Brian Mulroney (1939-2024) | The great mobilizer of Quebec inc.

It has been mentioned a lot over the past two days, and with good reason, one of the main feats of Brian Mulroney’s political career was that he was the instigator of the conclusion of the free trade agreement between Canada and the United States. A project that completely mobilized the Quebec business community around its realization.

While some company CEOs do not hesitate to display their political allegiance, business people normally prefer to maintain a certain neutrality, particularly in terms of not harming the smooth running of their businesses, so as not to suddenly fall into disgrace when of a change of diet.

But the ratification of the free trade agreement, which had been concluded in December 1987 between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan, quickly became the central theme of the federal election campaign of November 1988.

This is because the leader of the Liberal Party John Turner threatened to use the Liberal majority in the Senate (which was a partisan institution at the time) to block the entry into force of the treaty, scheduled for 1er January 1989.

This free trade agreement, fiercely negotiated in 1986 and 1987 by Canadian and American representatives, was unanimously supported by business people from Quebec Inc.

It would make their lives much easier in their trade with the United States by eliminating most of the duties and obstacles to the movement of goods and services between the two economic entities. An undeniable advantage since Quebec companies exported more than 80% of their products to the United States.

When the entry into force of the free trade agreement was threatened with being canceled by the Liberal Party of Canada, there was an unprecedented rise in the Quebec business community.

As early as December 1987, Laurent Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier, and Philippe de Gaspé Beaubien, CEO of Télémédia, established the Regroupement québécois pour le libre-trade, a broad coalition of businesses and CEOs in favor of free trade. entry into force of the agreement which had just been concluded between the two countries.

This improbable coalition brought together personalities as different as Paul Desmarais and Pierre Péladeau, the Franco-Ontarian real estate developer Robert Campeau and Bernard Lamarre, CEO of Lavalin, or David Culver, CEO of Alcan, and the former PQ minister Bernard Landry, became a professor again at ESG-UQAM.

In the middle of the electoral campaign, in November 1988, when the threat of cancellation had become almost a liberal electoral commitment, the Regroupement québécois pour le libre-trade increased public interventions and even launched an advertising campaign to publicly defend the agreement. Canada–U.S. free trade

Members of the business coalition regularly met at the Ritz Carlton in informal discussion groups that Marcel Dutil, president and founder of Canam Manac, refers to as “The Ritz boys.”

At the time, Marcel Dutil explained to me how natural it was for him and his company Canam Manac, established in Saint-Georges, in Beauce, and Saint-Gédéon-de-Beauce, to fully adhere to this agreement. of free trade.

“In Beauce, we are used to doing business in the United States. We are closer to Maine than to Quebec or Montreal. We have been doing business with them for decades, it is our main market,” an observation shared by the CEOs who joined the Regroupement québécois pour le libre-trade.

On November 10, 1988, more than a hundred Quebec entrepreneurs made a joint public outing to defend the free trade agreement, another mobilization never seen before.

As you can imagine, it is with immense relief that Québec inc. welcomed the results of the elections of November 21, 1988 which ensured a second mandate for Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives and, above all, the implementation of the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement on November 1er January 1989.

Brian Mulroney succeeded – like no other Canadian head of state has been able to do – in mobilizing Quebec business people around an issue, a project that was central to them and that he led until the end.

I recalled a little anecdote during the death of former PQ Prime Minister Bernard Landry, on November 6, 2018. It was in 2001, at the World Economic Forum in Davos: Bernard Landry, then Minister of Finance in Lucien’s PQ government Bouchard, had delivered an impromptu speech to guests at a reception organized by the Quebec mission attended by former Prime Minister Mulroney.

“I have often been asked who, in my opinion, was the greatest Prime Minister of Canada. I always answered Wilfrid Laurier because he was the first to try to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. I now answer Brian Mulroney because he succeeded,” he declared.

Brian Mulroney, proud as we know him, simply replied that he was not going to contradict the host of the evening… and a few minutes later, the two men found themselves doing a few dance steps to the tune of ‘Wait for me guy by Félix Leclerc.

The following year, on May 14, 2002, Bernard Landry, then Prime Minister of Quebec, presented the insignia of grand officer of the National Order of Quebec to Brian Mulroney. During the same ceremony, Marcel Dutil, founder of Canam Manac, was named knight of the Order.


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