatcher, a soul mate, much admired by Mulroney in a variety of Commonwealth and G7 meetings. There is no doubt that this gave Canada good standing with Africans and influence with a broader constituency of developing countries, an investment that paid later dividends, as I saw directly in my time in foreign affairs as we took the same stand against the military regime in Nigeria.

I would also give good marks to Mulroney in his efforts to convince western countries, especially the first Bush administration after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming of Gorbachev, to reach out to the Russians with substantial foreign assistance as a way of supporting the newly released reform forces in that country.

Where Mulroney’s account of his foreign policy accomplishments strays into the realm of self-promotion with a tinge of self-delusion is in his declarations of how his government stood up to the Reagan administration’s demand that Canada sign on to the wacky proposal of the Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars). The reality is that he was ready to acquiesce until a storm arose in Parliament that quickly attracted the public’s attention. Mulroney dismisses this opposition as being typical of the “anti-Americanism” of the Left in Canada, one of the standard clichés used by the Right. But he quickly determined that the scheme was not only impractical but highly unpopular and, thus, changed his mind. In later assessments of how his government took an independent stance vis-à-vis Washington, he takes full credit rather than recognizing that it was Parliament acting as the forum for Canadian opinion that paved the way, just as it has in later events on missile defence and Iraq where governments bowed to parliamentary and public pressures.

This example of being indifferent and at times churlish about the workings of parliamentary democracy and the power of grassroots Canadians becomes most evident in his monumental and perpetual striving for constitutional change summed up in the words “Meech Lake.” Mulroney believed deeply in the prevailing view of the Quebec establishment that the Trudeau government’s 1982 repatriation of the constitution and Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was a serious breach of the deal between the “two” founding parties to Confederation and needed to be rectified. Like Ahab’s chase of Moby Dick, this became his quest. And his account of the endless meetings, the rallying of provincial premiers, and the disappointment and frustrations make for a saga of epic proportions. There is no doubt that Mulroney believed that this was a crucial step in the preservation of the country and that he was in a unique position to bridge the divides.

But then he goes and spoils it all by his vitriol against Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, Clyde Wells and others. In Mulroney’s eyes, Trudeau was Darth Vader who destroyed his efforts at constitutional reconciliation, and he spews invective in what must be one of the most intemperate attacks of one high-placed political figure upon another in Canadian annals. This is the black side of Brian Mulroney.

What he fails to comprehend is that Trudeau by himself could not turn that tide. There were a lot of Canadians outside of Quebec who genuinely felt that Meech would fragment the country and turn the federal government into a eunuch unable to govern in a way that would promote social and economic equity. Trudeau simply gave voice to these worries.

Mulroney was right in his search to provide Quebec with the symbolic assurances of its special place in Confederation. But he misread the mood in other parts of Canada, assuming that deal making behind doors was the only prerequisite. It is instructive that in his rueful way Mulroney reports that on the eve of the 1993 referendum on the Charlottetown accord he went to bed with full confidence that it would pass, only to discover the next day that a majority of Canadians in a majority of provinces voted against.

The same misreading can be detected in his account of another signature decision by his government, the free trade agreement with the United States, then Mexico. In the 1984 election Mulroney stated unequivocally that he was against free trade. Shortly thereafter he authorized the beginnings of negotiations with seeming little concern for his flip-flop. He then found himself caught up in the political necessity to reach a deal, any deal. While professing that the primary purpose of free trade was to give Canada a safeguard against American protectionism by having an effective dispute resolution mechanism, he, Michael Wilson and his chief of staff, Derek Burney, ended up signing onto a deal that allowed national trade law to prevail. Those who follow the sad story of softwood lumber disputes know just how ineffective the dispute resolution mechanism has turned out to be.

Here was a chance for Mulroney to reflect, but he does not. In particular, he does not examine the increasing diminution of high-value manufacturing jobs, the low productivity rates caused by miniscule private sector research, Canada’s inability to arrive at an energy policy that supports a friendly climate change strategy, especially on oil sands development, and a looming crisis in freshwater supplies—all affected by the restraints on Canadian decision making imposed by the free trade deal. Mulroney takes justifiable pride in his environmental record, but the free trade arrangement may yet prove to be the undoing of Canada’s effort to achieve effective environmental policies.

This is a legacy that I believe Mulroney himself would decry. And it is one that could have been avoided if he had listened more carefully to Canadians. His skills as a shrewd deal maker who can bring different points of view together failed him on a grand scale.

The public began to turn on Mulroney and the last sections of his book deal with his time of discontent and increasing dissension in the ranks. It was the introduction of the GST that became the boil that burst into widespread dissatisfaction. The Department of Finance pitched it to the prime minister as a more effective consumption tax than the old manufacturers levy and held out promise of substantially increased revenues. But being the Finance Department and therefore seized by the orthodoxy of limiting government expenditures, it did not balance it with any proposed addition in social or health investments, arguing that this would be unwise during a time when a worldwide recession was underway. What is exasperating is that the orthodoxy still pertains and the decade of annual surpluses in the billions of dollars goes to tax reduction and debt write-downs, not to improving the quality of life of Canadians. There are still more than a million Canadian children living in poverty a decade and a half after a parliamentary declaration to end their plight.

A very telling excerpt in the book is drawn from Mulroney’s diary where he writes about Joe Clark’s disillusionment and threat to resign: “The problem really is that Joe and some others are concerned by the emergence of an apparently one-dimensional agenda of the government, one seemingly focused on the economy to the exclusion of all other socially progressive matters.” What remains a mystery that Mulroney never explains is why the working class boy from Baie Comeau who grew up to be a prime minister with a yen for grand designs and structural changes would ignore this advice from a senior minister and do nothing to improve the position of ordinary Canadians. Maybe by this time he was too tired from his constitutional sorties, or maybe by this time he had just lost interest in domestic issues. It is instructive that in the latter part of the book the pages fill with accounts of state dinners, weekends with Bushes, G7 summits, tête-à-têtes with world leaders, nary a word about meetings with fellow Canadians in Prince Rupert, Weyburn or Cornerbook.

But the truth might just be that by that time Mulroney had become captive to the prevailing conventional anti-public sector bias of the times ushered in by the Thatcher/Reagan governments and broadly supported by the business community and the Ottawa mandarins. In fact, Mulroney proudly boasts that he “cut spending and the size of government more deeply than Ronald Reagan and privatized and deregulated more swiftly than Margaret Thatcher.”

This may be the most problematic of his legacies when one considers today the burgeoning deficit in infrastructure, the paucity of resources for education, the stinginess of our foreign assistance, the deep poverty of our aboriginal people and the increasing income gap between wealthy Canadians and those in the middle and lower income groups. A legacy that was not, I am sad to say, greatly altered by the successor government of which I was a part.

This is a memoir worthy of the time it takes to read. It is a sprawling panorama of a fascinating time in the recent history of the country told in a personal, pungent style. While Brian Mulroney takes many liberties in the telling of the story—including a memory lapse on his entanglements with Karl-Heinz Schreiber—and erodes its value by his pit bull attacks, he does add to our understanding of where we have been, which can give better insight as to where we should go. That is what a good political memoir ought to do. It is just too bad that he does not tell the whole story. As recent newspaper accounts reveal, he needs to add another chapter if he truly wants to be redeemed.

Lloyd Axworthy spent six years serving in the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and twenty-one in the Federal Parliament. In 2014, he retired as President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Winnipeg.