Last of the Nation-Builders

By Raymond B. Blake

BRIAN MULRONEY WILL STAND as one of the most ambitious and controversial of Canadian prime ministers. At the Progressive Conservative convention in June 1983 from which he had emerged as leader, Mulroney reminded delegates that Canadians sought “new leadership, [a] new vision and a new expression of our national purpose.” He saw and narrated Canada as being in need of renewal and a new direction, and he was more prepared than any of his predecessors to tackle relevant problems in making Canada and the world a better place. A prime minister with a national vision, he maintained to the end in public life — and to his dying days — that a leader must sometimes make unpopular choices if he wishes to govern wisely. During the campaign for free trade with the United States, he said “Nation building is not for the fearful or the faint of heart. Great challenges require bold responses and firm direction.” 

Mulroney died on February 29, 2024, the last of Canada’s great nation builders. He encouraged Canadians to have the courage to see things differently. He represented a watershed in Canada’s development, one that undoubtedly troubled many while he was prime minister from 1984 to 1993 but his plans for Canada became accepted, even embraced by Canadians generally and by the prime ministers who followed him. The Canada he dreamed of and tried to build was bold, significant and different from what he inherited. Throughout his tenure, he urged Canadians to “reject the call to selfishness and division” and build a nation “that was more open and fair, and generous and free, which will become the pride of its citizens and a model for the entire world.” 

Mulroney changed the story of Canada that many were comfortable with, and added elements to Canada’s story that he believed reflected the nation’s new dynamism, features he saw as necessary for accommodating the interests and aspirations of people and regions alienated by Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau and for securing the unity that the nation so desperately needed. His agenda was bold: a market-oriented approach to statecraft; a new social contract between state and citizen; closer relations with the United States, especially in matters of trade; the inclusion of Canadian values in foreign policy, particularly with regard to human rights and especially in South Africa, and national sovereignty; a recognition of distinct societies, most notably of Quebec; the prospect of self-government by Indigenous Peoples; a more decentralized federation; and a search for fiscal probity. Most of those pursuits were new for Canadians. 

Some observers have portrayed Mulroney’s rhetoric and national narrative as a betrayal of the Canada constructed since the 1940s — perhaps even since 1867. A close reading of his policies and his speeches, however, shows that he, too, focused on nation building and national cohesion, perhaps with more courage than other prime ministers even if it was a different path to protecting Canadian nationalism from theirs and building a new nation for a new era. He was the first prime minister to challenge the postwar consensus on the central role of the state and to favour elements of a neoliberal agenda of privatization, deregulation, globalization, smaller governments, and a strong belief in the efficacy of the market. He did that while, for the most part, following the path well worn by both his Liberal and Conservative predecessors.

Indeed, it was Mulroney who realized several of their goals and furthered some of their rhetoric, notably Mackenzie King’s desire for free trade with the United States, the attempts by several prime ministers to make Canada a leader for racial equality everywhere in the world, and even Trudeau’s references to reforming the social security system and ending universality. Mulroney articulated a story of Canada that he deemed workable and imperative for achieving the elusive dream of unity. He understood that if marginalized peoples were neglected or if any province were alienated, unity would be imperiled and the project of Canada threatened. He believed that Canadians needed to hear more about their country’s finances and economy and to better understand them.

Brian Mulroney was the first prime minister to speak of Canada’s founding peoples as British, French, and Indigenous, and the full participation of Indigenous peoples in economic and political life became an essential part of his narrative. He added, “We need to rethink our understanding of Canada, so that [Indigenous] peoples too will have their own space in our own time.” Together, those pursuits were too much for a normally conservative and cautious electorate but in time, Mulroney’s aspirations and policies became enduring threads in the national fabric.

Take his approach to social policy for instance. Mulroney believed that Canada’s social safety net was a “sacred trust not to be tampered with” but that new approaches were needed in the state’s social contract with citizens. These were outlined in A New Direction for Canada: An Agenda for Economic Renewal, a white paper of November 1984. He saw the persistence of poverty as an embarrassment for a nation as affluent as Canada, especially given its huge outlays in social spending. However, governments had been reluctant to tamper with universality. Both Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau had considered reforms to more effectively deal with ongoing social ills. One possible solution was to direct program expenditure, particularly for the popular family allowances program, to those most in need. At the 1968 Liberal leadership convention, Trudeau surprised many when he said, “We must not be afraid of this bogeyman, the means test. We must be more selective, to help those who live on uneconomic land or in the city slums.”

Once he was elected, however, his plan to end universality and transfer greater funds to low-income Canadians was vehemently opposed by labour and women’s groups, as well as by the Quebec government. Trudeau quickly shelved his scheme to redistribute benefits. Mulroney was not afraid of the bogeyman. A new political centre was emerging in the Canada story, and he believed that changes were possible to better support low-income families without undermining notions of social rights and equality. He took a new approach to social spending: governments had to spend smarter and use their funds more effectively. “What was good for Mackenzie King,” he asserted, “is not necessarily good for Canada today ... Maybe we can do a better job for the taxpayer and for the needy people than by issuing an automatic cheque to someone making $200,000 a year.”

The Nov. 21, 1988 election gave him and the PCs a second majority, and in the Throne Speech that followed, he proclaimed that social policies “give shape and substance to the special quality of Canadian life, and they reflect the distinctive values that give to the Canadian people their sense of uniqueness.” By then, family allowances and the child benefit were costing $4.3 billion annually, paid to the parents of some 3.6 million children but he believed that “wherever possible … scarce resources should be diverted first to those in greatest need,” adding that as a right of citizenship, every family was entitled to child benefits, but this entitlement was to be based on a family’s need.

Sure enough, Mulroney encountered considerable opposition but in 1992, he ended the universality of family allowances in favour of a new child tax benefit, a new “social dividend” for low- and modest-income families. He characterized the change as a “reaffirmation of Canadians’ belief in fairness” but asserted that the state had an obligation “to assist in the upbringing of children [since] the family and the home are the foundations of national life,” which had been King’s argument when he introduced family allowances in 1945. Mulroney articulated a new relationship between state and citizen in his narrative of Canada, one that preserved the principle of social rights but couched it in equity and fairness rather than simple universality. In both relative and absolute terms, income inequality and poverty declined during the Mulroney years: as a percentage of total government expenditure and as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP), social spending actually increased; put in constant 1992 dollars, federal spending on social programs went up from $70 billion to $80 billion annually between 1984 and 1993.

There were other innovative policies both domestically and internationally but by 1993, Canadians wanted to pause.  Mulroney had taken great policy risks and his personal friendship, sometimes with questionable individuals, made voters suspicious even before a public inquiry termed some of those dealings “inappropriate”. Canadians needed to collect their thoughts, and they re-evaluated whence they had come under Mulroney and where he wanted to take them. By then, Canadians had turned against him and the task of leading the nation could not be trusted to another PC leader, not even to Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman prime minister. Instead, Canadians chose someone whom they affectionately called “yesterday’s man,” and to their surprise, it was someone who fulfilled much of Mulroney’s dream for Canada, including recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. Mulroney’s success in advancing the narrative of a new Canada is best demonstrated by the enthusiasm with which his successors reiterated and accepted much of his rhetoric and many of his policies, including free trade, social spending, new tax measures, apologies for historic injustices, and recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. Much of what he promoted is now embedded in Canada’s story.

RIP Martin Brian Mulroney.

Raymond B. Blake drew this article from his new book, Canada’s Prime Ministers and the Shaping of a National Identity (forthcoming from UBC Press) and from his Transforming the Nation: Canada and Brian Mulroney (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007). He is Professor of History at the University of Regina and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and formerly Director of the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy and Director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University. 

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