Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Bonus article
Mulroney had deep affection for StFX, Central Nova

Former PM remembered fondly in region

  • March 6 2024
  • By Corey LeBlanc    

CENTRAL NOVA — It was the late summer of 1955 and a 16-year-old boy from rural Quebec arrived on the StFX campus “carrying a cardboard suitcase and wearing the only blazer I owned” to embark on a life’s journey that included almost a decade in the highest elected office in Canada.

Whenever he had the opportunity, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – a proud member of the Class of 1959 – credited those formative years at his alma mater as a key to success in an unprecedented career in both the public and private sector.

Although he had “no money, no connections and no influence,” the native of Baie-Comeau – a mill town on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River – said he left with something priceless, his university degree.

He may have graduated and moved on to his next chapter – law school at Laval University in Quebec City – but Mulroney left a piece of his heart on the StFX campus; something reflected in an unprecedented almost 70-year legacy of support, financial and otherwise, for the university.

“It was obvious that he had talent,” Lowell Murray – a retired Canadian senator and former member of Mulroney’s federal cabinet – remembered of their first meeting.

The New Waterford, Cape Breton native – who was in his senior year – was president of the Tory club at StFX. He said Mulroney, then a freshman, tracked him down because he wanted to join the society.

“We became instant friends,” Murray said, describing the “fine personality” and way with people that Mulroney displayed throughout his life.

Even though they spent only one year together on the StFX campus, it left an indelible mark – pouring the foundation for an incredible personal and professional relationship.

“I was an usher at his wedding,” Murray noted.

He said that no one loved StFX more than Mulroney.

Sean Riley, a former university president, agreed.

“He cared so much about StFX,” the Antigonish native offered.

The pair met shortly after Riley took over the leadership role in 1996.

“He had nothing but good things [to say],” he remembered of the infectiousness of Mulroney’s passion for their alma mater.

Riley added that he pledged to help him “in any way that I can.”

“And, he did,” Riley said, noting that they “kept in contact on a regular basis.”

He added, “I was always struck by his loyalty to StFX.”

Mulroney showed that loyalty in countless ways, including providing his time and energy to many fundraisers, including one that financed construction of StFX’s Alumni Aquatic Centre. He and his family also established a scholarship fund named in honour of his father, Benedict.

The most ambitious project culminated in Sept. 2019 with the grand opening of the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and Mulroney Hall – the $52-million complex built in the heart of campus – which is the centrepiece of a $100-million fundraising campaign led by the 18th Prime Minister of Canada — including more than $65 million from private donors, a list that contained Brian and Mila Mulroney, who pledged $1 million to the initiative.

Along with the state-of-the art complex, the project includes financing university chairs, bursaries and scholarships.

“Nothing would have been done,” without this support, Riley said, when asked about the impact Mulroney had on the “huge project.”

Likely none of that legacy established by the proud Xaverian – who passed away on Feb. 29 at the age of 84 in Palm Beach, Florida, where he and his wife, Mila, spent their winters – would have happened without a fateful conversation with his cherished father on one Sunday evening.

The younger Mulroney said that he planned to join an apprenticeship program at the mill where his father was an electrician. He knew that the money he would make could help his parents, who worked tirelessly to raise their six children. Benedict took on side jobs, while Irene took in borders to help with the family’s finances.

“The only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door,” Mulroney often remembered of his father’s reaction, a quote that is displayed prominently at Mulroney Hall.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Political homecoming

No matter where his life took him, Mulroney – who, as a StFX student, attended the federal Progressive Conservative (PC) convention in 1956 in Ottawa, where John Diefenbaker was elected leader – kept his toe in the political pool.

A prominent labour lawyer in Montreal, he threw his hat into the PC leadership ring in 1976, finishing third in the contest won by former Prime Minister Joe Clark. In 1983, after a successful stint as president of Iron Ore Company of Canada, he reached the top of the mountain.

Needing a seat in the House of Commons, Mulroney initiated a homecoming, of sorts, with a return to his adored East Coast. Central Nova MP Elmer MacKay stepped aside in the Tory stronghold, so the party’s new leader could gain an all-important place in parliament.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Peter MacKay, son of Elmer, told The Journal with a laugh.

During the summer campaign, the then 17-year-old – who just got his driver’s license – served as Mila Mulroney’s chauffeur during the campaign, shuttling her to events across the riding.

“He worked really hard – he didn’t take anything for granted,” MacKay offered of Mulroney’s campaign, noting his visits to area wharves, the pulp mill and a variety of community events.

He added, “I think that he felt a familiarity,” while pointing to the similarities between the communities of Central Nova and Mulroney’s native Baie-Comeau.

MacKay described Mulroney’s affinity for this part of the country as having “deep abiding roots.”

Murray said that no matter where his life and career took him, his dear friend “never lost interest in Atlantic Canada.”

Using the by-election as a springboard, Mulroney took his place in the House of Commons and led the rise of the PCs nationwide. In 1984, they garnered the largest majority in Canadian history, winning 211 out of 282 seats in the federal election. One of those seats occupied by the elder MacKay, who regained the Central Nova seat and became a prominent minister in the Mulroney cabinet.

In his stint as PM – from 1984 to 1993 – Mulroney fashioned a legacy that included the creation of the GST, along with a free trade agreement with the United States, and then the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). There were two attempts at bringing Quebec under the constitutional tent – the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. His federal government also brokered an agreement on acid rain with our neighbours south of the border.

“He had a big voice internationally,” MacKay, who also represented Central Nova, offered.

Mulroney is credited for leading the international charge that resulted in the end of apartheid in South Africa. When they balked, he convinced leaders – such as President Ronald Reagan and Prime Margaret Thatcher – to move forward with sanctions that were a key to creating change. As a testament to Canada’s prominent role, Nelson Mandela visited shortly after his release from prison.

Calling him a “towering figure,” MacKay said his influence continued long after he left office.

“We became very close friends,” he said, noting how he “cherishes” his relationship with the Mulroney family.

Describing him as a confidant and mentor, MacKay explained that he often consulted Mulroney, including when he embarked on uniting the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties as PC leader; not to mention when deciding whether to run for the leadership of the federal Conservatives, which he did on two occasions.

“I will be forever grateful,” MacKay said of the influence on his life – both personally and professionally.

The phone calls

Mulroney, as MacKay attested, was famous for his phone calls. Media stories since his passing – even from reporters – chronicled hearing that unmistakable voice on the other line, often offering words of encouragement or a helping hand.

“He had such a generous spirit,” MacKay said, noting that he was often the first to make contact when people either reached milestones – maybe the birth of a child – or faced challenges in their lives.

Murray offered that the friends “were always only a phone call away.”

He explained that many conversations began with Mulroney asking him to ‘say a prayer for so and so,’ before outlining the plight of one of their mutual friends or former Xaverian classmates.

“He had such great compassion for everyone,” Murray added.

In the days since his death, many members of the Xaverian family – not to mention the broader community – have visited Mulroney Hall to sign a book of condolences located in the replica of his Prime Minister’s office on Parliament Hill.

The date for his state funeral had not been announced as of press time.

“It is a massive loss of a great Canadian,” MacKay said.