In March 2014, Mila Mulroney threw a surprise 75th birthday party for her husband at Palm Beach’s private Club Colette, a glitzy event that garnered gush from American gossip columns. “Billionaires party with former Canadian prime minister,” New York Post’s Page Six announced, listing some of the Canadian and U.S. one-percenters present: oil baron and Tea Party funder David Koch; Seagram scion Charles Bronfman; investor Wilbur Ross; Galen Weston, executive chairman of George Weston Ltd.; and Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder of New York-based Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private equity firm. Allies from his political days, including former Mulroney government cabinet minister and Quebec premier Jean Charest, mingled with newer friends like the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. The Palm Beach Daily News counted “so many more richy-richies that if the ground had opened up beneath the building, Congress would have to rewrite the tax code.”
At the epicentre was Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, regaling the crowd with a tale about announcing a political return to his wife: “I had been out of politics for some time, but I was really unhappy with some things that were going on in Canada,” he said. “So I sat her down and said, ‘Mila, I’m considering running for office again. How do you feel about that?’ And she answered, ‘Honey, I want you to do whatever makes you happy. And I’m sure your new wife will feel the same way.’ ”
The punchline drew riotous laughter. Even funnier was the notion that Mulroney would consider a return to politics given the circumstances around his departure—and the wealth and influence he’d amassed since leaving office three decades earlier: he was senior partner in the Montreal office of law firm Norton Rose Fulbright; he sat on the boards of Archer Daniels Midland, Barrick Gold Corp., Power Corp., Blackstone and Quebecor Inc., among many others; he pulled in more than $1 million a year on the speakers circuit; he and Mila had lived comfortably part of the year among the Palm Beach rich since they bought a house there in 1997.
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Still, Mulroney couldn’t resist sparking political nostalgia as he joined the Canadian Tenors on stage for When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, the song he notoriously sang with former U.S. president Ronald Reagan at the 1985 “Shamrock Summit” in Quebec City, foreplay to the 1988 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
No one could have predicted that, within three years of that night, Mulroney would be back in the partisan spotlight with Donald Trump’s arrival to the U.S. presidency. A scrambling Liberal government led by the son of Mulroney’s Meech Lake nemesis, Pierre Trudeau, called on Mulroney for advice on how to handle Trump and renegotiate NAFTA. Later, Mulroney’s stirring eulogy for another U.S. president, George H.W. Bush, won plaudits and made Canadians proud.
It’s a measure of the political moment that the qualities Mulroney was pilloried for while in office—alliances with elites and American business, friendships with U.S. presidents, a gift for blarney—suddenly became national assets. Amid global volatility, an old-style Irish pol, a master of negotiating sometimes dodgy reciprocal relationships, offered comfort. In the process, the man once known as “Lyin’ Brian” is being recast as an elder statesman. It’s an unprecedented comeback, a reminder of how history hinges on which stories we tell or are told. With Mulroney, we’re watching reputation refurbishment in real time—awards, policy reassessment, the construction of the Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.
It’s a focus that can’t help but cast light on conservative tradition in Canada. One odd twist to Mulroney’s return is how Liberals use his progressive environmental legislation to attack current Conservatives. Last December, Gerry Butts, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, tweeted: “The Conservative party won’t have a plan for the environment. They haven’t had leadership that cares about it since Brian Mulroney. It’s not going to change in the Scheer/Ford/Kenney era.” Those with longer memories see the Mulroney legacy revamp as more complicated. Peter McInnis, associate professor and chair of history at StFX evokes another U.S. president: “I would describe it as the most ambitious effort for rehabilitation since Richard Nixon.”
In June 1993, Brian Mulroney made a safe, if wishful, prediction about “the beauty of historical judgment” to the Montreal Gazette: “It bears no relationship to today’s headlines.” He’d just resigned after almost nine years in office, months before a federal election, with the lowest polling approval rating ever of a Canadian PM. It was a stunning reversal for a politician who swept the Progressive Conservatives to a historic landslide majority in 1984, and a record second majority in 1988. Canadians, mired in recession, harboured a list of grievances: introduction of the GST and free trade; sending an ill-equipped Canadian military to fight in the Gulf War; a stream of scandals that saw 10 cabinet ministers resign. Mulroney was seen as too showy, too pro-business, too obsequious to power, not the way Canadians saw themselves. Mila Mulroney’s shopping habits won her the mocking nickname “Imelda” after Imelda Marcos. The Mulroneys’ taxpayer-funded global tour—London, Paris, Moscow—to bid farewell to world leaders summoned outrage. Two doomed constitutional initiatives—the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords—left the country divided and the Progressive Conservative party decimated. Lucien Bouchard defected to form the Bloc Québécois. The Kim Campbell-led Progressive Conservatives were crushed in the 1993 election, winning two seats; the party would only recover after a contentious 2003 merger created the Conservative Party of Canada.
The Mulroney years—the lobbyists, the conflicts of interest, the backroom deals, with cameos from arms dealers—were a goldmine for investigative journalists; Stevie Cameron’s 1994 On the Take and Marci McDonald’s 1995 Yankee Doodle Dandy were bestsellers. Historian Michael Bliss captured the sentiment in his 1995 book Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney: “Brian Mulroney knew how to lead elites—how to get premiers on side, business groups in his pocket and unity in his caucus, but when he urged Canadians to go over the top with him, they shot him in the back.”
That year, an aggrieved Mulroney filed an unprecedented $50-million lawsuit against the people he once represented after a Department of Justice letter to the Swiss government on behalf of the RCMP was leaked. It requested information related to allegations that Mulroney and others were involved in a criminal conspiracy to defraud taxpayers involving the $1.8-billion purchase of 34 Airbus A320 passenger planes from a European consortium in 1988, with “improper commissions” allegedly paid to German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber. “I never had any dealings with him,” Mulroney said under oath. He was awarded $2.1 million for legal and PR costs and the government was ordered to apologize in an out-of-court settlement.
Mulroney’s frustration over being underappreciated and misunderstood was writ large in Peter C. Newman’s 2005 book The Secret Mulroney Tapes, which captured him in unguarded moments: “You cannot name a Canadian prime minister who has done as many significant things as I did, because there are none,” he is quoted as saying. A more modest, self-deprecating version of history appeared in Mulroney’s bestselling Memoirs, published in 2007. Its 1,100 pages included no mention of Schreiber, then suing Mulroney for the $300,000 he alleged he’d paid the politician for lobbying a German manufacturer of armoured vehicles—work he claimed Mulroney didn’t do.
In 2007, Stephen Harper ordered a public inquiry, which revealed that Mulroney not only knew Schreiber, who helped fund his leadership bid in 1983, but he accepted no less than $225,000 from Schreiber in 1993 and 1994. Justice Jeffrey Oliphant ruled in his 2010 report that Mulroney did not break any laws or use his influence while prime minister on the contract. Still, the takeaway imagery was tawdry: Mulroney met with Schreiber in three hotel rooms, one in New York City, and was handed envelopes filled with $1,000 bills. Oliphant’s report found “many inappropriate aspects,” including the lack of a paper trail, to deposit it in a bank or pay income tax on it until 2000. The judge also criticized Mulroney for a “heavy-handed” campaign to block a journalist’s story “to protect his reputation.”
Before the inquiry report was published, that reputation was declared irreparably damaged. “Regardless of what happens now, Brian Mulroney’s credibility and reputation is shattered,” the Tyee wrote in 2007.
But time passes, and people forget. Time provides hindsight and context, former prime minister Kim Campbell tells Maclean’s. She expresses no bitterness toward Mulroney for leaving her with an unwinnable election and a decimated party: “I don’t blame someone for being human,” she says. “People who make a mark are complicated,” Campbell says. “Brian Mulroney is complicated. He has great skills and annoying flaws.” Campbell was proud to serve in the Mulroney government, she says, where she held a number of cabinet portfolios; she was also the first woman appointed as Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general, where she oversaw key revisions to sexual assault legislation and advocated for more women in the judiciary.
Campbell cites one Mulroney flaw: his thin skin. He called her former chief of staff to complain about her 1996 political memoir, Time and Chance. She thought she’d treated him fairly: “People said, ‘Why were you so nice to Brian Mulroney?’ I said, ‘I just wrote it as I saw it.’ ” Mulroney was a pragmatist, not an ideologue, says Campbell, one of the women Mulroney appointed to powerful cabinet positions.
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Reputations do not rely only on the sands of time. Money and powerful friends can also burnish the record. So can an able PR strategist. (In late 2007, Mulroney hired Robin Sears, a communications and policy consultant with Ottawa-based Earnscliffe Strategy Group.) In her 2012 book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Chrystia Freeland, then a journalist, now minister of foreign affairs, wrote of politics as a path to big money: “One thing that isn’t in dispute is the material value of a political career after leaving office.” Few have been as successful as Mulroney, says Derek Burney, Mulroney’s former chief of staff and former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Retiring politicians of all stripes travel to Montreal for advice on post-political life, he says, as well as the hope of a few connections.
The powerful networks Mulroney assiduously cultivated before and during his stint in office were there for him afterwards. Mulroney “always noticed people worth noting,” says former Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson, who met Mulroney in Quebec in the ’60s. One of Mulroney’s great successes was identifying George H.W. Bush as the next president, says John Baird, a former minister of foreign affairs and the environment in the Harper government: “He advanced a very warm professional relationship before 1988.”
People who like Mulroney hold him in great, if not unflinching, affection. “I liked him even when I was mad at him,” says Peterson. “That doesn’t mean I love everything about him. But if I phone Brian Mulroney and say, ‘I need help,’ he’d be the first guy to line up.”
Mulroney sought common ground to both befriend and as a negotiating tool. Hugh Segal, a former senator who was Mulroney’s chief of staff, recalls asking Mulroney why he requested extensive intel on foreign leaders. “He said, ‘Huey, there’s not a single leader in the world—corporate or political—who wakes up in the morning, turns to his spouse and says: “I wonder how Canada is doing today?” Nobody cares about us. I have to look through that material to find linkages, so if I have to call the president of France or somebody in Africa because some Canadian is in prison, I have a relationship I can build on.’”
With his bountiful Rolodex, Mulroney nimbly forged connections between corporate shared interests. He sat on the international advisory board of Beijing-based China International Trust Investment Corp., a state-owned conglomerate that specializes in joint ventures with non-Chinese partners; later, he’d play matchmaker for a Barrick-Power joint venture to develop gold deposits in China.
Time found some Mulroney policies prescient. In 2006, he was hailed the “greenest” prime minister by the Canadian magazine Corporate Knights for the 1987 Montreal Protocol and the 1991 acid rain treaty. The 25th anniversary of the once-contentious free trade agreement brought more tributes. Ian MacDonald, Mulroney’s main speechwriter in the ’80s, later became the editor of Inside Policy magazine and devoted its first issue to a laudatory free-trade anniversary package. The University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs hosted a symposium.
Awards and tributes can be a way for the powerful to applaud one another. In 2012, Mulroney, Canada’s first working-class PM, received the Horatio Alger Award, named after the prolific 19th-century American dime-store novelist known for tales of young boys rising from poverty through hard work and honest living. (Other recipients include Ronald Reagan, Fred Trump, Maya Angelou and Leonardo DiCaprio.) Mulroney added “VP of the Horatio Alger Association of Canada” to his crammed CV in 2012. It provided an opportunity to talk publicly about scholarships for poor, worthy students—even if media wanted to revisit the past. In a 2015 Maclean’s interview, Mulroney deflected a question about the Oliphant inquiry, saying he’d not read the report. “I’ve been investigated more than any prime minister in Canadian history,” he said. “I have never been charged with a parking ticket.”
Mulroney’s gift for blarney also inspired devotion, and could even reshape reality. Jean Charest recalls attending caucus as an MP when the government was down in the polls: “We’d walk in at 15 per cent and we’d walk out, in our minds, at 80 per cent,” he told Maclean’s. “He was inspirational every single week.”
Campbell wonders if one of Mulroney’s perceived failings was appearing to “want it too much.” “He took great pleasure in becoming prime minister. He wasn’t Cincinnatus, who had to be persuaded away from his plough.” History can distort, she says: “People mythologize Pierre Trudeau as a reluctant PM. But, like Mulroney, he also wanted to be PM from an early age.”
Post-politics, Mulroney was never far from political action, helping with the Harper government transition and dispensing advice across the partisan spectrum, including advising former NDP leader Jack Layton on caucus management. “He never went away,” says Peterson. Harper told his cabinet to keep their distance from Mulroney after the Schreiber inquiry began. They didn’t. “It was one of the great secrets of the Harper era that as many as a dozen cabinet ministers would call Mr. Mulroney regularly to complain,” says a Mulroney friend. Mulroney offered advice and valuable contacts, reports Baird, who hosted a private reception for him in 2011 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the acid rain treaty, attended by Bob Rae and Elizabeth May.
The shock of Trump made Mulroney newly relevant. “The government was scrambling like mad to find a point of traction with the new administration,” says Burney. Mulroney had known Trump for decades. They lunched occasionally in New York; he also often speaks with Jared Kushner, says Burney. His friend Wilbur Ross was named secretary of commerce. Schwarzman, of Blackstone, whose board he’d sat on since 2007, was named head of Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum.
Initial talks between the government and Mulroney focused on the new U.S. government, says Burney (Mulroney declined Maclean’s interview request). He and Mulroney were invited to brief a cabinet committee on NAFTA; they brought together members of their original free-trade team to talk to Freeland, her chief negotiator and people from the PMO. “We each had several discussions with various players over the course of the negotiations,” he says. Mulroney’s message was consistent, Burney says: “Don’t pay attention to the bombast. Don’t play the Twitter game with the guy. Just stick to your guns and stare them down.” They shared their “No deal’s better than a bad deal” mantra from the first round. “I think they appreciated hearing it,” he says. “A lot of members of the cabinet were not even born when the free-trade agreement was concluded.”
Mulroney provided the public image of a steady hand at the tiller. “There’s movement going on between Canada and the United States at the moment, led by the Prime Minister, and I think it’s all positive,” he told CBC’s Power & Politics in December 2016. He also flattered Trump, calling him “a very solid citizen.” U.S.-Canada trade is “a perfect model,” he said. “They have no problems with us. I think they’re talking mostly about Mexico”—a comment soon seen to have no grounding in reality.
Mulroney also arranged for Schwarzman, nicknamed “Trump’s China whisperer” for his contacts with that country, to speak at the Liberal caucus retreat in Calgary in January 2017. (Blackstone’s first executive hire in Canada in 2014 was Mulroney’s son-in-law, Andrew Lapham.) In what would be a case of universes colliding, Freeland also met with Schwarzman and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser who sits on Barrick’s international advisory board with Mulroney. As a journalist, Freeland interviewed Schwarzman for Plutocrats, which described his ostentatious 60th birthday party in 2007, just before a market meltdown.
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In March 2017, the Mulroneys dined with Trump and his wife, Melania, at a cancer research fundraiser at Mar-A-Lago; Mulroney reprised history, singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling for another president.
When the NAFTA deal appeared in peril in September, Mulroney fielded media questions. “Have we missed a chance? You never do in life,” he said. “There’s always another chance.” Weeks later, the deal was signed. It was a big win for Canada, and for Mulroney, says Baird: “All the wins we got in this renegotiation were keeping things he had successfully fought for in the original trade deal.” Baird sees the Liberal validation of Mulroney’s record as a vindication: “[Margaret] Thatcher was once asked what her greatest accomplishment was,” Baird says. “Her response was ‘Tony Blair.’ And in many ways, one of Mr. Mulroney’s greatest accomplishments was to get the Liberal government to be such a champion of free trade.”
Mulroney was not paid for his advisory role, says a PMO spokesperson. Asked if there was any discussion or screening of potential conflict of interest given Mulroney’s directorships with companies that could be affected by the treaty, the PMO declined to answer. (Liberal legislation did pave the way for another Mulroney board seat—announced on Oct. 17, 2018, the day cannabis was legalized—with New York City-based cannabis company Acreage Holdings.)
Post-politics, foreign governments honoured Mulroney, who was handed the highest civilian awards from Ukraine, Japan, South Africa and France. His return to the public eye in 2016 provided a moment to highlight his accomplishments on the world stage, says Fen Hampson, professor of international affairs at Carleton University, and author of Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy, published in 2018. Hampson, who has co-authored op-eds and a 2014 book with Burney, saw a void, he tells Maclean’s: “We remember Mulroney for, shall we say, his indiscretions. But that’s overshadowed by a much more substantiative policy legacy that requires sober second analysis.” The glowing foreword, by former U.S. secretary of state James A. Baker III, sets the tone: “Under Brian Mulroney’s leadership Canada punched well above its weight on the world’s stage.” Hampson writes of Mulroney’s “moral crusade for justice,” highlighting his advocacy to end apartheid in South Africa, which saw him spar with Thatcher, and also giving Canada a respected voice at the G7. “He operated on the theory that ‘I’m not dealing with what’s going to be popular today, I’m doing things that are going to be good for the country in 10 years’ time,’ ” says Hampson, who notes Mulroney sat with him for interviews.
Last year, Mulroney received yet another honour: entry into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame for his “extraordinary contribution to enriching the quality of life for Canadians with physical disabilities.” As PM, Mulroney instructed his finance minister to provide something in the budget for Canadians with disabilities, Burney says, noting Mulroney had three cousins with disabilities; he presents a heroic picture of a young Mulroney carrying them to the shrine of Baie-Comeau’s Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in search of a miracle.
Another church, the Washington National Cathedral, would provide a defining Mulroney moment as he represented Canada at the funeral of George H.W. Bush with cabinet minister Scott Brison and U.S. ambassador David MacNaughton. With Trump in the first row, Mulroney employed strategic hyperbole to celebrate the U.S. (“in my judgment, the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of this Earth”) and Bush Sr. (“no occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable”). He emphasized their shared legislative legacy—the Clean Air Act that resulted in the acid rain treaty was “a splendid gift to future generations of Americans and Canadians”; NAFTA was “recently modernized and improved by new administrations,” which “created the largest and richest free-trade area in the history of the world.” Bush’s first Gulf War “will rank with the most spectacular and successful international initiatives ever undertaken in modern history,” he said, as sanitized a view of that conflict as could be imagined. Mulroney ended with an Irish proverb: There are wooden ships / There are sailing ships / There are ships that sail the sea / But the best ships are friendships / And may they always be. It was cringingly sentimental. It was also pitch-perfect amid unprecedented political polarity.
The Mulroney Institute of Government, set to open officially this year at StFX, has been in the works for more than a decade. The institute is the closest Canada has come to erecting a U.S.-style presidential library; Mulroney has called the school, which will offer an undergraduate degree in public policy, a “mini version” of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair will lecture, he promised.
Cladding on the site featured photos of Mulroney with Reagan and Thatcher, and with Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela. Mulroney Hall will house academic and research labs and offices as well as Mulroney memorabilia, including selected correspondence and a replica of his office as PM. Fundraising began in 2012, with Mulroney collecting close to $60 million himself (he has close ties to StFX, having graduated with a political science B.A. in 1959). His friends were generous, among them Koch, Ross, Gerald Schwartz, Weston, Ron Joyce, Paul Desmarais and Segal. Mulroney personally contributed $1 million. Nova Scotia gave $5 million. In April 2017, the federal government announced $30 million in funding for three campus projects, including the institute. Harper was urged to pony up by members of his cabinet, but did not.
The legacy project again put investigative journalists to work—and created the headlines associated with Mulroney: proximity to unseemly activities, but no conviction. An international consortium of journalists who looked into donors found two with links to arms sales and tax havens. Victor Dahdaleh, a British-Canadian businessman, and Wafic Saïd, who contributed a combined $5.5 million, both received honorary doctorates from StFX in 2015, though neither attended the university nor has connection to the province. Mulroney sat on the board of the Bermuda-based Said Holdings Limited between 2004 and 2012, according to the Paradise Papers. (In an email, StFX president Kent MacDonald writes that protocols for giving honorary degrees were followed and both men have histories of donating to education internationally.)
The influx of cash has been transformative on campus, says history professor McInnis. Still, he expresses concern about the sources of some funding, noting commerce secretary Ross’s ties to Russia. How much control donors will have of the curriculum is unclear, he says. “Obviously donors get a say to a certain point. But if it crosses the line into infringing on academic freedom, that’s a concern.” Koch runs the Koch Foundation, whose donations were found to come with a say in the hiring and firing of professors at Virginia’s George Mason University.
McInnis sees burnishing of not only Mulroney’s reputation but of the Conservative party more generally, pointing to controversy on campus concerning Mulroney receiving the former desk of John A. Macdonald as a parting gift to the PC party in 1993. Macdonald’s role as a leading Conservative and the architect of residential schools is problematic, he says, given the pressure on the university under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with Indigenous issues. (The Mulroney Institute will fund a $1-million bursary for Indigenous students.)
Burney refers to Mulroney as “the patriarch of the Conservative party,” even though the party he led no longer exists. “The PC party was a big-tent party that encompassed a lot of different people—Red Tories and social conservatives—and we all had to work together,” says Campbell. “That made it a challenge to lead. It also meant it was a pretty centrist political institution.” Campbell couldn’t survive in today’s Conservative party, she says: “It’s too intolerant; it’s too right-wing.”
In recent interviews, Mulroney too has drawn a line, emphasizing his government’s record of increasing the flow of immigrants and refugees into the country. He told Power & Politics of his “firm belief that Canada and other democracies only prosper with great waves of immigration . . . Anything that varies from what I just said should be unacceptable.”
Mulroney’s association with the current Conservatives is complex. He avidly supported his daughter Caroline Mulroney’s run for leadership of the Ontario Conservatives—and the creation of a possible Mulroney political dynasty. In Patrick Brown’s 2018 book Takedown: The Attempted Political Assassination of Patrick Brown, the deposed Ontario Conservative leader reveals that Mulroney promised Brown a place “at the centre” of his daughter’s government if he swung his organizational clout to her campaign for leader—and then for premier. Brown didn’t. Caroline Mulroney, a political neophyte, lost the leadership race but won a seat and was named attorney general in the Doug Ford government.
Tensions are also said to exist between Andrew Scheer’s team and Mulroney. Scheer spokesperson Daniel Schow is vague when asked about the relationship: “They’ve spoken. They have friends in common. They’re both Conservative politicians.” Mulroney will be diplomatically quiet during the federal election, his spokesperson Sears predicts: “No one expects him to be completely silent. But I think he’ll be more circumspect and less frequent.” Speaking up is a delicate matter, given his daughter’s place in the Ford government. “He is used as a club to beat her with by the Liberals and New Dems,” Sears says. (Friends say Mulroney is not happy about Butt’s tweets that criticize his daughter’s rejection of a carbon tax.) Sears laments Canada’s treatment of retired politicians: “I find it so distressing that when we have a former leader pass from the stage we put them on the iceberg and let them float gently out to sea.” In a conversation held before Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum’s exit, Sears proposes that Mulroney’s skill set could be useful in the current standoff with China. “[Jean] Chrétien and Brian have forgotten more about Canada-China relations than these kids would know in the next 10 years,” he says. “Why not call either of them to make a discreet visit to Beijing to express our sympathies for the unhappiness this situation has caused the both of us and say, ‘Are there any messages you want to convey privately?’ ” Using former U.S. presidents to broker such matters is a time-honoured American trick. It’s telling of the political moment, and of Mulroney’s reputational rehab, that it’s an idea not unworthy of consideration.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the John A. Macdonald desk will be on display that the Mulroney Institute.