Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister Who Led Canada Into NAFTA, Dies at 84

Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, whose statesmanship on what he called “great causes,” from free trade and acid rain in North America to the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, gave way to accusations of financial misdoing and influence-peddling after he left office, died on Thursday in a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla., where he had a home. He was 84.

A spokesman for his daughter Caroline Mulroney said Mr. Mulroney had been hospitalized after a fall at his home. Ms. Mulroney is a cabinet minister in Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government. “He died peacefully, surrounded by family,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Born into a blue-collar family in northeastern Quebec, Mr. Mulroney transcended his small-town roots to become a prosperous lawyer and business executive before seeking and attaining high office as a Conservative, rising to prime minister in 1984. He won re-election with a convincing margin in 1988.

His popularity had much to do with his persona: With a liking for immaculately tailored dark blue and double-breasted suits and always impeccably coifed, Mr. Mulroney was a skilled debater and orator and always ready with a crowd-pleasing joke to preface his speeches.

Ingrid Saumart, writing in the Montreal newspaper La Presse, had called him “dynamic, bilingual and seductive.” Aides promoted him as the Canadian version of Ronald Reagan.

But haunted by a faltering economy and high unemployment, and saying he had lost enthusiasm for the job, he stepped down in 1993 with the worst Canadian poll ratings of the 20th century. He handed power over to Kim Campbell, who became Canada’s first female prime minister but who lost a disastrous election months later.

Mr. Mulroney was known as the Canadian leader who led the country into the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the United States and Mexico, a pact signed in December 1992, and as the author of an overhaul of Canada’s tax regime.

He prided himself on being a confidant of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; on promoting a thaw between Moscow and Washington in the closing days of the Cold War; and on going much further than either the United States or Britain in imposing sanctions against white-ruled South Africa to press for the release of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid.

For all that, there was a darker, less visible side to him. In 2005, a book of edited transcripts of hundreds of hours of taped interviews recorded over many years was published by a veteran journalist, Peter C. Newman, showing Mr. Mulroney to be what Clifford Krauss in The New York Times called a “foul-mouthed, insecure man with an enemies list that sprawls from Vancouver to Halifax.”

Only many years after his resignation, moreover, did he acknowledge that he had entered into an unpublicized business relationship — not, he insisted, during his days as prime minister — with Karlheinz Schreiber, an arms dealer and lobbyist at the heart of kickback scandals in both his native Germany and his adoptive Canada.

In testimony at an inquiry in December 2007, Mr. Mulroney said he had taken cash payments from Mr. Schreiber in $1,000 bills in hotel rooms, describing the transactions an “error of judgment.” But he said he had done nothing illegal. Both he and Mr. Schreiber described the money as payments for lobbying on behalf of the German company Thyssen, later known as ThyssenKrupp, which was hoping to build a factory for light-armored vehicles in Canada.

(Mr. Mulroney always denied being implicated in a separate scandal linked to Canada’s acquisition of Airbus airplanes. After the leak in 1995 of an official letter linking him to the affair, he sued the government for defamation and was awarded $2.1 million in 1997.)

Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber differed over the amount involved, with the former prime minister saying he received three payments of $75,000, totaling $225,000 and Mr. Schreiber saying he had handed over $300,000.

“My biggest mistake in life, by far,” Mr. Mulroney was quoted as saying in 2007, “was ever agreeing to be introduced to Karlheinz Schreiber in the first place.” Mr. Schreiber was deported to Germany in 2009 and given a six-and-a-half year prison term in 2013.

When the Justice Jeffrey J. Oliphant, who led the inquiry, published a four-volume report in 2010, he said that the meetings between the two men go “a long way, in my view, to supporting my position that the financial dealings between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney were inappropriate.”

The judge’s choice of words was taken by Mr. Mulroney’s critics to imply a much broader criticism of his credibility.

The columnist Andrew Coyne wrote in Canada’s Maclean’s magazine in 2010: “It is not that Mulroney had done business with Schreiber, or that he made such strenuous efforts to conceal it. It is that he lied about it: lied to keep it a secret, certainly, but more tellingly lied after it was no longer a secret — notably in his testimony before the Oliphant inquiry. To be sure, the judge does not use such precise words. But on point after point, his meaning is unmistakable. He does not believe what Mulroney told him.”

For his part, Mr. Mulroney argued that the affair had not caused irreparable damage to his standing. In a lengthy profile in 2013, Macleans magazine reported that he had shed the opprobrium attached to his name in Conservative circles. He was “fully welcome again in the corridors of power,” the article said, while, as a representative of a major international law firm in Montreal, he “travels the world.” He also held senior positions in private equity, hospitality and other businesses.

A full obituary will appear soon.

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