Mulroney’s Lasting Legacy

This column from President Dingwall was originally published in the Cape Breton Post on Tuesday, March 20, 2024.

During the almost 10 years that Brian Mulroney was Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister of Canada, I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat to observe him, even from the other side of the aisle as a Liberal member of the House of Commons.

I can clearly recall the day he entered the House of Commons on the arm of Erik Nielsen and the former Minister of Veterans Affairs, George Hees, to the applause of the entire Conservative Caucus, as well as some of the individuals in the gallery.

Mulroney took a seat in the chamber and, of course, Pierre Trudeau, the prime minister, had some sharp quips for him. However, Mulroney responded in kind. All in good nature.

Eloquent speaker

Early on as Opposition Leader, Mulroney had to respond to a motion which was put forward by the Liberals. Some people believed that the Liberals were trying to set a trap for him. Many in our Liberal Caucus believed the Tories were divided on bilingualism and this was a good way to shake it up.

Mulroney took to his feet and spoke eloquently of Canada and the importance of bilingualism, and the need for the country to come together. It was a remarkable performance from a young man who had literally no experience on the floor of the House of Commons. His eloquence would follow him for the rest of his career. In post-political life, Mulroney was an able raconteur and delighted in pleasing crowds of every political persuasion.

After Mulroney’s presentation in the House of Commons, I had the occasion to walk with my mentor, Allan J. MacEachen, to his office. I was meeting with the deputy prime minister on a separate issue, and he asked what I thought of Mulroney’s presentation. I said I thought he was very good and that he was going to be difficult.

MacEachen, as only MacEachen could, said, “Well, David, you’d better get prepared. If I were you, I’d make sure that I spend every waking hour I have in my constituency.” He said, “Did you know that the Tories are running about 60 per cent in the polls?” I responded, “No, I didn’t know that, but I’ll certainly be tending to my constituency every weekend until the election is held.”

Gracious action

When Mulroney became prime minister in 1984, he was quite gracious in executing his different responsibilities. He invited United States President Ronald Reagan to Canada and held a gala in his honour at the Ottawa Arts Centre.

Upon leaving the chamber, I was one of many individuals who watched Mulroney walk with Reagan. Mulroney gently guided the president towards where many of us were standing so that he could introduce the president. I was so impressed and honoured to be able to shake the man’s hand. That was typical of Brian Mulroney at the time and for the remainder of his public career as well as his private life.

Later on, in 1993, when I was appointed to cabinet by The Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, I received a phone call that I was not expecting. It was Brian Mulroney who was no longer in public office. I was surprised, but as I learned in subsequent years, this was part of the Mulroney DNA. He was thoughtful and gracious on the phone, offered his assistance at any time and, from that time onward, I held him in high regard.

Sage advice

In 1995, with a referendum coming in Quebec, I made an important decision. In preparation for cabinet, I would always make sure I had reviewed all of my documents but, on this particular day, there was going to be a fulsome debate on what we were doing as a government in fighting the separatists in the province of Quebec.

I thought long and hard, but then I picked up the phone and I called Mulroney. He was a bit surprised to hear my voice but, nevertheless, he took my call and offered, what I thought, was sound, political advice. He indicated to me, with no harshness towards then Prime Minister Chrétien, Quebec MP Jean Charest or anyone else, that he thought the battle for Canada was being fought in all of the provinces with the exception of Quebec.

The phrase Mulroney used to describe this, which stuck with me for a lifetime, was that the government of the day (a Liberal government) was playing at Maple Leaf Gardens when, in fact, the game was being held at the Montreal Forum.

Set good examples

For those who aspire to go into public life, Mulroney set several examples which are worthy of reflection. The first one, in opposition or in government, was that one should be extremely well prepared. I don’t think anyone who saw Brian Mulroney up close could say with any degree of authenticity that he was a man who was not well prepared. He was always ready and informed, whether it was question period, cabinet or speaking across the country. Even if he was combative at times, he was well prepared.

The second lesson I learned from Mulroney was that it is important for leaders to take risks and do big things. Mulroney did a number of big things including the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement, tackling air pollution with the U.S., his support for South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, establishing a regional development agency for Atlantic Canada (ACOA) and, of course, his attempts to renew the Canadian Constitution.

For someone who was new to national public policy, I envied Mulroney’s determination, his ability to bring his caucus together and, of course, the contributions he was making to Canada.

It’s often been said that one of Mulroney’s greatest skills was his ability to keep his caucus in line. I suggest this was rather easy for him. “Why?” you might ask. Mulroney had demonstrated from the early days that he was going to be loyal to his caucus. With that first and foremost in their minds, it was rather easy for caucus members to be loyal to Prime Minister Mulroney.

‘Warm and kind’

The third lesson I learned from Brian Mulroney was that when one is in power make certain you are gracious and kind to those who have gone before you. I must admit that I, too, was a bit partisan when I assumed the office of minister, but it was shortly thereafter that I recognized this was not the way to conduct yourself. I took meetings at the request of former ministers and I assisted members on the opposite side of the House with a variety of constituency-related issues. It was wise advice that I had received from Mulroney himself.

In private life, Brian Mulroney was particularly warm and kind. I had the great pleasure, as president and vice-chancellor of Cape Breton University, of inviting him to my Leadership Dinner in Halifax in 2022. He came to the event, was warm to all of the attendees, spoke extremely well, responded to difficult questions and intermingled with the 700 people in attendance. It was a huge success for those of us at Cape Breton University, and I believe Mulroney enjoyed it thoroughly.

Like many, I mourn the passing of Brian Mulroney deeply. To his wife Mila and wonderful family, I pass on my deepest sympathies and assurances that he taught many Canadians important lessons about character and loyalty.

The Honourable David C. Dingwall is president and vice-chancellor of Cape Breton University. He also served as Member of Canadian Parliament for Cape Breton-East Richmond from 1980-1997.