Photograph of The Reagans and Mulroneys in Quebec in 1985. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

In part 1, we began in early 1988, when Progressive Conservative (PC) Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had been in power nearly four years. In part 2, we look back to the origins of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What was crucial to the Mulroney’s re-election in 1988 was not the Meech Lake accord but free trade with the United States. Ironically that idea had come from the Liberals. Wilfred Laurier campaigned on what was then called reciprocity with the U.S. in 1911 — and lost. Long-serving Liberal PM Mackenzie King flirted with the free trade idea in 1948, but, ever cautious, decided to take a pass.

More recently, Pierre Trudeau’s one-time finance minister, Donald Macdonald, had boosted the notion of a trade deal with the U.S. through the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, which he headed. Trudeau set up the commission in 1982, but it only reported once Mulroney was in power.

At first, Mulroney was not keen on a comprehensive deal with the U.S., but over time he came to embrace the idea enthusiastically. In 1988, free trade allowed him to campaign on his plans for the future, not on his mixed record of accomplishment.

The NDP was, from the outset, highly sceptical of any Canada-U.S. deal. But the party decided not to focus on that issue in 1988. The traditional party of the left had risen in esteem during Mulroney’s first term. Its leader, Ed Broadbent, was often rated most popular by pollsters. As a result, NDP strategists decided to run a leadership-focused rather than policy-focused campaign. Their television ads featured Broadbent walking by a bucolic pond, talking vaguely about the environment.

‘Bomb the bridge’

Liberal leader John Turner was identified with the big business wing of his party, but he came out swinging against any deal with the behemoth to Canada’s south. It was the battle of his life, Turner said, sounding like a latter-day populist (of the progressive not quasi-fascist kind). Liberal ads depicted a pencil eraser wiping away the border between Canada and the U.S.

For a while it looked like Turner would prevail. Then the PC party decided to go negative, attacking Turner personally in what they called a “bomb the bridge” tactic, the bridge being that between Turner and the free trade issue. An aborted palace coup in the Liberal party, mid-campaign, luridly reported without any attributed sources by CBC, helped buttress the PCers’ case. And big business weighed in with its own costly campaign in favour of free trade, in an age before campaign spending or third-party advertising limits.

Mulroney won, the first Conservative to win back-to-back majorities since John A. Macdonald. What about Robert Borden, you ask? Mulroney was fond of pointing out that Borden’s second victory, during World War I, was not as head of the Conservatives alone. The wartime leader headed the Unionist coalition of his Conservatives and a group of dissident (largely English-Canadian) Liberals.

Mulroney went on to sign a deal with the Americans. Not too long afterward, the Liberals reverted to their traditional pro-trade stance. Jean Chrétien enthusiastically supported the expansion of the Canada-U.S. deal that brought in Mexico, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Many on the left in Canada were critical of the increasing integration of our economy with that of the U.S., but the mainstream view was that in a world of big trading blocs such as the European Union, Canada needed to get cosy with its North American neighbours, particularly the U.S. Today, with a virulent xenophobe and nationalist in the White House, Canadian trade skeptics’ doubts look more justified than ever.

Taking on Apartheid and the ozone hole

There was more to Mulroney than trade and the constitution, of course.

He joined with the non-white Commonwealth members to vote for sanctions against the South African Apartheid regime, much to the chagrin of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher. And despite his close relations with Presidents Reagan and Bush senior, Mulroney refused to participate in the U.S.’s destabilizing missile defence program, the Strategic Defence Initiative, commonly known at the time as Star Wars.

Mulroney’s government also played a key role in negotiation of the Montreal Protocol of 1987. That agreement regulated production of chemicals that contribute to the dangerous depletion of the planet’s vital ozone layer. Today, environmental activists and scientists cite the Protocol as an example of a successful multi-lateral effort. The earth’s ozone has replenished itself. If only, they say, the world, and in particular the world’s biggest economy and biggest polluter, the U.S., would learn from that experience when it came to climate change…

Mulroney is still not beloved to the average Canadian. We have said nothing, here, of his alleged personal corruption, which caused lasting damage to his reputation.

The man who grew up in modest circumstances in a paper mill town does, indeed, seems to savour the good life on the top of the hill in Montreal’s über chic Westmount and as Donald Trump’s neighbour in south Florida. Mulroney is not alone among politicians in this predilection. He might be just a bit too brazen about it.

Nonetheless, on a good many issues, Mulroney was far more progressive than the next iteration of the Conservative party that would take power in Canada. 

Parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg opens 2018 with a special historical series, which looks forward to the coming year in politics by looking back. In this collection of articles, we travel back through 50 years of history, one decade at a time. Read the full series, spanning 1968-2018, here.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...