N.W.T. leaders remember Brian Mulroney with mixed feelings


Former prime minister Brian Mulroney speaks to supporters in 2009 at a party marking the 25th anniversary of his landslide victory in 1984 in Montreal. Some N.W.T. leaders are remembering Mulroney fondly, while others feel differently about his legacy in the North. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney speaks to supporters in 2009 at a party marking the 25th anniversary of his landslide victory in 1984 in Montreal. Some N.W.T. leaders are remembering Mulroney fondly, while others feel differently about his legacy in the North. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press – image credit)

Political friends and foes of Brian Mulroney in the Northwest Territories are remembering the former prime minister and his legacy in the North with mixed feelings.

Canada’s 18th prime minister, who died this week at 84, was no stranger to the North. He shared greetings in Inuktitut in 1993 during the signing of the Nunavut land claim, and was known for working with the Dene Nation on the Dene agreement, although the completion of the agreement never came to fruition.

Dave Nickerson was the N.W.T.’s Progressive Conservative MP for almost a decade, from 1979 until 1988. That overlapped with Mulroney’s first years as prime minister.

“Brian Mulroney could get along with virtually anybody … he was a decent, nice guy, a good Canadian who wanted to do the best for the country,” Nickerson told CBC News.

“And Brian was able to do that for the North here, and Canada in general.”

The former MP said Mulroney was good at coming up with compromises and trying to accommodate different people’s point of view.

According to Nickerson, Mulroney saw the North as an integral part of Canada and advocated for roads in the N.W.T. and was a champion of economic development.

“That was his greatest contribution to the North, the fact that we could look forward to governing ourselves here, all the people of the North, in the same way that people in southern Canada do,” Nickerson said.

Other leaders have different views of Mulroney’s legacy in the North.

Bill Erasmus, who was the chief of Dene Nation when Mulroney was prime minister, said he wanted to share condolences with Mulroney’s friends and family. But Erasmus also said his own memories of the former prime minister “are not the better things.”

Erasmus acknowledged Mulroney’s accomplishments, including his opposition to apartheid in South Africa, the free trade agreement, and his advocacy for the environment. But Erasmus also remembers how Mulroney was in office during the Oka crisis in 1990, and his work on the Charlottetown accord, which had provisions Erasmus did not agree with.

Bill Erasmus testifies at senate hearings on constitutional reform in 1987.

Bill Erasmus testifies at senate hearings on constitutional reform in 1987.

Bill Erasmus, former chief of Dene Nation, testifying in 1987 at senate hearings on constitutional reform. Erasmus does not have warm memories of Mulroney. (CBC)

Erasmus also said Mulroney’s government tried to establish the federal government’s authority in the Arctic — despite the Paulette case being won in 1973, asserting that Dene didn’t surrender their rights or land when they signed Treaty 8 and Treaty 11.

“Canada didn’t know how to deal with us [then], and they still don’t know how to deal with us. They still haven’t come to terms with the facts that we have rights that are separate from theirs,” Erasmus said.

“It’s tough to think good things of him, but I mean, you don’t want to think ill of the dead — and that’s part of the learning process. The whole thing with our Treaty and Aboriginal rights is a lifetime experience, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

‘You don’t have to agree with people to honour and respect them’

Another former MP from the N.W.T. also had fond memories of the prime minister — despite their political differences.

Ethel Blondin-Andrew was elected as the Liberal MP for the territory in 1988, when Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were reelected to a second term in government. Though they were in different political parties, Blondin-Andrew said she and Mulroney could often find common ground.

We agreed on health care, we agreed on international issues, we agreed on many things. I mean, there’s stuff we didn’t agree on, but you don’t have to agree with people to honour and respect them,” Blondin-Andrew told the CBC.

Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chair of the Sahtu Secretariat Inc. says regional land and water boards work well and shouldn't be amalgamated into a superboard.

Ethel Blondin-Andrew, chair of the Sahtu Secretariat Inc. says regional land and water boards work well and shouldn’t be amalgamated into a superboard.

Ethel Blondin-Andrew, who served as the territory’s Liberal MP during Mulroney’s latter years as prime minister, said she could often find common ground with him despite their different political allegiances. (CBC)

Along with working together in parliament, Blondin-Andrew said Mulroney also supported her during the highs and lows of her personal life, including when she had just gotten married and was offered to go to New Zealand with the Speaker of the House as a working trip.

“It was one of my first international trips,” Blondin-Andrew said.

Years later, when Blondin-Andrew was having issues in her marriage, she recalled a phone call from the prime minister offering words of support.

“He said, ‘Ethel, don’t worry. We all have our burdens and our crosses to bear.’ He said, ‘we are here to support you,'” she recalled.

“He was very, very soft spoken and kind to me, and I appreciated that.”



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