Something within him: former finance minister reveals private struggles in new memoir

By CityNews Staff

He is best known as the father of the GST and as one of the key negotiators of the original 1988 Canada/US Free Trade Agreement.  But a new book shows there was much more to the late Michael Wilson than just his resume. In Something Within Me:  A Personal and Political Memoir, the former finance minister not only gives an insider’s look at the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney but reveals a side of himself rarely seen until now.

Wilson, who died of cancer in 2019, first began the book as something to leave behind for his grandchildren.

“It was basically a diary,” recalls co-author John Lawrence Reynolds.  “So, I had many of the facts on hand [at the time of his death]. The actual getting down and doing the heavy lifting and telling the story began around the time that he was diagnosed in terms of doing it in a chronological order. So, there was still a good deal to do, based upon assistance from his family and from material he had already left behind.”

Wilson was a member of parliament from 1979 to 1993, representing the Toronto-area riding of Etobicoke Centre.  While his highest position in government was that of finance minister, he did have eyes on the top job at one time, running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1983, a contest ultimately won by Brian Mulroney.

“Out of this came a joke in the sense that everyone knows about Brian Mulroney’s, how shall I put it, Irish glad-handing and so on? He’s a man who really has been blessed with a golden tongue, as the Irish would say,” Reynolds adds.

“Michael Wilson was blessed with many things, but a golden tongue, and especially charisma, were not part of it. So, he made a joke when he made a pitch for the leadership and he said, ‘On top of everything else, it’s my charisma,’ and everyone knew that that was exactly the least of the qualities he brought to the job.  And he very quickly recognized that Mulroney was going to be the man with the win, and he fell behind.”

The Progressive Conservatives under Mulroney would go on to win 211 of 282 seats in the 1984 federal election, still the greatest margin of victory in Canadian history. Mulroney would name Wilson as his finance minister, drawing on his previous experience as a bond trader and investment banker.

Wilson’s signature domestic achievement as finance minister was the 1991 introduction of the GST, short for the Goods and Services Tax. It replaced the old 13.5 per cent MST or Manufacturers Sales Tax, which was levied at the wholesale level and thus was hidden from the general consumer but was thought to make Canadian companies less competitive outside of the country.

On the international stage, Wilson was one of the key negotiators of the 1988 Canada/US free trade agreement and later NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While Wilson will forever be remembered for his time in the Mulroney government, the book lays out how his work as a mental health advocate was perhaps the most meaningful to him. That came into sharper focus after the suicide of his oldest son, Cameron, at the age of 29, in 1995.

“It changed him when he realized that Cameron’s suicide was motivated not directly by his mental illness, but by the stigma that Cameron felt that he would suffer in the eyes of his friends and colleagues and business associates and so on,” Reynolds explains.

“He recognized that people did not know what he was going through, he recognized that Cameron [fought] very hard to keep this a secret from his friends, and that essentially just added to the depression and contributed to his death. [Wilson] took a step forward to say, ‘We have to talk about these things. We can’t keep this hidden.’”

Wilson would later become the chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.  As chancellor of the University of Toronto, he would also establish the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies in his son’s memory.

Something Within Me:  A Personal and Political Memoir is published by the University of Toronto Press.

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