Tom Mulcair: Fond memories of Mulroney's 'blarney' and empathy

When I was in a spot of trouble, he gave me a call. What transpired next blew me away.

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Brian Mulroney and I would see each other regularly, often at events for the Irish community.

He was very proud of his Irish roots. According to demographic studies, some 40 per cent of Quebecers have some Irish ancestry. Mulroney also never forgot his humble beginnings. His father was an electrician at a paper mill on the lower North Shore of the St-Lawrence.

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When he became a politician, he was as much at ease hugging a senior in a church basement as he was hobnobbing with the financial elites of the country. As my own Irish family would lovingly say, he had a lot of “blarney.”

He was one of a kind. Smart, engaging and sure of himself, he had an easy smile that was magnetic. He was an outstanding politician and a leader with true convictions.

The French he spoke wasn’t just fluent; it was a verbal secret handshake. He was a member of the guild, considered one of “nous.”

And Mulroney was a negotiator. He’d worked in labour law in one of Canada’s top legal firms and had learned his craft well. He knew what steps to follow to get to your goal, and that skill set served him well as he tried so hard to bring Quebec back into the Constitution “with honour and enthusiasm.”

Much well-deserved praise has been expressed for Mulroney’s outstanding achievements in international affairs.

I believe he deserves exceptional praise for his role in fighting acid rain and curtailing the substances that deplete the ozone layer.

Acid rain was killing our forests. Harmful emissions, in particular sulphur dioxide, were the culprit. Mulroney put together an agreement with the U.S. that contained the world’s first cap-and-trade system. Mulroney didn’t posture and emote. He took action and got results.

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When harmful substances, like CFCs, were discovered to be causing a life-threatening hole in the ozone layer, he again swung into action. To this day, the Montreal Protocol continues to protect the planet — and Mulroney deserves full credit.

Politics in Quebec is different from that in the rest of Canada. Federalism and sovereignty aren’t dividing lines that define economic or social visions as much as they do governance options.

Of course partisanship still exists but it often takes a back seat to making the right choice for people. Mulroney understood that, and his sincere desire to make things better transcended most party lines.

When Mulroney was facing off against John Turner in the 1984 election, Quebecers from many horizons were extremely tired of the federal Liberals — and Mulroney’s skills as a bridge builder allowed him to win seats across the province.

In the spring of 2016, I was heading for what was promising to be a challenging leadership review in Edmonton. I remember being hunkered down in a room with my closest advisers preparing my keynote for the event. Word came in from a colleague that Mulroney was trying to reach me. I gladly accepted his call and what transpired next blew me away.

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Mulroney followed everything in politics. He knew that I was in a tough spot, and he clearly felt a lot of empathy. He was avuncular, generous and very funny. His earthy choice of words still rings in my ears: “If those so and so’s (expletives deleted) are stupid enough to vote against you, I hope you just (expletive deleted) slam the door.”

It reminded me so much of my own Irish father that it took away a lot of the stress.

Just before leaving politics I had a good conversation with Mulroney during a visit by the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) to Montreal. He was gregarious and generous, as always, and we reminisced with good humour about that heartfelt advice.

What a man. May he rest in peace.

Tom Mulcair, a former leader of the federal NDP, served as minister of the environment in the Quebec Liberal government of Jean Charest.

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