Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister Who Led Canada Into NAFTA, Dies at 84

Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, whose statesmanship on what he called “great causes,” from free trade and acid rain in North America to the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, gave way to accusations of financial misdoing and influence-peddling after he left office, died on Thursday in a hospital in Palm Beach, Fla., where he had a home. He was 84.

A spokesman for his daughter Caroline Mulroney, a cabinet minister in Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, said Mr. Mulroney had been hospitalized after a fall at his home. “He died peacefully, surrounded by family,” Ms. Mulroney wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Born into a blue-collar family in northeastern Quebec, Mr. Mulroney transcended his small-town roots to become a prosperous lawyer and business executive before seeking and attaining high office as a conservative, rising to prime minister in 1984. He won re-election by a convincing margin in 1988.

His popularity had much to do with his persona: With a liking for immaculately tailored dark blue double-breasted suits and always impeccably coifed, Mr. Mulroney was a skilled debater and orator and always ready with a crowd-pleasing joke to preface his speeches.

Ingrid Saumart, writing in the Montreal newspaper La Presse, once called him “dynamic, bilingual and seductive.” Aides promoted him as the Canadian version of Ronald Reagan.

But haunted by a faltering economy and high unemployment, and saying that he had lost enthusiasm for the job, he stepped down in 1993 with the worst Canadian poll ratings of the 20th century. He handed power over to Kim Campbell, who became Canada’s first female prime minister but lost a disastrous election months later.

Mr. Mulroney was known as the Canadian leader who led the country into the North American Free Trade Agreement, with the United States and Mexico, a pact signed in December 1992, and as the author of an overhaul of Canada’s tax regime.

He prided himself on being a confidant of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; on promoting a thaw between Moscow and Washington in the closing days of the Cold War; and on going much further than either the United States or Britain in imposing sanctions against white-ruled South Africa to press for the release of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid.

For all that, there was a darker, less visible side to him. In 2005, a book of edited transcripts of hundreds of hours of taped interviews recorded over many years was published by a veteran journalist, Peter C. Newman. The transcripts showed Mr. Mulroney to be, in the words of Clifford Krauss of The New York Times, a “foul-mouthed, insecure man with an enemies list that sprawls from Vancouver to Halifax.”

Moreover, Mr. Mulroney acknowledged only many years after his resignation that he had entered into an unpublicized business relationship — not, he insisted, during his days as prime minister — with Karlheinz Schreiber, an arms dealer and lobbyist at the heart of kickback scandals in both his native Germany and his adoptive Canada.

In testimony at an inquiry in December 2007, Mr. Mulroney said he had taken cash payments from Mr. Schreiber in $1,000 bills in hotel rooms. He described the transactions an “error of judgment,” but he said he had done nothing illegal. Both he and Mr. Schreiber described the money as payments for lobbying on behalf of the German company Thyssen, later known as ThyssenKrupp, which was hoping to build a factory for light armored vehicles in Canada.

(Mr. Mulroney always denied being involved in a separate scandal linked to Canada’s acquisition of Airbus airplanes. After the leak in 1995 of an official letter linking him to the affair, he sued the government for defamation and was awarded $2.1 million in 1997.)

Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber differed over the amount involved, with the former prime minister saying he received three payments of $75,000, totaling $225,000, and Mr. Schreiber saying he had handed over $300,000.

“My biggest mistake in life, by far,” Mr. Mulroney was quoted as saying in 2007, “was ever agreeing to be introduced to Karlheinz Schreiber in the first place.” Mr. Schreiber was deported to Germany in 2009 and given a six-and-a-half-year prison term in 2013.

When Justice Jeffrey J. Oliphant, who led the inquiry, published a four-volume report in 2010, he said that the meetings between the two men went “a long way, in my view, to supporting my position that the financial dealings between Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney were inappropriate.”

The judge’s choice of words was taken by Mr. Mulroney’s critics to imply a much broader criticism of his credibility.

The columnist Andrew Coyne wrote in the Canadian magazine Maclean’s in 2010: “It is not that Mulroney had done business with Schreiber, or that he made such strenuous efforts to conceal it. It is that he lied about it: lied to keep it a secret, certainly, but more tellingly lied after it was no longer a secret — notably in his testimony before the Oliphant inquiry. To be sure, the judge does not use such precise words. But on point after point, his meaning is unmistakable. He does not believe what Mulroney told him.”

For his part, Mr. Mulroney argued that the affair had not caused irreparable damage to his standing. In a long profile in 2013, Maclean’s reported that he had shed the opprobrium attached to his name in Conservative circles. He was “fully welcome again in the corridors of power,” the article said, while, as a representative of a major international law firm in Montreal, he “travels the world.” He also held senior positions in private equity, hospitality and other businesses.

Martin Brian Mulroney was born on March 20, 1939, in Baie-Comeau, a remote pulp and paper town in northeastern Quebec, the third of six children. Both parents — Benedict Martin Mulroney, an electrician in a paper mill, and Mary Irene Mulroney — were Irish Canadian Roman Catholics.

He grew up speaking fluent French and English and, in the absence of an English-language Catholic high school in his hometown, was educated at a boarding school in Chatham, New Brunswick.

Mr. Mulroney said later that his father, who died in 1965, had dissuaded him from becoming an apprentice at the mill where he worked. “I remember he said, ‘Listen, Brian, the only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door.’”

After studying political science at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, where he first worked as a volunteer for the Progressive Conservative Party, he studied law at Dalhousie University in Halifax and Laval University in Quebec. As a student, he claimed to be in touch with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, telling fellow activists, “Just spoke to the chief.”

Mr. Mulroney postponed entering politics, however, to pursue a business career, seeking to achieve financial independence and to support his mother and his younger siblings. That path led to his being named president of the Iron Ore Company of Canada in 1977.

Four years earlier, he had married Mila Pivnicki, whose Serbian Orthodox parents had immigrated to Canada from Bosnia, then part of Yugoslavia. Mr. Mulroney and Ms. Pivnicki met at a tennis club in 1972.

Fifteen years his junior, gracious and at ease in public appearances, Ms. Mulroney was regarded as an asset in Mr. Mulroney’s campaigning. One fellow Conservative, Premier Bill Davis of Ontario, reportedly told Mr. Mulroney, “Mila will get you more votes for you than you will for yourself.”

The Montreal Gazette called her “Mulroney’s not-so-secret weapon” in the campaign that brought him to power in 1984. “Canada is based on families, and I think that people enjoy seeing a husband and wife working together under difficult situations,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “I think they also see us as kind of new and different.”

In addition to his daughter Caroline, Mr. Mulroney’s survivors include his wife and his sons, Benedict, Mark and Nicolas.

Mr. Mulroney was widely depicted as a rising star among Canadian Tories in the 1970s. But his initial effort to take over the Progressive Conservative Party foundered in 1976, when the party stood in opposition to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party government.

Although he had never run for elected office, Mr. Mulroney joined a field of contenders that included Joe Clark, who emerged as party leader. Mr. Clark, with a plurality of votes for his party, became prime minister in 1979 and headed a minority government that lasted only six months.

Mr. Mulroney’s defeat in the 1976 party leadership fight led to depression and alcohol abuse. “This was a difficult period for me, and I did not handle it well at all,” he wrote in an autobiography, “Brian Mulroney Memoirs, 1939-1993,” published in 2007. “I began to drink quite heavily with friends over lunch and dinner, and these sessions frequently degenerated into baleful expressions of recriminations and regret.”

In an interview with Canadian television in 2007, he added: “The drinking was unquestionably a problem, I think, graduating to a serious problem.” In 1980, though, he added, “I woke up one morning and said I am never going to have another drink.”

Mr. Mulroney challenged Mr. Clark again in 1983, this time successfully, and became party leader. One year later, the Progressive Conservatives won a resounding victory.

“I am a centrist, a modern one open to all discussions,” Mr. Mulroney said during the 1984 campaign.

In his first term, the country was plunged into a divisive debate centering on fears that a proposed trade pact with the United States would strip away Canada’s independence and expose its manufacturing businesses to huge job losses.

Only with his victory in the 1988 election, when Mr. Mulroney became the first Canadian leader in 35 years to win back-to-back parliamentary majorities, did the way become clear for Canada to ratify a free-trade pact with the United States — the forerunner to North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.

His second term was far more troubled. In his efforts to cut Canada’s deficit, Mr. Mulroney proposed a goods-and-services tax that was widely resented. Efforts to forge national unity between French- and English-speaking Canadians collapsed, prompting a resurgence of Quebec separatism. While he successfully negotiated the NAFTA accord, the economy slumped and his personal popularity largely evaporated.

Finally, in February 1993, Mr. Mulroney announced that he was resigning. “I think that after 10 years you lose some of that enthusiasm and you shouldn’t,” he said at the time. “My enthusiasm didn’t evaporate. I spent it in great causes for my country.”

In fact, his resignation heralded a calamity for his party.

In elections that October, Ms. Campbell, the former defense minister who had succeeded Mr. Mulroney, suffered a near wipeout after just a few months in office. The Progressive Conservatives shed a staggering 151 seats to finish with just two in the 295-seat House of Commons. It was the beginning of 13 years in opposition, during which Canada’s splintered Tories reorganized to emerge as the Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper.

Mr. Mulroney attributed his eclipse in part to the “goddamned incest” of Canadian politics.

“Ottawa is really a sick place,” he said of the country’s capital in the taped excerpts published in 2005. “There’s something in the air here that transforms people from supplicants to sinners overnight.”

Ms. Campbell took a different line when the tapes were made public, commenting that they “remind Canadians of why they did not like him and delay what he so clearly craves and feels he deserves — respect for the achievements of his government.”

Ian Austen contributed reporting.