The Interview: Brian Mulroney on politics and philanthropy

The Interview: Former prime minister Brian Mulroney on the Horatio Alger Association, the current political climate, and one very busy life

The Right Honourable Brian Mulroney. Photographs by Will Lew

The Right Honourable Brian Mulroney. Photographs by Will Lew

For a veteran of many of Canada’s most bruising political battles, Brian Mulroney was low-key and thoughtful when he met Maclean’s in Montreal. The former prime minister was eager to talk about his work as vice-president of the board of directors of the Horatio Alger Association of Canada, a charitable organization dedicated to education, hard work and determination. Since 2009 the Horatio Alger Association has offered scholarships in four provinces to high school students based on need, merit, and perseverance in overcoming adversity. On May 19, it announced a $10-million expansion of the scholarship program to schools across Canada.

Q: You’re here because you want to draw some attention to the Horatio Alger Association of Canada, which has an interesting mandate and perhaps you could tell me a bit more.

A: Well, I got involved because Bernard Roy, who was my chief of staff, spoke to me about the organization and the then president—who is the present president—wanted me to consider accepting their offer to become a member. I initially said no because I had no idea what it was about. I knew all about Horatio Alger, of course, but that was all. And finally I was kind of forced to say yes by Bernard. I went to Washington for a meeting and was blown away by what they do. The students, for example, in Canada, who are awarded Horatio Alger Scholarships, they’ve overcome immense adversity and hardships. The average scholar is part of a family of four with an annual household income under $19,000. Sixty-four per cent have experienced abandonment, divorce of parents, death of a parent or incarceration of a parent. Five per cent have experienced homelessness, while six per cent are wards of the state and 28 per cent have experienced physical or mental abuse. The 2015 scholars had a grade percentage of 87.

You know, my wife has been running an organization in Montreal for about 20 years—you may have heard of it—Dans la Rue. It looks after poor children in Montreal who go to school in the morning with no breakfast. I never thought of it until one day she sat me down and said, “Take Nicolas, he’s seven years of age, and he’s got to go to school, and he’s going to leave here with no breakfast, nothing in his stomach until noon, and you’re going to expect him to learn.” And I said, “Well, there can’t be very many like this in Montreal.” She said, “We’re dealing with 30,000 in Montreal.” So you can imagine how it must be for a child like the one I met from Alabama—whose father was in jail for murder, whose mother was a drug addict and a prostitute—and she got to university because of a scholarship from Horatio Alger. We’ve got [cases like these] now all across Canada, and I was really affected by it. And so these are the kinds of things that Horatio Alger deals with.

I’ve now been at it four or five years and I’ve been very, very impressed with what they do. The generosity of some of these people is really astonishing. I mean, people we’ve never heard of. These are business people who made it big—these are not General Motors, these are guys, insurance salesmen in Chicago, who have grown their business into a billion-dollar operation and then, to take their expression, we want to give back. Well, I mean, do they ever. They’re not talking about writing a cheque for $10,000, they’ll give five million, 10 million a year, provided it goes right into this scholarship fund to help kids like this.

Related: Listen to the latest Maclean’s politics podcast, with more clips from this Mulroney Q&A

Q: I want to talk about some current affairs, and let’s start with the events in Alberta. I get asked by just about everyone I run into, “How was it possible for that Conservative dynasty to end?” Any thoughts on that?

A: Well, I can remember Joey Smallwood, years ago, talking about the end of his time in office when Frank Moore swept in and swept out the Liberals. Joey said, “Well, the tide comes in and the tide goes out.” And that’s basically what it is. It’s an amazing thing that the little party that could, elected in ’71, would last this long—what was it, 44 years? And time and mistakes catch up with all of us. Another factor, I think, that didn’t exist way back when, is that television has a tendency to abbreviate all of our careers. People get tired of seeing us on television 24 hours a day. And if you push your luck, you might come a cropper in this and I think it’s a combination of that and the mistakes that we all tend to make.

Q: Are you concerned at all for Alberta’s prosperity—a government that wants to tax more, that wants to spend more?

A: I’ve never met Mrs. Notley, but she strikes me as being a very wise person. The first thing that she’s going to understand when she meets the deputy minister of finance is that her well-being and the well-being of Albertans depends on a healthy economy, and in Alberta a healthy economy depends on a healthy energy industry. And I think she’s going to do everything she can to nurture that.

Related: The two big problems with the Alberta NDP’s tax plan

Q: The other public figure I wanted to ask you about is your sometime colleague Pierre Karl Péladeau, who is now the the new PQ leader. What did you make of his decision to go into politics?

A: I thought that he was an excellent CEO and he is a man of great talent and integrity. The manner in which he ran his operations on those important areas was very impressive. My preference would have been—had he asked me—to stay there where he was doing good work for the shareholders. The politics of it is for him to make out.

Q: He seems to be a poor fit for some of the elements of the job—the media scrutiny, the fact that people get to disagree with him. Do you think he’s got the temperament for this line of work?

A: I don’t know. I mean, I really don’t. I read some stuff about him—this is not the guy that I saw. What will happen in the future in politics, I have no idea, because a lot of people would have said—including me—that a good and very nice and intelligent guy like Jim Prentice would have had a long and successful career in Alberta, and circumstances thwarted that.

Related: What will the PQ do with their Péladeau moment?

Q: On a subject that has long preoccupied you—national unity—do you think we’re pretty much shot of the PQ for the foreseeable future or do you think they could conceivably come back?

A: Anything can happen. But for the moment I think the country appears to be in good hands. Young French Canadians coming out of HEC [business school] and other areas seem to be much more interested in business, economic opportunities, starting their own businesses; there’s thousands of them doing that. They’re much less interested in the debates that preoccupied my generation for 50 years. Look, when I was young, at Laval, early in my practice, I would have thought that 90 per cent of my contemporaries, French Canadians, 90 per cent would have in some way been supporters of René Lévesque in those days, or of sovereignty. When you take that same group today and you see that the PQ is running fourth with them, with I think a total of some 18 per cent supporting separatism, something very important has happened in the psyche here.

Q: A bit more than six months ago, you did a round of interviews and you sounded not so optimistic about the Harper Conservatives’ chance of getting re-elected. How do you like their chances now?

A: I think that is a mischaracterization of my statements. I said no such thing. In fact, I was surprised when I looked back on it—if you see how benign my comments were about the Harper government, and people running around saying I’m in disagreement with them. I disagreed with the comments made about the Supreme Court, the justice of the Supreme Court; I disagreed with some of their positions vis-à-vis the United Nations and on the environment, but I completely supported their economic policies, their military policies, their policies on terrorism, and so on. I thought back in September that things were tight and tough, and I think they were. I think they’re a little less so now. If Mr. Harper wins this election—and I think he has a good chance of doing so—if he looks back on what happened, I think that his speech—I believe it was in October—on terrorism will turn out to have been the seminal event. When he said, “ISIS is our mortal enemy, and by God I’m going to deal with it.” And when—just about the same time—we saw the image of that young Jordanian pilot being thrown in a cage and burned to death in front of our very eyes, I think Canadians listened to Mr. Harper and said, “You know what? He’s right.” Whereas some of the other leaders were talking about sending blankets and field hospitals. I think Harper captured the mood of that moment, and it’s a big deal, this war on terror. Now, will it last until the election? I don’t know. But I think that if he wins he can look back on the campaign and say, “That was one of the things that changed everything for me.”

Q: The one talking about sending blankets was Justin Trudeau. How do you think he’s handling his stewardship of the Liberal party? He released elements of his economic platform this week. How does that strike you?

A: I don’t know. He’s certainly a nice young man and I think he’s conducted himself well. Strategically, whether it was wise for the Liberal party—I’m going to take Mr. Trudeau out of the mix just for a moment—to wait this long to get their policies out while Mr. Harper, with his policies on terror and the economy and, I might say, a very good budget, is in the process of hoovering up every middle-class vote that you can find in urban Canada, that’ll be a big question. I thought that it was dangerous because if you wait that long, your program would have to be so impressive that it would be hard to meet it because expectations are so high. I read some of Mr. Trudeau’s program, makes sense, holds together, and the numbers seem to be okay, but all of a sudden it’s lost in the shuffle of everything that’s happening. And Harper, with regard to the cheques for the middle class, for the kids, was there first, and the postman is going to deliver his message with a big fat cheque starting in July. That’s pretty hard to counter, and if you’re going to counter that, as Mr. Trudeau was quite properly trying to do, then you gotta do it big time, you’ve got to have something that’s going to knock their socks off, and I’m not sure that they’re there yet.

Q: The third man is another local MP, Tom Mulcair. He wasn’t getting any traction several months ago. Is that changing?

A: Well, look at Alberta. If you’re the leader of a party, you take credit where you can, particularly an opposition party. Look, I don’t know Mulcair well, but as I said, he is the best Opposition leader in my judgment since Diefenbaker, and I think I’ve known them all pretty well. He’s building credibility both in the House of Commons and across the country, slowly. I’m surprised at how well some of his support is holding here. Most of all—I’m a believer in this because it happened to me—when I hear the experts say, “These television debates, they don’t count.” They don’t, eh? You’re looking at a guy who made it to 24 Sussex because of them. Mrs. Notley made it to the premier’s position because of television debates. So I think that the television debates in the next election may turn out to be the most important since 1984, and it is hard to see how anyone is going to best Mr. Mulcair in these debates. And if he is in the process of playing for it all, he is going to be lethal.

Q: What are your relations with the Harper government these days? You were on the outs with them for a while. Do you speak to the Prime Minister? Do you speak to his ministers?

A: All the time. Absolutely, yeah.

Q: You often give advice—

A: All his ministers.

Q: All his ministers?

A: Yeah.

Q: I’ve heard it argued that this Prime Minister has relatively little to show for nearly a decade in power.

A: Well look, just the fact that he’s there for almost a decade is a hell of a lot to show when you compare it to most people in Canadian history. He is the longest-serving Conservative prime minister since Sir John.

Q: While we’re on the judgment of history, I have to ask about the Oliphant commission report. Five years since it came out.

A: You’ve got an advantage over me, because I haven’t read it.

Q: Oh, really?

A: Really. It is what it is. It’s there. If you’re the prime minister or the leader of a party, all kinds of people are introduced to you. All I can tell you is this: I’m 76 years of age. I’ve been investigated more than any prime minister in Canadian history, and I have never been charged with a parking ticket. There you go.

Q: What other projects do you have for the future? You’re awfully active.

A: I am. I like it, I enjoy the work. I’m a senior partner here at Norton Rose, I’m chairman of Quebecor, chairman of the international board of Barrick, a director at Blackstone in New York, Wyndham Worldwide, other things. So I keep busy. I give some speeches, both for candidates, for the party, and I do some convocation addresses. I’m going off to England in two weeks to deliver an address at Oxford, and then I’ve been invited by the duke of Marlborough to give the address for the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death at Blenheim Palace, and then I come back and speak at the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Bar Association in Montreal. So I do that, and Mila and I travel a lot. We have four kids and 11 grandchildren, that keeps us very busy—and delighted, very happy. And I’m in pretty good health. I’m doing okay.

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