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Mulroney funeral a chance for NOTL couple to say goodbye to an old friend
Judy and Derek Insley attended the state funeral for former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on March 23 in Montreal. Richard Hutton

For Derek and Judy Insley, attending the state funeral for former prime minister Brian Mulroney was an opportunity to honour a man who played a significant role in their personal lives.

When the couple learned of Mulroney’s passing on Feb. 29, it was a gut punch.

Mulroney died in hospital after a fall at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., at 84 years old. 

The former prime minister served as the head of Canada’s government for more than eight years, in two consecutive terms, from 1984 to 1993.

“It’s sad because it’s you missing not only a friend but a leader of the country,” Derek Insley said.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a state funeral would be held for Mulroney on March 23 at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, the Insleys wanted to be there.

Derek Insley reached out to a longtime friend – Michael McSweeney – who had brought the Insleys and the Mulroneys into the same orbit in 1983 when Mulroney was campaigning for the leadership of what was then the Progressive Conservative party.

McSweeney had remained a part of the Mulroneys’ circle for decades.

“I emailed him and I said, ‘Is there any chance?’ He said, ‘Not likely, but if I can, I will.'”

As it turned out, the Insleys were able to secure an invitation thanks to McSweeney’s efforts. 

“We had to take buses from the Port of Montreal because there’s no parking at Notre Dame,” Insley said. “And we had to jump on these beautiful buses. And they just kept pushing people back and forth constantly.”

Media reports indicate that about 1,300 guests attended the funeral on Saturday, including former prime ministers Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark and Stephen Harper, as well as Trudeau, Opposition leader Pierre Poilievre, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party leader Elizabeth and Premier Doug Ford.

While the Insleys did not have a chance to meet with the widowed Mila Mulroney during their time in Montreal, they did manage to speak to two of the Mulroneys’ sons, Ben and Mark, a day before the funeral while Mulroney was lying in state at Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“We ran into Ben and Mark and (recalled) a surprise birthday party that they threw for Brian,” Insley said. “They were in Brian’s office and Judy and I were there. Judy got them to hide under Brian’s desk. They were like, ‘Oh, that was you!’ That was nice.”

As they said their goodbyes to the man whom Insley held in high esteem, he recalled the first time the couple met the Mulroneys.

It was McSweeney, who was working for the Mulroney campaign for the leadership four decades ago, who asked Insley to help out during a campaign stop in Windsor, where the Insleys were living at the time.

The Mulroneys had flown into Detroit and the Insleys were responsible for picking them up and bringing them back across the Ambassador Bridge into Windsor.

“We picked them up at the airport, and spent a lot of time driving them back and stayed at the hotel with them, making sure everything was fine,” Insley said.

It was then that the couple, who have called Niagara-on-the-Lake home for the past 15 years, began a decades-long relationship with the Mulroneys, particularly Mila Mulroney. 

She and Mulroney married in 1973 and they were together for 51 years, until Mulroney’s death.

“Judy got very close with Mila,” Insley said. “And Brian and I just talked about everything.”

Insley, a lifelong Progressive Conservative supporter, was impressed with the future prime minister at the time.

“For the first time, I actually had a nice conversation with somebody that understood what was going on in the real world.” 

It was the beginning of a lasting relationship with the Mulroneys that would see the two couples running in the same circles after the Insleys moved to Ottawa to work for the Tories.

“We lived there for 16 years doing different things for the party and for the government,” Insley said. “We were invited to (see) Prince Charles and Diana when they visited. We went to 24 Sussex (home of the Prime Minister) and the kids had a surprise birthday party for Brian when he was coming back from a visit with Ronald Reagan discussing the free trade accord.”

Mila Mulroney was there for the husband Insley as he took his own stab at politics back in the 1987 provincial election when he ran unsuccessfully as the P.C. candidate in the riding of Ottawa West.

His friend McSweeney ran in the same election in the riding of Ottawa South.

It was during that campaign that Insley got some unexpected help from Mila Mulroney. 

“She came out to campaign with me,” Insley said. 

Saturday’s funeral was an emotional experience, Insley said.

“I saw people there that I hadn’t seen for years that had high office positions, and they were shaken … it was a beautiful environment to be in.”

He was particularly struck by the funeral’s conclusion.

“The ending of the whole thing (with a recording of Mulroney) singing his way out, was very emotional. Everyone was talking about it,” Insley said.

Mostly, he remains in admiration of Mulroney for his dedication to his family and for being brave enough to make tough decisions that weren’t always popular.

Those decisions included the creation of the goods and services tax (GST) and entering into a free trade agreement with the United States.

“That’s what Brian showed,” Insley said. “There was a huge discussion on the GST. There was huge discussion on free trade within the party and he listened and they were both bold moves at the time.”

Following the funeral, Mulroney was buried the same day at a private ceremony at Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery in Montreal.

hutton@niagaranow.com

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