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'This is exactly the way it was': Replica of former PM's office a highlight of new Mulroney Hall


ANTIGONISH, N.S.— The walnut desk was his, as well as the 150-year-old Persian rug with its all-natural dye. The antique standing floor globe, the tables, the lamps — “Mila saved everything,” Brian Mulroney said Tuesday while seated in his old prime minister’s office.

There are family photos, one of Mulroney walking his then 16-year-old daughter Caroline down Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street (he wouldn’t let her walk alone “because I had to beat off all the suitors”). Through the soaring cathedral “windows” you can see Wellington Street, in Ottawa’s parliamentary precinct, as well as Gatineau, Que., and the Ottawa River.

Well. Sort of.

This PMO is a replica, a stunning, true-to-detail one, of the office Mulroney occupied during his nine-year tenure as Canada’s 18 th prime minister. With its ornate ceilings, crown mouldings and collection of Hansards, the elaborate exhibit greets those who pass through the front doors of Mulroney Hall and the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government, a $100-million legacy project to be formally unveiled Wednesday at St. Francis Xavier University, Mulroney’s alma mater.

“When we thought of doing this,” Mulroney, 80, said in an interview with the National Post in his resurrected office, “I told the architects (and designers), ‘If you’re going to do this in Nova Scotia, you’ve gotta put those pictures in there that show Ottawa with the view that I had.’ ”

“This is exactly the way it was.” (Mulroney graciously declined our request to have his picture taken while seated behind his old desk, lest someone accuse him of trying to pretend he’s still prime minister.)

The 28,000-square-metre building, still smelling of new construction, also includes a soaring open atrium, modern classrooms and a 300-seat auditorium, as well as interactive displays and exhibits displaying artifacts and memorabilia from Mulroney’s years in power: a bust of John F. Kennedy presented to Mulroney by Sen. Ted Kennedy; an ornate Cartier clock from the Emir of the State of Kuwait (Mulroney and his government supported the 1991 UN-sanctioned coalition to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait); a Maori adze, a Maori symbol of authority and leadership featuring a greenstone blade, given to Mulroney by former New Zealand prime minister James Bolger in 1992; a letter from Nelson Mandela dated April 2004 for Mulroney’s “strong and principled leadership in the battle against apartheid”; flags carried on American space shuttles presented by former U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the White House on Sept. 25, 1984, during Mulroney’s first trip to Washington as prime minister (the Canadian and American flags were on separate NASA space shuttle missions that used the remote-controlled “Canadarm” technology); presidential cufflinks and fishing lures from George H.W. Bush and a traditional hide jacket featuring floral beadwork detailing given to Mulroney at the signing of the Dene-Métis agreement-in-principle in 1988 over land claims in the Mackenzie Valley.

The replica PMO and hallways are also adorned with photos, lots of them — Mulroney with Pope John Paul II, Mulroney with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mulroney spent seven years raising money for the project — $65 million from private donors, $30 million from the federal government, and $5 million from the province of Nova Scotia. (Mulroney and his wife Mila made a major contribution as well.) More than $16 million was raised for student scholarships and bursaries alone, including awards specifically for Indigenous and African Nova Scotians.

“This took a lot of time, I’ll tell you that. A lot of meetings, a lot of travel across Canada and the United States, London, Paris, the Middle East. It was a major endeavour, I’ll tell you that,” Mulroney said at a 2017 groundbreaking ceremony.

In addition to a four-year undergraduate program in public policy and government, the institute will feature a series of research chairs focused on leadership. Whether Arctic policy or Canada-U.S. relations, “the angle is, what have leaders done, what could they have done better, and how can we prevent leaders from making irrational policy choices in the future,” said Dr. Don Abelson, founding director of the Mulroney Institute of Government and an expert on Canada-U.S. relations.

From the beginning, Mulroney’s premise was that “if you’re going to change the political landscape, you have to tackle the big issues, that you can’t be bogged down in the weeds,” Abelson said.

During his tenure in office, Mulroney tackled a slate of controversial issues — the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the GST, his efforts to try to bring Quebec back into the constitutional family.

When he left office in 1993, his approval rating was just 12 per cent, the lowest of any Canadian prime minister, and he later admitted to an “error of judgment” in the Airbus affair. There have even been some questions about some of the donors to this legacy project.

Some have said the opening of the new governance centre at 166-year-old St. F.X. could help take some of the sting out of past controversies. Others say Mulroney is battle-hardened, and that it’s his commitment to higher education that most matters. “He knows who he is; he’s comfortable in his skin. He’s comfortable with his place in history, and I think he ought to be,” Abelson said.

“He’ll be remembered as one of the country’s great prime ministers for what he did.” Trade, the acid rain treaty with the U.S., human rights, famine relief in Africa, fighting to end apartheid in South Africa. Mulroney said many of his experiences at St. FX guided his thinking when he was in office.

He was just 16 when he arrived, 64 years ago, at the small liberal arts university in this town of rolling hills, where the Catholic Church used to run pretty much everything — the university, the hospital, even the local paper.

The boy from Baie-Comeau, Que., landed on campus in 1955, a working-class Irish kid, the son of an electrician whose father famously told him “the only way out of a mill town is through a university door.” Mulroney studied arts and commerce before majoring in political science. He participated in campus politics and served as prime minister of St. F.X.’s model parliament.

Mulroney Hall isn’t a traditional mausoleum library of a former leader. “Canadian prime ministers and their memorabilia basically wind up in the archives in Gatineau, Que.,” Mulroney said, referring to Library and Archives Canada. “Unlike in America, where millions of students a year can tour presidential libraries and see the recreation of the life of president Kennedy, all of them.”

Mulroney said he initially agreed to raise money for St. F.X. “provided that nothing is named after me. You can consider that when I kick the bucket,” he said he told the university’s leaders. But the university worried the kind of money needed couldn’t be raised without using Mulroney’s name.

He is unapologetic about his policies and governing style. Free trade was bitterly controversial. “If I had said, ‘Geezus, this is too controversial. Christ, everybody and his brother is going to be running after me throwing tomatoes at me, why don’t I put this off?” Or the same thing with tax reform and the GST.

“I had been elected as prime minister to do the right thing for Canada, not to win a popularity contest, but to win an achievement contest. And the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement is an achievement for our country, and for the prime minister and his government.

“My philosophy always was, as prime minister, you must do things not for easy headlines in 10 days, but for a better Canada in 10 years.”

Mulroney is to be joined at Wednesday’s official opening by wife Mila, and children Caroline and Ben. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna are among those scheduled to speak.

Moriyama & Teshima, the architectural firm that also designed the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo and the Museum of War in Ottawa, designed Mulroney Hall.

• Email: skirkey@postmedia.com | Twitter:

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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