Politics

Justin Trudeau's Political Godfather

Without Stephen Harper, the Liberals would still be the soulless, grey, grubby political machine they were a decade ago

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• 637 words

One of the most successful and important figures in Canadian history gave up his seat in the Commons this week. The Globe and Mail reported the news on page 4 of Saturday’s edition under the headline “Harper Resigns To Pursue Consultancy.” The former prime minister announced the news in an otherwise empty Parliament Hill conference room, later broadcasting his characteristically bland remarks through Facebook.

The winner-take-all nature of elections can produce odd moments like this. I remember once, shortly after Harper’s Tories won re-election in 2011, meeting Michael Ignatieff at a store in downtown Toronto. He was buying cat food. Just a few months previous, Ignatieff was being spoken of as Canada’s next great Liberal prime minister. Now, he was running Whiskas through a self-checkout scanner. That’s cruel.

It’s doubly cruel where Harper is concerned—because, as John Ibbitson concedes in Saturday’s Globe, Harper’s legacy on the big issues was largely positive. “If Liberal leader Paul Martin had won the election in 2006 and proceeded to impose greater accountability on the public service, to cut taxes, to solve the softwood lumber dispute, and to apologize and offer redress for the the abuses at residential schools, dollars to doughnuts he would have received high marks all around.”

Ibbitson lists other Harper accomplishments, such as landmark trade deals, and excellent stewardship of the economy at a time of global crisis. But to my mind, perhaps his greatest feat was finally throwing the Liberals out of power so they could clear out their rot. Blinded as we are now by Justin Trudeau’s army of smiley, happy people, remember that this was once the party of Alfonso Gagliano, Jean Carle, and Jacques Corriveau—a soulless, grubby political machine that had no purpose except to keep the Grit tribe in power. Harper smashed all that. Without him, there would be no Justinian Restoration, and Canada likely would be the same somewhat dour, insecure and politically backward place it was under the feuding grey men of the late Chrétien–Martin era.

This is not to whitewash Harper. Nothing can excuse the toxic, Islamophobic populism of the Tories’ last election campaign, when they attempted to sway voters with cheap gambits. But none of those gambits produced anything in the way of lasting policy. The Canada that Trudeau inherited from Harper was rich, confident and ascendant on the world stage.

So why is Harper’s exit Page 4 news? In part, it is because we all have short memories when it comes to politics: Many Canadians who can list the entire starting lineup of the 1993 Blue Jays would have a hard time naming more than one or two Cabinet Ministers from Jean Chrétien’s first term in office. Moreover, by the time multi-term leaders leave office, they usually have grown so unpopular that no one is in the mood for sympathetic send-offs.

But in the case of Harper, there is an additional factor, which is the overpowering charisma and newness of Justin Trudeau, richly documented in glossy magazine spreads around the planet. No matter what you think of Trudeau, it is unquestionable that—for good or ill—he has summoned into existence a completely new era in Canadian politics. And when something feels this new, it makes everything that came before it feel old.

Not just “former,” or “ex” or “previous.” But flat out old. Shuffle off, Grandpa Harper, we’re going to need that conference room for a photo shoot.

Harper is only fifty-seven years old. If Brian Mulroney is any useful guide, Harper may still be giving speeches and going on foreign trade missions in 2040. But where the public imagination is concerned, he’s already cashed out his cat food, taken his receipt, and wandered off into the parking lot.

Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is the editor-in-chief of The Walrus.


Visual Essay

The Great Canadian Hip Trip

5,000 kilometres, fifty hours driving, 250 Polaroids—exploring the country through Tragically Hip lyrics

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• 875 words

The Great Canadian Hip Trip was a personal project hatched during a lonely thirteen-hour drive from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, to Edmonton, Alberta. The Tragically Hip were the musical backdrop of my formative years, so when my travel plans had me driving from Kitimat, BC, to Toronto I took the opportunity to explore the lyrics as I explored the country. With Polaroid-style pictures I made visual interpretations of the music and poetry. This is what the Hip looks like to me.

"Well the taxi driver liked his rhythm / Never liked the stops / Throes of passion, throes of passion / When something just threw him off" ("Blow at High Dough") A wrecked car lies off a forest road in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, reminiscent of one of the Hip’s most popular songs. The expression “don’t blow at high dough”—a phrase often used by Downie’s grandmother—warns against getting ahead of oneself and losing control.
“Well the taxi driver liked his rhythm / Never liked the stops / Throes of passion, throes of passion / When something just threw him off”—Blow at High Dough
A wrecked car lies off a forest road in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, reminiscent of one of the Hip’s most popular songs. The expression “don’t blow at high dough”—a phrase often used by Downie’s grandmother—warns against getting ahead of oneself and losing control.
"They shot a movie once, in my hometown / Everybody was in it, from miles around / Out at the speedway, some kind of Elvis thing" ("Blow at High Dough”) “Speedway” was a 1968 musical-action film starring Elvis Presley. The Hip allude to Presley in several of their songs, but this mention in “Blow at High Dough” is the most obvious instance. Here, Vickie Edwards poses on a 1955 Chevy, similar to the fast cars that Presley used to drive, in Deep Creek, British Columbia.
“They shot a movie once, in my hometown / Everybody was in it, from miles around / Out at the speedway, some kind of Elvis thing”—Blow at High Dough
“Speedway” was a 1968 musical–action film starring Elvis Presley. The Hip allude to Presley in several of their songs, but this mention in “Blow at High Dough” is the most obvious instance. Here, Vickie Edwards poses on a 1955 Chevy, similar to the fast cars that Presley used to drive, in Deep Creek, British Columbia.
"I'd been carving you / To see what form you'd take" ("Bring it All Back") Gary Foster finishes carving a wooden horse in Squilax, British Columbia. He specializes in working with large logs that are lifted out of burn areas, giving “wasted wood a second life.” The Tragically Hip’s lyrics often hint at the importance of appreciating Canadian nature.
“I’d been carving you / To see what form you’d take”—Bring it All Back
Gary Foster finishes carving a wooden horse in Squilax, British Columbia. He specializes in working with large logs that are lifted out of burn areas, giving “wasted wood a second life.” The Tragically Hip’s lyrics often hint at the importance of appreciating Canadian nature.
"Just then the stripper stopped in a coughing fit / She said, ‘Sorry I can't go on with this.’" ("So Hard Done By") Ella Ecstasy looks away while dancing at the Twin Valley Motor Inn in Smithers, British Columbia. The song “So Hard Done By,” first released as a single in 1995, loosely explores the complications of love and sex. Lyrics also describe a “monumental big-screen kiss, so deep it’s meaningless.”
“Just then the stripper stopped in a coughing fit / She said, ‘Sorry I can’t go on with this.’”—So Hard Done By
Ella Ecstasy looks away while dancing at the Twin Valley Motor Inn in Smithers, British Columbia. The song “So Hard Done By,” first released as a single in 1995, loosely explores the complications of love and sex. Lyrics also describe a “monumental big-screen kiss, so deep it’s meaningless.”
“We can aim the dish / For hardcore invitations” ("700 Ft. Ceiling") A Canadian landscape is painted over this satellite dish in the countryside. Downie described “700 Ft. Ceiling” as the classic story of a Canadian kid with nothing to do. It’s a song about teenagers killing time—heading out to the local hockey rink or watching porn on TV.
“We can aim the dish / For hardcore invitations”—700 Ft. Ceiling
A Canadian landscape is painted over this satellite dish in the countryside. Downie described “700 Ft. Ceiling” as the classic story of a Canadian kid with nothing to do. It’s a song about teenagers killing time—heading out to the local hockey rink or watching porn on TV.
"Local boy went to prison, man's buried on the hill" ("38 Years Old") Jake Cassar poses before heading off to basic army training in Edmonton, Alberta. Downie maintains there is no truth to the song about a local man who is jailed for killing his sister’s rapist. But the band has rarely ever played “38 Years Old” live—reportedly because too many fans continue to interpret it literally.
“Local boy went to prison, man’s buried on the hill”—38 Years Old
Jake Cassar poses before heading off to basic army training in Edmonton, Alberta. Downie maintains there is no truth to the song about a local man who is jailed for killing his sister’s rapist. But the band has rarely ever played “38 Years Old” live—reportedly because too many fans continue to interpret it literally.
"Your heart jumps to / And my heart jumps too" ("Silver Jet") In this picture, young Caleb Kanowski imagines that he is “roaring overhead” with the Snowbirds, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The song is about “snoring Gords and Cheryls” sleeping in a “heightened air of peril,” with planes flying above. Many interpret it as a song about the war.
“Your heart jumps to / And my heart jumps too”—Silver Jet
In this picture, young Caleb Kanowski imagines that he is “roaring overhead” with the Snowbirds, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The song is about “snoring Gords and Cheryls” sleeping in a “heightened air of peril,” with planes flying above. Many interpret it as a song about the war.
"Balloons all filled with rain / As children's eyes turn sleepy-mean" ("Fiddler's Green") IV bags hang in a patient room at the Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Downie’s young nephew Charles Gillespie died of heart disease before “Fiddler’s Green” was recorded, and these lyrics are thought to describe IVs in a children's ward. The emotional song wasn’t played live until fifteen years after its release, in 2006.
“Balloons all filled with rain / As children’s eyes turn sleepy-mean”—Fiddler’s Green
IV bags hang in a patient room at the Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Downie’s young nephew Charles Gillespie died of heart disease before “Fiddler’s Green” was recorded, and these lyrics are thought to describe IVs in a children’s ward. The emotional song wasn’t played live until fifteen years after its release, in 2006.
"Twelve men broke loose in Seventy-Three / From Millhaven maximum security" ("38 Years Old”) In 1972, fourteen inmates escaped from one of the most dangerous prisons in Canada's penitentiary system, Millhaven Institution, in Bath, Ontario. Downie changed the details of the getaway for “38 Years Old,” but the song’s reference to the prison is clear.
“Twelve men broke loose in Seventy-Three / From Millhaven maximum security”—38 Years Old
In 1972, fourteen inmates escaped from one of the most dangerous prisons in Canada’s penitentiary system, Millhaven Institution, in Bath, Ontario. Downie changed the details of the getaway for “38 Years Old,” but the song’s reference to the prison is clear.
 “That night in Toronto with its checkerboard floors” ("Bobcaygeon") Joanne Kim dances in front of Lee’s Palace, Toronto, where both the Tragically Hip and The Man They Couldn’t Hang (a band referred to in “Bobcaygeon”) have performed. The song’s “checkerboard floors” refer to the Horseshoe Tavern, another local Toronto bar.
“That night in Toronto with its checkerboard floors” —Bobcaygeon
Joanne Kim dances in front of Lee’s Palace, Toronto, where both the Tragically Hip and The Man They Couldn’t Hang (a band referred to in “Bobcaygeon”) have performed. The song’s “checkerboard floors” refer to the Horseshoe Tavern, another local Toronto bar.
“You'll have to wait a minute cause it's an Instamatic.” ("So Hard Done By") The Tragically Hip hold a spot on the Canadian Walk of Fame in Toronto for their contribution to Canadian music. During the band’s induction in 2002, singer Gord Downie—well known for his eccentric behavior—jokingly picked off a piece of lint from the maple-leaf-shaped star.
“You’ll have to wait a minute cause it’s an Instamatic.”—So Hard Done By
The Tragically Hip hold a spot on the Canadian Walk of Fame in Toronto for their contribution to Canadian music. During the band’s induction in 2002, singer Gord Downie—well known for his eccentric behavior—jokingly picked off a piece of lint from the maple-leaf-shaped star.

Paul Colangelo (@PaulColangelo) is a documentary photographer who has published in BBC, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean's.


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