Canada holds a state funeral to honor Brian Mulroney, one of its most consequential prime ministers

The casket carrying the former prime minister Brian Mulroney is carried from St. Patricks Basilica as the family looks on before it is taken to Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal Saturday, March 23, 2024. (Peter McCabe /The Canadian Press via AP)

The casket carrying the former prime minister Brian Mulroney is carried from St. Patricks Basilica as the family looks on before it is taken to Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal Saturday, March 23, 2024. (Peter McCabe /The Canadian Press via AP)

TORONTO (AP) — Politicians, dignitaries and celebrities joined members of the public Saturday at a state funeral to honor Brian Mulroney, one of Canada’s most consequential prime ministers who in the 1980s solidified trade ties with the U.S. and spoke out against South Africa’s apartheid.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and hockey great Wayne Gretzky were among the attendees at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. Mulroney, who died Feb. 29 at age 84, was prime minister for nine years between 1984 and 1993 and led the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

“He shaped our history. He got the big things right,” Trudeau said to reporters outside the church before going in. “He had a huge impact.”

Mulroney’s legacy includes the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed between Canada, the United States and Mexico during his time as prime minister, his participation in the fight against South African apartheid, the 1991 acid rain accord with the U.S. and the introduction of an unpopular sales tax that represents a significant amount of government revenue.

Trudeau, Gretzky and others delivered eulogies.

“Mr. Mulroney was one of the greatest prime ministers we ever had,” Gretzky said.

Former U.S. Secretary State James Baker was scheduled to delivery an eulogy, but couldn’t attend because of recent back surgery. Tim McBride, a former senior White House official who worked with Baker during George. H.W. Bush’s presidency, delivered Baker’s remarks in his place.

“To those of us south of the Canadian border Brian Mulroney was a friend, a staunch, supportive friend who had the confidence to tell us when he thought a different American approach might serve our country better. We always listened to Brian Mulroney,” McBride said on behalf of Baker.

The guest list included four former prime ministers — Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Stephen Harper and Kim Campbell, as well as 12 current provincial premiers or territorial leaders.

Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was also on the list, as was former U.K. Prime Minister John Major and actor Ryan Reynolds.

The funeral followed four days of public tributes in Montreal and Ottawa during which political dignitaries and members of the public filed by Mulroney’s casket and paid their respects to his wife Mila and four children.

“Every day of my life my dad told me that I was the greatest daughter that God put on this earth. Now we all know how much he liked hyperbole, but how lucky am I,” Caroline Mulroney, his daughter, said in her eulogy. “He gave me love, confidence and strength … we are heartbroken by our loss. We adored him. I miss you daddy.”

Mulroney had enduring friendships with former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bush and eulogized both at their funerals.

Reagan and Mulroney became friends as two national leaders during the last decade of the Cold War. Mulroney’s nine years in power overlapped with Bush’s four.

A tearful Elizabeth Theodora Lapham, Mulroney’s granddaughter, sang Mulroney’s favorite song at the funeral as well as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” She was given a standing ovation.

Few Canadians around during his reign have forgotten the widely broadcast Mulroney-Reagan duet of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at the Shamrock summit in Quebec City in 1985, named after the pair’s Irish heritage and the fact that their meeting fell on St. Patrick’s Day. The 24-hour meeting opened the door to future free trade talks between the countries.

And as his funeral wrapped up, his rendition of “We’ll Meet Again” echoed in the cavernous church as his flag-wrapped casket was escorted away by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police honor guard.

It was Mulroney’s amiable relationship with his southern counterparts that helped develop a free trade treaty, a hotly contested pact at the time. The trade deal led to a permanent realignment of the Canadian economy and huge increases in north-south trade. Canada is one of the most trade dependent nations in the world and more than 75% of its trade goes to the U.S.

Mulroney was first elected in 1984 after winning the largest majority in Parliament in Canadian history, but he left almost a decade later with the lowest approval rating in Canadian history. His Progressive Conservative party suffered a devastating defeat just after he left office. But in the years after the loss, prime ministers sought his advice.

“Brian Mulroney chose to spend his political capital. He took risks and by doing so he became one of those rarest of leaders, able to define an era as his own,” former Quebec Premier Jean Charest said.

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A previous version of this story was corrected to show that James Baker wasn’t in attendance at the funeral.

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