Believe it or not!: We are all living in Brian Mulroney’s Canada

Brian Mulroney would’ve surely approved — aside from the dying part — the many reverent assessments of his life. .

The Globe and Mail, which he always treated with tender care, called him “the last great prime minister.” I like a consensus as much as the next guy but there are points on which I take issue. I don’t consider this disrespectful.

The deaths of leaders are times for stock-taking elsewhere and there’s no reason Canada should be an exception. There’s something odd about even feeling uneasy doing so. We aren’t talking about your Uncle Charlie.

The first area is economics. I don’t deny that “economically speaking, we are all living in Mulroney’s Canada,” but I disagree that it’s a blessed state. The result of his 1988 free trade deal with the U.S. was that good industrial jobs shifted to low-wage nations while workers stayed put and rummaged for poorer jobs at home.

As manufacturing ‘hollowed out,’ the economy got “financialized,” focusing on money manipulations like mergers among the wealthy players, while workers were marooned in areas like services, retail and eventually, precarious “gigging.” This in turn widened the gap between the rich and the rest, expanding poverty, while the middle classes diminished. The main source of wealth for the majority became their homes, not their jobs, a shaky situation that left the generation now entering the workforce with scant hope of even owning a home.

Andrew Coyne in the Globe usefully limned this decline over the past 40 years, as a drop in business investment “per worker” compared to others. As a result, “countries that used to be poorer than us … are now richer than we are … Among the richer countries we are on course to being one of the poorer.

Coyne didn’t note that this course coincided with Mulroney’s economic agenda.

It was also, lest we forget, an era of idolizing CEOs, in bestselling bios and TV shows, as godlike figures who alone fixed the fate of their companies, and who were meant to be set free from all democratically inflicted restraints.

The politics bequeathed by this economics are even less benign. With the debacle of 2008-9, the depth of financialization became clear, along with the uncheckable power of big finance, like the banks, who alone got bailed out.

Much anger ensued, and a rise of populist demagogues like Donald Trump claiming to speak for the furious masses but saying immigrants and minorities were the real problem, or wokeness, while also diluting those economic policies. Rage, hate and undermined democracy are, then, the basic political results. Huzzah.

Mulroney, by the way, was hardly the initiator of the agenda. He in fact opposed free trade when he ran for leader. The impetus came from corporate headquarters, mostly American, as conveyed through the Reagan administration. We were guinea pigs, as Mulroney went along enthusiastically. What’s strange is that we remain, almost alone, fervent free traders while most others, including the U.S., got off that train a while ago. Justin Trudeau may be the world’s last believer.

I’d like to add a final thought about the mainstream media’s major role in mounting the Mulroney consensus on his greatness. Many journalists remarked on his reaching out, lifelong, not just to politicians but to their august selves, to solicit advice or just say Happy Birthday. This is normal political practise and Mulroney seemed good at it. But they should be ashamed to get those calls, not brag or blush modestly. It’s a sign that he thought they could be influenced. It’s the journalists that he didn’t call, who should be feeling chuffed about it.

I should also say I was deeply engaged in contesting his agenda and later commenting on his career so I’m not impartial here. He seemed like a highly insecure person with a strong need for approval, which I consider something easy for many of us to empathize or identify with.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would enter the political arena without such, or similar, motivating factors.


This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[