Since the death of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, Canada’s bourgeois press has been working overtime to whitewash his reputation. 

To avoid saying anything impolite, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and National Post have opted to use words like “influential,” “impactful,” and “consequential” to describe his tenure as prime minister. Even in Quebec, this conservative federalist is portrayed in a positive light from all sides.

We, however, can speak in plain language. Mulroney’s tenure met the crisis of the capitalist system with austerity and attacks on the working class—at home and abroad. His “legacy” is deepening poverty and oppression. And he will not be missed.

‘Competitive realities’

Brian Mulroney’s Tories took power in 1984. By this time, the end of the postwar boom had killed the relative class peace of the 1950s and 1960s. While the Liberals worked hard to break the back of the working class under Pierre Trudeau especially—with lockouts, wage rollbacks, and jail time—the Tories promised to be even more aggressive.

Mulroney’s program promised to slash social assistance programs, legislate an end to “industrial conflicts,” privatize Crown corporations and “restrain” public sector wages—to force the working class to accept the “competitive realities” of the world market.

By 1987, the government had a battle on its hands. As the country’s rail and postal workers rejected the government’s wage and job cuts, its labour mediator warned of a “long hot summer.”
The Tories dug in. They deployed riot police against striking rail workers who gathered on Parliament Hill. Later, the government attacked the postal workers. Having complained that Canada Post was “run by unions,” Mulroney tasked a team of scabs and strikebreakers, escorted by helicopter, to break the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Adding insult to injury, he also personally crossed a picket line.

This was combined with attacks on the unemployed, with cuts to assistance funding and unemployment insurance. According to one prominent member of Mulroney’s caucus, the previous benefits regime could only “perpetuate weakness and dependency.

These attacks were not isolated disputes. The Tories expressed hope that these attacks could serve as an “example” to bosses across the country. By attacking the best-organized workers, the Tories hoped to intimidate workers elsewhere—and they did so eagerly. Here, Mulroney served the ruling class in the most “consequential” way he could.

Imperialist brutality

The Mulroney government’s attacks on the working class in Canada was matched by its complicity in the oppression of workers and the poor around the world. At the time, the crisis of the system was expressing itself as a ferment in the ex-colonial countries, and the imperialist powers of Canada, the United States and their allies replied forcefully.

To this end, Mulroney’s Defence White Paper vowed to align closer to the United States and increase Canada’s military spending to help secure the “legitimate interests” of Canadian imperialism. It warned that in new regions, “instability and the potential for violence are widespread,” and called for even more “forceful” deployments of “our armed forces,” internationally.

This military force was famously used domestically, in 1990, to crush Mohawk land defenders in Oka.

Mulroney in opposition had previously chastised the Liberals for refusing to back the U.S. invasion of Grenada firmly enough, and Mulroney the prime minister leapt to aid U.S. war efforts wherever possible.  Alongside plans to massively increase Canada’s military spending and assist the United States’ nuclear weapons buildup, his government also firmly assisted U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile with aid, diplomatic coverage and guns.

Having missed the chance to help invade Grenada, Mulroney seized the opportunity to aid America’s wars on Panama in 1989 (which left 4,000 dead) and Iraq in 1990.

During the Gulf War, Canada’s fighter jets joined U.S. and British ships ostensibly to pound Iraqi forces—but the bombing campaign hit more than military targets. All told, Canada’s air force ran 56 bombing missions involving over 15,000 tons of high explosives on a wide range of targets—including electricity production sites, sewage treatment plants, telecommunications equipment and other pieces of civilian infrastructure.

Mulroney was also, as one would expect, a firm supporter of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. In office, he offered Israel massive weapons shipments and gushing praise for the Israeli government’s “restraint” as it crushed the First Intifada. His government further worked actively at the United Nations to kill resolutions calling for “self-determination” rights for Palestinians. And in Mulroney’s final months, he all but endorsed Israel’s ongoing genocidal campaign in Gaza, encouraging Justin Trudeau to offer Netanyahu “complete, blanket support.”

Mulroney’s apologists—including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and Québec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois—further claim he earned a reputation as a “strong opponent” of apartheid in South Africa. This is a gross exaggeration.

Leading into Mulroney’s election in 1984, Canadian companies like Bata Shoes, Hudson’s Bay Company, Ford Canada, Alcan, Cominco, Falconbridge, Rio Algom, and Weston Ltd. had profited handsomely off of apartheid.

For much of Mulroney’s tenure, Canadian mining companies especially continued to reap profits from South African minerals. While much is made of the “sanctions” Mulroney applied, the reality is that Canada’s trade with South Africa from 1986 to 1993 totalled $1.6 billion.

Politically, until late 1987, Mulroney’s cabinet aimed to support P.W Botha’s National Party—not to bring apartheid down, but to maintain the status quo.

By contrast, Mulroney’s government did spend most of the 1980s opposed to the African National Congress (ANC). 

The right wing of his caucus dismissed the anti-apartheid movement as “communists trying to destroy what white people have built.” 

But Mulroney himself was not significantly more friendly. The Canadian government refused to let the ANC set up offices anywhere in Canada or grant it any official recognition. Beyond that, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark vowed only to work with more “moderate” Black leaders instead.  And when Mulroney did meet with then ANC president Oliver Tambo, he took the opportunity strictly to confront Tambo about allegations from the Pretoria regime that the ANC was a terrorist organization “controlled by the communists.”

Eventually, however, Canadian imperialism had to make contingency plans, once it was clear that the apartheid regime was on its last legs. Mulroney changed his tune and sought to make contacts with the ANC to “help” them “get things right.”  In plain language that meant pressing the new government to drop the sections of its Freedom Charter that mentioned nationalizing mines and key resources. This aimed to protect Canadian profits; and, in the process, left the economic basis of apartheid firmly in place.

Canada’s subsequent Liberal government continued to pressure the ANC government to move right. In 2002, the South African magazine Mining Weekly revealed that in its early years, “The South African government received a lot of input from the whole spectrum of the Canadian mining industry, from prospecting companies through mining houses all the way to analysts at the Toronto Stock Exchange.”

In like manner, Mulroney’s government was one of the firmest backers of structural adjustment policies (SAPs) in the world—conditions placed on loans to force former colonial countries to embrace austerity, privatization and anti-union laws, to truly horrific ends.

From 1987 to 1988, Mulroney famously pursued Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the first half of what would become NAFTA. Between Canada and the U.S., this facilitated a massive shift towards “just-in-time” production. And abroad, the Tories spent the early 1990s pushing the Mexican government to open up its mining and land ownership rules to Canadian investment. All told, the deals sought to improve Canadian and U.S. capitalist profits by, in many cases, squeezing workers and the poor.

Neither policy, however, spared Canadian capitalism during the 1990-2 slump. All told, Canada’s GDP fell by more than 3.4 per cent, hundreds of thousands of jobs were destroyed, and Mulroney resigned in disgrace.

By the mid-1990s, as the Liberals approached the International Monetary Fund for a Canadian SAP to advise their massive austerity program, the ex-Tory prime minister had vanished into the private sector. 

Aside from offering advice to every subsequent prime minister, he soon joined the board of Barrick Gold, one of Canada’s most infamous mining companies. Asked why he appointed Mulroney to Barrick’s board, CEO Peter Munk remarked, “He has great contacts. He knows every dictator in the world on a first-name basis.”

There is a clear continuity here. In office, Mulroney attacked workers and the poor in the interests of profit. And out of office, Mulroney helped attack workers and the poor in the interests of profit.

Bury Mulroney’s legacy, bury imperialism

Since Mulroney’s resignation, the decline of Canadian capitalism has only deepened. Accordingly, the Canadian ruling class, and its state representatives, have turned time and time again to the same repressive measures that marked Mulroney’s period— forcing workers to pay for the crisis, aided by strike breaking, police violence, military force and the like.

In this context, it is telling that according to the National Post, every subsequent prime minister, Liberal and Conservative, has sought Mulroney’s advice and every party leader found common ground with Mulroney. This is not the compliment they think it is. While working-class people came to despise Mulroney, the capitalists and their politicians can only express admiration for him. These politicians may have differences in approach, but ultimately they all share the same goal: to administer the declining capitalist system.

Sweeping away Mulroney’s legacy therefore requires a struggle not just against the Tories, but against the entire capitalist class, its state, and all of Mulroney’s admirers within it.