, 09.04.2020 05:39 PM

Thirty-six years ago right now

September 4, 1984: 36 years ago today, I was on an Air Canada flight from Ottawa, heading home to Calgary to start law school. The pilot came on the blower. 

“For those of you who are wondering, we are hearing that the Liberal Party has lost every one of its seats,” he said. “And we have a new Conservative majority government.”

The plane erupted in cheers and applause – lots of it. Having just said goodbye to many of my Liberal friends at Ottawa polling stations, and having just finished working for a Liberal cabinet minister on the Hill, I slid further into my seat. A woman beside me noticed I wasn’t as deliriously happy as everyone else. 

“I take it your friends have lost?” she asked. 

“You could say that,” I said. 

On the ground in Calgary, my Dad was there to collect me. We silently listened to John Turner’s concession speech on the way back to my folks’ home on the Bow River. Near the end, Turner said: “The people are always right.’ 

“I’m not so sure about that,” I responded, but – on reflection – I reckoned that Turner was indeed correct: the people are always right. 

And the people had chosen Brian Mulroney, in record numbers. More than seventy-five per cent of eligible voters turned out to give Mulroney an astonishing 211 seats. The Liberals were reduced to a paltry 40 – only ten ahead of the New Democrats.

So began the Mulroney era, and a decade in the wilderness for the Liberal Party of Canada. It was an extraordinary decade, a time of great change, and it is hard to believe it all started 36 years ago today. 

Not many in the media marked Mulroney’s September 4, 1984 triumph, and that is a shame. He changed Canada – not always for the good, but not entirely for the bad, either. 

Meech Lake, Charlottetown, and assorted ministerial resignations, are always cited as the principal failures of the Mulroney era. But the former Conservative leader had successes, too: free trade, which his Liberal successor – my future boss, Jean Chretien – refused to undo. So, too, some of his major economic reforms, which arguably helped return the federation to balanced budgets and surpluses. 

To not a few of us, his most singular achievement was his unflagging opposition to South Africa’s evil apartheid system. This placed him squarely against his closest conservative allies, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and America’s Ronald Reagan. But Mulroney’s determination to end apartheid put him on the right side of history – and earned him the enduring friendship of Nelson Mandela. 

Why does all this matter now, so many years later? Two reasons.

First, Mulroney extraordinary victory on September 4, 1984 – and the historic events that followed that day – should not be forgotten. Whether you approve of his tenure or not, Mulroney truly changed Canada. 

The second reason really has nothing to do with Brian Mulroney at all. The second reason we should recall September 4 is this: when democratic political change comes, it sometimes comes in a way that is dramatic, decisive, and defining. It can be shocking.

That may be good, that may be bad. Depends on the team you belong to, I suppose.

One thing cannot be disputed, however:

As on September 4, 1984, as today, the people are always right.


  1. Nick M. says:

    To add to your note, Mulroney started an era of ending the intervening and/or nationalizing of private enterprise.

    This modernization of the economy was later to be championed by Chretien, Martin and then Harper alike.

    Direct Foreign Investment was understood to be a good thing.

    Previous governments were obsessed to Tinker with the economy, that was beneficial in the short term. This tinkering however is unsustainable, (and proven unsustainable by the time we entered the 70’s) if playing the long game. Managed declines became the word of the year used by these interventionist.

    These economic reforms were structurally painful for many as we modernized, and it took several decades to come to fruition. But we were getting there.

    One Trudeau is undoing all that. Short term gains are being created, deficit spending during good times, propping up one company over the other. Picking favourites & winners.

    Example, it may be very successful in the short term to help purchase homes for young Canadians. It’s anyone’s guess how this will distort the market in the long term.

    Messing with markets can have substantial short term benefits. Like giving parents earning low incomes a lot of money. But long term can be much more devastating, as in the incentive to achieve is being abolished.

    It’s what Trudeau is doing today, is what was finally rejected 35 years ago.

  2. Ronald O'Dowd says:

    In the last two days I’ve read separate online stories about Trudeau getting booed by some in the crowd. It’s at least concerning if you are a Liberal strategist.

    • Martin says:

      No idea why he would even waste his time going to Owen Sound. Seriously. Owen Sound Sun Times played down the booing(and his ridiculous waving at the booing crowd) because their boy Den Tandt used to be their editor. Their efforts to prop him up will be a waste of time, however. That riding will go green before it ever goes red.

  3. Gord Tulk says:

    His was the last of the laurentian Conservatives. The interests of that elite now is fully vested in the LPC. And the future of this confederation may not survive because of it.

    Hardly a day goes by that I don’t thank god for the demise of meech.

    • Gord,

      We might as well bet who leaves the federation first! You for the impending shafting if the Liberals are re-elected re: the modernization of the EF and us for remaining shafted since 1982.

  4. Pedant says:

    When did “Prime Minister-elect” become “Prime Minister-designate”?

  5. Nick M. says:

    That cover says PM-Elect.
    Today the media would say PM-Designate.
    Why the change?

  6. Doug Brown says:

    I remember that day as well. I was a 12 year old living in suburban Dallas. My family had left Calgary in 1981 in response to the NEP. My dad, a self employed engineer, started a business focused on creating investment vehicles for Canadians to move their money to the US. With the defeat of the Liberals, he and two friends also living in exile from the “evil empire” (his words) decide to start a new business and give Canada another chance.

  7. Peter says:

    I’m not sure I would agree the people are always right, but I do believe firmly they have the right to be wrong.

  8. Steve T says:

    Free trade is the shining example of how opposition parties may screech that the sky will fall if a particular economic advancement occurs, but rarely is that the case. What the Liberals called a “blow to Canada” in the mid-80s was actually a very prescient harbinger of how world trade would eventually move.

    Ironic that now it is the far right (in the U.S. mainly) who screeches against trade agreements and reciprocity.

    • Peter says:

      Not just the far right. A lot of people are coming to realize the answer to the self-destructive foolishness of autarky isn’t necessarily to make the whole world one big free trade zone. NAFTA has been a boon for Canada and the States, as has the EU economically for Europe, especially Northern Europe, but we’re talking about countries with similar tax and social structures (minimum wage, health & safety, etc.), uncorrupted judiciaries and belief in the rule of law. When you move outside those parameters, it gets murky. When free trade agreements are seen as tools to be manipulated politically (China) or merely statements of good intentions (Greece), it can go askew. Globalists tend to wax eloquently on the good vibes and harmony free trade brings, but in the end they are about competition, and there will be winners and losers. No politician can survive defending foreign winners against domestic losers. As to their role in promoting peace, there was probably more free trade in the world in 1914 then there had ever been or has been since. ‘Nuff said.

      • The Doctor says:

        Like all rules-based systems, the whole WTO system depends on a certain level of buy-in by its member states in order to function properly and as intended. The problem is, countries like China aren’t really buying in. They’re scofflaws and free-riders. It creates an immense challenge as to how to deal with that. I don’t agree with Trump’s approach, but China has a lot to answer for, particularly in the area of intellectual property theft.

        And the US is hardly the only victim. I recommend the book The Looting Factory, which has a chapter on how counterfeit Chinese goods and related smuggling by Chinese and Nigerian organized criminals have utterly destroyed Nigeria’s domestic textile industry. It’s disgraceful.

    • Martin says:

      Another example of something huge that Mulroney brought in that the Liberals ran against but left alone was the GST. A trip down memory lane.


      Only way the US will get out of their systemic mess is to bring in a VAT. Rarely discussed.

      • The Doctor says:

        “Ran against but left alone” is a nice way of putting it. I prefer “lied their fucking faces off”.

      • Martin,

        IMHO, that’s still box-office-poison in 2019.

      • Fred from BC says:

        “Another example of something huge that Mulroney brought in that the Liberals ran against but left alone was the GST. ”

        I wondered when someone was going to mention that. It was both of these things, free trade and the GST, Mulroney implemented to pull Canada back from the threat of economic collapse after the disastrous PET mandate, and he did it despite record-high interest rates crippling his efforts at debt repayment. People who whine, even today, about how Mulroney “added huge amounts of debt” to Canada don’t understand how tough it was to just to keep the government going ( oh sure, he could have shut down all government offices for a month or given the RCMP a month off without pay or closed all Canadian hospitals for a week and balanced the books that way, I suppose..)

        He had his flaws, but overall history will be kind to him, I think. Stephen Harper, too.

        • Ronald O'Dowd says:


          Harper’s tenure will be far more mitigated re: his record while he will obviously outshine Mulroney on ethics.

          Harper had too much gonzo right-wing BS: long-form census, monkeying around with credible climate change science and his overall environmental approach. He thought he could cut ice just by going up North religiously ever year. Evidently not.

          • The Doctor says:

            I’m biased, I’ll admit, but I think Harper made a similar mistake to what Trump’s making. As Paul Wells once put it, Harper loved “narrowcasting”, and he was enamoured of the Karl Rove school of political tactics. Related to that, Harper had nothing but contempt for Red Tories. It was the old Reformer in him that couldn’t let that go. So he convinced himself that he didn’t need Red Tories or defecting Blue Liberals for support. It was those people who were turned off by some of Harper’s more idiotic right-wing stuff (the long-form census idiocy being a perfect example). In the 2015 election, he totally lost the Red Tory/Blue Liberal vote. And if you’re a conservative party in Canada, as a general rule you need those people to vote for you in significant numbers in order to win. Just relying on the rural vote and far-right Goobers will not get you there.

            Trump appears to be making a similar mistake down south, though of course his personality disorder makes it all the crazier and acute. He’s convinced himself that all he needs is his feral base. And of course he’d rather do that, because his base gives him the unconditional narcissistic supply that he so craves. But he needs more than just that base to win (barring a very viable third-party candidacy that would peel votes from the Democrats).

  9. Kris says:

    “Harper moved swiftly to throttle science and biology…” Sure he did. That’s why all the so called scientists came rushing to the open mikes after the last election. Lol. What you call throttle was in fact a mandate of purpose and direction for the good use of tax dollars.
    Your spewing of erroneous facts and hyperbole is showing again.

    • Fred from BC says:

      ““Harper moved swiftly to throttle science and biology…” Sure he did. That’s why all the so called scientists came rushing to the open mikes after the last election.”

      Yeah…funny how that works, isn’t it? Somewhere I have a link to a story about Trudeau muzzling scientists right after his election.
      And no, Stephen Harper did not ‘wipe out’ protection for waterways (he updated old, inefficient regulations) nor did he do anything to libraries other than consolidate them and have their information made available online. Informed people already know all this, of course…

  10. Dawn Mills says:

    I too began my studies at U of C that September but I was among the zit faced underage drinkers in Year 1, not the hoi polloi atop the BioScience building like you.

    Just a geographic quibble…are you sure your folk’s home was on the shores of the mighty Bow and not the Elbow?

  11. Jim R says:

    Chretien promised during the 1993 election campaign to renegotiate NAFTA or, if that was not possible, tear it up.
    In the end he did neither. So, saying he refused to undo NAFTA is misleading.

    Indeed, if we go that route, we can say he refused to undo the GST – despite the fact abolishing it was a major campaign promise. Sheila Copps can provide more detail 🙂

    FWIW, I supported (and still support) NAFTA and the GST/HST. But the blatant breaking of campaign promises is a major contributor to the less than stellar way in which politics and politicians are viewed by us ordinary folks – looking at you, Mr Trudeau (FPTP, transparency, omnibus budget bills, etc).

    Sadly, I don’t expect a Prime Minister Scheer would mitigate my cynicism.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:


      Obviously not. They are all the same down to the skin malgré Rempel’s constant Twitter self-righteous pontification. (Reminds me of Harper’s phoney sanctimonious wind while in opposition.)

  12. Pedant says:

    Hey salamander – the scientists have been unmuzzled since 2015. We’re curious to hear the earth-shattering things they wanted to tell us during the Harper years. We’re waiting (checks watch).

  13. Gilbert says:

    Apartheid ended in South Africa because of Mr. De Clerck. I feel he doesn’t get enough credit. Sanctions hurt the poor more than those in power. The key was promising South Africa a full return to the world stage, investment and economic development once apartheid ended.

  14. Susan Burrows says:

    Since you are going all nostalgic, go back a few more years. As I watch news coverage of the new school year start up with directional arrows on hallway floors, I can’t help but recall St. Bonaventure Jr High, mid-70’s. If I remember correctly you ran for Student Council on a platform of easing congestion in school hallways by having them operate like a street, requiring walking on the right side of the hall so kids going the opposite direction were on the other side? Warren, you were decades ahead of your time!!!

  15. Mulroney deserves tremendous credit for having the guts to take on both Reagan and Thatcher. However, his position on the then Yugoslavia and the Serbs left something to be desired. I’ll stop there.

  16. Douglas W says:

    Canada has had a long tradition of strong and highly capable Ministers of Finance.

    Michael Wilson was one of them.

  17. Robert White says:

    Mulroney was a very good orator, but he was an unprofessional politician IMHO. His greed really bothered me in myriad ways. My CA father liked Michael Wilson as Fin Min very much. Mulroney knew finance well too, but he was a crook not unlike Trick Dick.

    I still don’t feel as though Mulroney has been rehabilitated yet given his corporate board involvement with the pot industry. Julian Fantino has positioned himself atop the marijuana industry as well. Both gentleman were strong advocates for punishment for pot use too.

    The word hypocrite comes to mind when I think of Mulroney and Fantino.


  18. Steve Teller says:

    South Africa is a very interesting case study. We lived in S.A. in 1983, pre-sanctions. It was a vibrant, economically-flourishing country, with low crime. That can hardly be said about it now.

    I am in no way defending apartheid, and I of course realize I was a white person living a privileged life there. However, thing are rarely as simple as virtue-warriors half a world away make them out to be.

    Our rental apartment in Cape Town included cleaning services, and we became acquaintances with our maid Martha (who was black). She was a lovely well-spoken woman, and we had countless conversations over coffee. She told us that, while she certainly wished she could vote, and not have to ride on segregated train cars and beaches, she also didn’t want to live a life akin to her friends in Zimbabwe. Her quote, which I will always remember, was “In Zimbabwe, I could be free – free to be poor, free to feel unsafe, free to live in poor conditions.” Her son had gone to Zimbabwe, and decided to return to S.A..

    We returned to S.A. in 1999 for a few week vacation, and at that time it was still a reasonably safe country, but you could already see the challenges they faced. Now in 2020, from what we hear, much less safe and has significant economic challenges. I often wonder what became of Martha, and whether she feels things are better or worse than before.

  19. The thing Mr. Mulroney should be remembered for primarily is bringing an end to the Federal Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. He also gave prominence to Lucien Bouchard (no friend of Canada he), which subsequently led to the creation of the BQ, not something you would want on your resume. Turner may actually have turned out to be a good PM; we’ll never know because he was sandbagged, and had to carry the can for all those years of Liberal rule. The best thing Brian did in my opinion was to rescind the NEP. The odour of sleaze though really hurt his reputation. Stevie Cameron certainly thought so.

  20. hugh says:

    This made me think back to the days when he parachuted into our (then) riding of Central Nova.
    My parents ran into him at the airport in Halifax while awaiting my sister’s flight and were incensed that he wasn’t wearing his X-ring.
    For those of us from Antigonish, it was (at the time) akin to burning the flag.
    Oh how I long for such simpler times!

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