Brian Mulroney was a lawyer, businessman, and politician who served as the 18th Prime Minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993. He was also known as one of the country’s greenest PMs. Born in the small eastern Quebec city of Baie-Comeau, Mulroney made his mark in Canada and around the globe with the game-changing and earth-saving polices he supported. Having passed away on February 29, 2024, at the age of 84, many are reflecting on his incredible legacy leading up to his state funeral services tomorrow.

A friend of mine was fortunate enough to work on his federal election campaign in 1988. She was a first-time voter that year, but she had been raised in campaign offices and committee rooms, and was impressed with the way Mulroney interacted with people. “The energy of that campaign was different than what I have seen before or since,” she recalls. “I stood on the stage with him at a campaign stop in Oshawa and was struck by how he seemed to make a personal connection with every individual in the auditorium. He was able to rise above pure politics and make governing about issues and not personalities.”

She admires how he fought for what he knew to be right and in the best interest of the country, not just for what was popular. “Acid rain is a great example. The issue was important, and it wasn’t about how many seats it would win him in the next election. That was what made him successful on so many levels, in spite of the divisiveness of the issues. He understood the economic and legal arguments but knew it was important to take action.”

Thanks to Mulroney’s leadership and relationship building across boundaries, including hard-fought battles with lobbyists, Canada and the United States signed a treaty on reducing acid rain in 1991. The deal, which led to much needed reductions in acid rain pollution, has become a a guidebook on how nations can work together to solve environmental problems.

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Active from a young age in the political life of his province and his country, Mulroney forged lifelong connections that crossed party lines. He led the Progressive Conservative Party to the largest electoral victory in Canadian history, and was re-elected with a majority government four years later, thereby becoming the first Canadian prime minister in 35 years to win successive majorities and only the second Conservative prime minister to do so since Confederation.

Mulroney’s government had the vision and bravery to tackle major reforms for the Canadian economy and the environment, such as modernizing corporate taxation, introduced the goods and services tax, brokering the Canada–U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and spearheading the implementation of historic environmental legislation.

Official Portrait of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney | by Igor Babailov

Official portrait of the late Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney. Image Credit: Igor V. Babailov/Government of Canada.

In 2006, in recognition of his far-reaching sustainability initiatives, he was selected as “Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister” in history by Corporate Knights.

The selection committee highlighted Mulroney’s green accomplishments:

  • Forging the Acid Rain Accord with the United States
  • Ratification of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the ozone layer
  • Placing environment minister on top cabinet committee of planning and priorities
  • Appointing strong ministers to Environment portfolio and giving them authority
  • Becoming the first industrialized country to ratify both the biodiversity convention and the climate change convention agreed to at the UN Conference on the Environment
  • Introducing new national parks (such as Bruce, South Moresby and Grasslands)
  • Initiating the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act
  • Strengthening enforcement of environmental regulations
  • Launching the Raise the River Action Plan—the clean-up of the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes Action Plan, the Atlantic Coast Action Plan, and the Arctic Strategy
  • Establishing the Partners in Sustainable Development of Forests Programs
  • Signing and ratifying of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Hosting the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES)
  • Supporting the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative
  • Funding water and sewage services on Indigenous reserves
  • Proposing the Green Plan that committed the government to specific environmental targets
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Following the award presentation, Mulroney participated in an interview with Corporate Knights. His words bring us back to a different time and make one appreciate on the progress made since then:

“When I appointed the Minister of the Environment to major cabinet status, the Planning and Priorities committee, the signals that that sent through Ottawa were major, because that’s what the bureaucracy understands. The reaction was ‘Holy smokes! Prime Minister Mulroney is really serious about the environment.’ It used to be considered a secondary or a tertiary assignment, with the Minister of the Environment reduced to mendicant status with a tin cup knocking on the door of the Minister of Finance to see if he would finance a program or two. We revolutionized that. We created the Cabinet Committee on the Environment to review the environmental implications of all government initiatives. I think what made us successful was the fact that it was a sustained approach. We did something new every year. We didn’t just hit a few and then say ‘Well, we’ve done that to please the environmental groups. Now let’s go out and do something else.'”

When asked about having any regrets, Mulroney replied:

“When you get to be my age, after you’ve been Prime Minister for a long time, you look back on certain things and you say ‘Aw, Jesus, how could I be so stupid? Why did I do this when I should’ve done that.’ I don’t feel that way about the environment. I think there are a lot of things we missed, but I think we did a lot of the big things that we should have. And I’m glad we did.”

Sure, there were some well reported bumpy roads to navigate along the way, but Mulroney will be remembered as a distinguished statesman who had the courage to articulate a clear vision for the country he led and the determination to see it through. He was respectful of and respected by his political adversaries, and several are coming forward to share that he was someone who often made time to lend an ear or share a wise word.

May his legacy be an inspiring example for current and future leaders responsible for environmental policy. Build bridges and have the courage to persevere on important initiatives that are necessary to protect the natural environment for future generations. Make sure you’re on the right side of history.

Mulroney leaves behind his beloved wife, Mila, and their four children (including Caroline Mulroney Lapham, a lawyer, businesswoman, and politician like her father) and 16 grandchildren, along with many Canadians who are grateful for his lifetime of service.

For further information, visit the federal government’s commemorative webpage: https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/commemoration/brian-mulroney.html

Connie Vitello

Connie Vitello is editor of Environment Journal. Join the conversation by emailing connie@actualmedia.ca.

Featured image credit: Getty Images

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