ANTIGONISH, N.S. - Former prime minister Brian Mulroney delivered an emotional speech at St. Francis Xavier University in central Nova Scotia on Wednesday as he took part in a ceremony to officially open a public policy institute that bears his name.
Canada's 18th prime minister, who graduated from the university in 1959, said the institute would provide opportunities for young Canadians and others from around the world to "learn, lead and help build a better world for us all."
After thanking the many donors who made financial contributions to the $52-million facility, Mulroney reminisced about growing up in Baie-Comeau, Que., where his father Benedict worked at the paper mill as an electrician.
Mulroney recounted how his father was opposed to his young son's plan to seek an apprenticeship at the mill, even though the family was struggling financially.
Reciting his father's words, Mulroney was briefly overcome by emotion, taking a deep breath and pausing as the audience applauded, giving him some time to recover his composure.
"'I know, Brian, that times are tough,'" Mulroney recalled his father saying. "'And we could sure use the extra money you could bring. But I've learned one thing: The only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door — and you are going to university.'"
Mulroney showed up for his first classes at St. Francis Xavier in the fall of 1955, carrying a cardboard suitcase. He was 16 years old.
Sixty-four years later, the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government — housed in a 93,000-square-foot building called Mulroney Hall — now offers what the university says is Canada's only public policy program for undergraduates.
Mulroney was greeted with a standing ovation as he entered the new auditorium.
"When I get a reception like this, one thought crosses my mind: 'Do you think it's too late for a comeback?'" said Mulroney, who turned 80 in March. He then noted the prime minister of Malaysia is now in his 90s.
"I could run on the slogan: 'Give youth a chance.'"
In his speech, Mulroney said he headed for the "big city with the bright lights, to conquer the world," after he graduated from the school. However, he said he had no money, no connections and no influence.
"But I had two things of far greater value: a degree from St. FX and the values that had been inculcated into us by a superb faculty and university leaders, here in Antigonish."
The former prime minister, who held office between 1984 and 1993, said the school "opened the door to a wider world" by teaching him about the "power of ideas to transform our country, from one century to the next."
He said the university's professors also taught him never to give up.
"Defeat is not something to fear but surrender is something to reject," he said, repeating a phase he has used over the years.
"Throughout an active and sometimes tumultuous life, never once did it ever occur to me — not for a second — to quit. I learned on this campus that failure was not an option."
During an hour-long tribute that included a video recalling Mulroney's long career in public life, the audience was reminded of his successes, including the original Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, an international treaty on acid rain and his outspoken opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
As well, there were two failed attempts to get Quebec to endorse the Constitution and the wildly unpopular introduction of the Goods and Services Tax
The plan to create the institute was launched in 2012, and Mulroney donated $1 million to the original fundraising campaign. He then helped raise almost $100 million — most of it from private donations, though the Nova Scotia government contributed $5 million and the federal government gave $30 million for Mulroney Hall and two related projects.
Mulroney made a point of thanking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his "unflagging support," adding that Trudeau's former principal secretary, Gerald Butts, was also an important supporter. Butts is from Cape Breton.
Mulroney's daughter, Caroline, said the university's impressive reputation did not reflect its modest size.
"This is a small school," she told the crowd. "But it has always been a place for great people to learn how to achieve great things .... It was here that my dad learned how to make a difference."
The university said in a statement Wednesday that $16 million of the money raised has been set aside for student scholarships and bursaries.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2019.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.