Monday, October 15, 2007

Brian Mulroney, Memoirs

About a month ago, I received a copy of Brian Mulroney's Memoirs. While I am a Canadian historian by trade, and a political junkie by nature, I've rarely been one to sit down and read a political memoir from cover-to-cover. With few exceptions, those that I have read tend to be highly detailed, and rather self-serving. So, I generally spot-read political memoirs and autobiographies, seeking out accounts of the events and issues that appeal to me.

I am taking the same approach in this mini-review of Mulroney's memoirs, focusing mainly on his account of the Meech Lake years. An additional reason for taking this route is that this book could be considered a weapon in both the figurative and literal sense. Even the limited selections that I have read are filled with personal invective and attacks on Mulroney's opponents, both past and present. At 1121 pages, you could also club someone to death with it.

Many reviewers have concentrated on the anti-Trudeau diatribes that fill Mulroney's accounts of his constitutional battles. Reading the book first-hand, the critics are certainly accurate. I would add, however, that Mulroney's screed against Trudeau's World War Two years is even more jarring when read in its original context. A brief recap of Trudeau's first blast against Meech (in the Toronto Star and La Presse) is book-ended by a rosy tale of Mulroney's personal overtures and kindness to Trudeau, and the lambasting of Trudeau for his anti-war activities. Curiously absent is a response to the specific critiques of the Accord that Trudeau raised.

The memoirs are a compelling read, largely because of the intensely personal spin that Mulroney places on the politics of his period. The chapter on Lucien Bouchard makes for fascinating reading - told as the treacherous betrayal of an old school chum as part of a massive Pequiste conspiracy. Vivid too are the depictions of Clyde Wells' "suffocat[ion]" of Meech Lake "in a cruel act of political infanticide." This is a tale of heroes and villains, and Mulroney is vicious towards those who he thinks maligned his pristine policies.

I often teach the Meech Lake Accord in my Canadian history courses, and I am pleased to see that Mulroney does acknowledge the crippling impact that Robert Bourassa's decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to re-pass provisions of Quebec's sign laws had on English-speaking Canadians' opinion of the Meech Lake Accord. All too often, this crucial event is overlooked in accounts of the Accord, when in fact this was a major turning point which rallied many to Trudeau's argumentation about the potential impact of the Meech Lake Accord's distinct society clause - a point that even Mulroney concedes. In some respects, then, his memoirs may serve as an important corrective to the received wisdom about these years (which his account of Bouchard's activities does somewhat as well).

It is curious, however, to see that Elijah Harper and the Manitoba government of Gary Filmon largely escape the vicious critiques launched at Clyde Wells. It is one of the great curiosities, to my mind, that Harper's critique of the Accord's failure to address the concerns of First Nations seems to be tacitly accepted in the Meech Lake narrative, although the objections of Trudeau and Wells are not. Thus, Wells can be attacked for failing to put the Meech Lake accord to a vote in the Newfoundland legislature, even though the Accord had already failed to be voted on in Manitoba before the deadline. After the rhetoric that Mulroney had built up about the absolute necessity of the Meech Lake Accord, a villain was needed to account for its death - public opinion in English-speaking Canada and Quebec has not been a legitimate target, nor have First Nations, but Pierre Trudeau and Clyde Wells can be pilloried for their opposition. Interesting.

While I have never been a fan of Brian Mulroney, I am finding his memoirs to be a compelling read, written in a fast-paced, accessible style. They provide an interesting glimpse into the psychology of a key figure in Canada's post-Charter political development, and explain much about how he handled crises in Canadian political life. As such, while I often find his self-pitying rhetoric somewhat tiresome, Mulroney does provide an important perspective on a tumultuous decade. Read with a grain (or ten) of salt, these memoirs should provide for interesting reading over the next several years.

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