Brian Mulroney – From Humble Beginnings

by Bernie Swain

A Canadian politician, Brian Mulroney, came from humble beginnings and a father that valued education. Brian was the 18th Prime Minister of Canada from September 17, 1984, to June 25, 1993. As Prime Minister he brought about major economic reform.

Early Family
My father, Benedict Martin Mulroney, was from a small village outside Quebec City. He worked as an electrician. My mother, Mary Irene O’Shea, was from a neighboring village. Both were descendants of the first wave of Irish immigrants who had come to Canada in the 1830s. My parents met and married and quickly had two daughters. This was during the Great Depression. It was hardly an optimistic time, but they were determined and hardworking.

Then Dad heard about an opportunity that might lead to economic security for his family. Colonel Robert McCormick, who owned the Chicago Tribune, was going to build both a paper mill and a new town to support it – called Baie-Comeau – 260 miles northeast of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River. The mill would supply paper for both the Tribune and the New York Daily News, which was owned by in-laws of McCormick’s.

Living in Baie-Comeau

In 1934, my father left my mother and two sisters in Quebec City and moved to Baie-Comeau. The company built the paper mill, houses for the mill workers and managers, a hospital, schools, an airport, a wharf, a hotel, and a hydroelectric plant to provide power for all of it. The mill is still running today.

My father’s original intention was to stay until construction was finished. But Baie-Comeau turned out to be a nice place, and he was offered a permanent job. He decided to accept it because it came with a house at a low rent, and the schools promised to be good.

My mother and sisters traveled by boat from Quebec City to Baie-Comeau, and the family moved into one of the tiny worker houses. When I say the house was tiny, I mean it. The first floor consisted of a small living room that led to a small dining room that led to a small kitchen. Upstairs, there were three small bedrooms and one bathroom. About a year after the family settled in, in March 1939, I came along, one of the first children to be born in town.

Little Finances, Lots of Love

Three more children followed. Dad’s income from the mill wasn’t enough to support us all, and so he opened a small electrical business. After his shift at the mill, he would go out and wire people’s homes or fix their oil burners and the like. Then he would come home, eat supper, go to bed, and get up a few hours later for his next shift. Dad never complained about this brutal schedule – he seemed to thrive on it. Even as a little boy, I remember being proud of him.

We were a rowdy, warm, rambunctious family. The weather in Baie-Comeau, however, was cold. And windy. And snowy. I remember going to Mass with Mom when I was about seven; a light snow was falling. An hour later, when we left the church, the snow banks were so high I couldn’t see over them.

Dad, who spoke both French and English, was a happy, proud guy who was pleased with what he considered to be his success in life. He had a wonderful, contagious smile and was consistently cheerful and helpful to us children, always ready to listen and offer up good, commonsense advice. Mom was a sweetheart who not only raised six children but also took in boarders. So our tiny three-bedroom house was filled with six kids, two parents, a boarder – and that one bathroom. And Mom fed everybody.

For my early education, I went to the local schools. In those days, Quebec had separate schools for Catholics and Protestants, taught in French and English respectively. This was a challenge for the Mulroneys – we were Catholic but we spoke English at home. Luckily there was one class in the Catholic school that was taught in English. So we’d speak French in the corridors and cafeteria, then we’d go into the classroom and take our lessons in English.

When I was ten, I started working after school, delivering circulars for the Hudson’s Bay Company. My salary was $4 a week, which I immediately turned over to the central banker, also known as Mom. In the summers, I worked full-time as a laborer and then, when I was old enough, as a truck driver. I drove a truck every summer all through college. When I got to law school, I worked summers at the Cargill Grain Company, which had built a grain elevator in Baie-Comeau. It was a heavy load, but, because of my father’s example, hard work felt as natural as breathing.

All of Baie-Comeau came to a halt whenever Colonel McCormick visited. I can still picture him – a tall fellow with white hair and a white mustache, very distinguished looking. He was polite and thoughtful, and he treated everyone with great courtesy when he toured the mill. He usually arrived with a party of friends, who he would take salmon and trout fishing in the then-pristine rivers.

During one of the Colonel’s visits when I was a teenager, he and his wife arrived with a large contingent of big shots from Chicago and New York, including Jack Dempsey, the former world heavyweight boxing champion. You can imagine the excitement in town. A large party was planned at the hotel, and I was conscripted to be a waiter, bartender, and dishwasher. My father was in the union, and he was invited to a party as a union representative.

Word went out that Colonel McCormick’s wife had a favorite song called Dearie, and company managers scoured town looking for someone who knew it. That would be me. So, between carrying plates, I stood on a table and my sister Olive played the piano and I sang Dearie. When I was done, Colonel McCormick came over, thanked me, and gave me a crisp $50 American bill, which I promptly brought home to the banker.

Years later, when I was Prime Minister, I told an economic forum that the Mulroneys were direct beneficiaries of American foreign aid. I can still sing Dearie, although my wife has a standing request that I not.

Becoming Prime Minister

For high school I went to a Catholic boarding school in Chatham, New Brunswick. In 1955, when I was sixteen, I started at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. I was thinking, of course, about my future. And I was worried about my parents, who were spending scarce money to send me to college. The Tribune had an excellent apprenticeship program available to the children of employees. After training in any of a dozen trades, you were basically guaranteed a lifetime job in Baie-Comeau.

During my freshman year at St. Francis Xavier, I came home for a visit. It was a Sunday evening, and my father and I were sitting in the living room. He was in his La-Z-Boy recliner, which he loved. I said, “You know, Dad, you’ve got two jobs, Mom has boarders, and we’re still having a pretty tough time of it. I think I should go into the apprenticeship program.”

My father wasted no time answering: “You know, Brian, you’re right about money being tight, and I appreciate your offer. But the only way out of a mill town is through a university door, and you’re going through that door.” Then he gave me that warm, encouraging smile of his that seemed to embrace life and all its joys and challenges.

My life was transformed that evening. Dad was giving me permission to move on, to move forward, to pursue my dreams.

My greatest regret in life is that he didn’t live to see my and my siblings’ success. But he’ll always be my greatest hero.

I take some solace from the fact that my mother lived to be ninety-one and even lived with us in the Prime Minister’s Residence. There was nothing I loved more than spoiling her, although it wasn’t easy. Her tastes remained down to earth.

Eventually, I became Prime Minister of Canada on a September night in 1984. My wife and I were in Baie-Comeau, staying in the same hotel where I had sung for Colonel McCormick. Our suite was in an annex to the hotel, built in the former house of the mill manager. The annex was literally across the street from the little house where I grew up.

Of course there was a great celebration in the hotel ballroom. When Mila and I finally retreated to our rooms, I was still excited. Mila was exhausted and went to sleep. I went into the living room and turned on the radio, which was in French. The news of the election was all they talked about. I listened eagerly, of course, and couldn’t stop smiling. Then I dozed off on the sofa, just as it started to rain.

The sharp ping of the raindrops on the hotel’s aluminum roof woke me up. I looked around, disoriented for a moment, with no idea what time it was. Then the mill’s whistle – which sounded every morning at 6:57 – blared. It was the same whistle my father had answered to his entire working life.

I got up and went to the window. Looking out, I could see our little house in the rising dawn light. I asked myself, “I wonder what Dad would say if he could see me now?” Then I heard him answer my question: “Well, you know, Brian, you did a good job.” And he would have smiled.

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