Born in the Burbs
Stephen Harper explained
Americans like to make money; Canadians like to audit it,” Northrop Frye once observed. “I don’t know of any other country where the accountant enjoys a higher social and moral status.” But even the great scholar of the Canadian imagination could not have imagined a time when we the people would elect an accountant as our prime minister.
True, Stephen Harper was never an accountant. His father was an accountant, his two brothers are accountants; and, in what has been described as young Stephen’s first and most radical act of rebellion, he rose up and announced, Gee, Dad, sorry, but I’d rather be…wait for it…an economist. Still, there is a thin line between your stereotypical CA and the guy who wrote his master’s thesis on fiscal policy in Canada.
It is no doubt unfair to tar all accountants with the brush that is Stephen Harper’s bland, blank, and inexplicably mean personality. By his own admission, he lacks the charisma to be an accountant. Nevertheless, he seems the very embodiment of the dismal science, the kind of pale, paunchy number cruncher who turns sports, politics, and life itself into a set of mathematical equations.
Not to suggest that he isn’t very smart. Didn’t he represent his high school on CBC’s nerdy quiz show Reach for the Top? And those who know him well insist that he is a warm and funny guy, with a talent for doing impersonations at others’ expense, though the value of their opinion has to be discounted by their invariably being under his thumb or up his wazoo. To those of us stuck with his public self, he remains a stodgy, stolid, uptight bore.
I once spent an hour with him in May 1995, when he was still just a Calgary Member of Parliament in Preston Manning’s Reform caucus. Because of his commendable effort to learn French, he had been designated the party’s critic for intergovernmental affairs, and I sought an interview to better understand its policies toward Quebec. There, for the first and last time, I encountered up close the barracuda eyes, the monotonous voice, and an obvious intelligence detached from any evidence of wit, curiosity, or charm.
This would have been around the time when Manning, I’ve been told, took Harper aside and said, in the high-pitched, drawn-out drawl of a Prairie preacher’s son, “You know, Stephen, if you’re going to stay in this political business, you don’t have to love people—but you can’t hate them.”
Back at my desk and ready to write, I stared at the cassette tape of the interview and gave up. “I can’t go through that again,” I thought. “Life’s just too damn short.” (It’s probably just as well for both of us that the Prime Minister’s Office declined my requests for another encounter.)
Harper got the last laugh, of course, by becoming the twenty-second prime minister of Canada in 2006. I subsequently wasted an entire morning rifling through my office drawers and basement boxes in a fruitless search for that cassette, hoping it might reveal some significant quote I had missed the first time around, perhaps even a news story. But that presumed that Harper had been less guarded as a backbencher, more speculative, whereas he had already shown the makings of the tedious, devious, cautious, suspicious opportunist who would take a hard line against Quebec nationalism one year, flatter Quebecers as a “nation” another year, and then turn his back on them like a suitor scorned.
To be honest, I never expected Stephen Harper to succeed. I had staked my reputation on the thesis that Canada has a left-of-centre political culture no candidate for the highest office can afford to offend. This unique amalgam of four centuries of French dirigisme, British Toryism, and American liberalism is usually characterized by a respect for government, a bias toward protectionism, a tolerance for diversity, and an equitable balance between individual freedom and social justice.
Sir John A. Macdonald understood this when he framed the British North America Act in partnership with Sir George-Étienne Cartier, introduced the National Policy, and financed the Canadian Pacific Railway. However, his Conservative Party soon calcified into a pro-British, pro-establishment, anti-papist anachronism, while the Liberals marched ahead to sever imperial links, create symbols for a new national identity, ally with progressive forces in Quebec, welcome newcomers of every race and creed, define Canada’s place in the world in war and peace, and construct strong institutions and programs capable of dealing with a modern, urban, industrial global economy.
If all this is so, as I argued in One-Eyed Kings (1986), it was counterproductive to dismiss Pierre Elliott Trudeau as a socialist aberration. Though he may have been more of a theorist than his predecessors, as a politician he tended to share their middle-of-the-road pragmatism (except when it came to giving Quebec special status). If that were true, it followed that barring a national crisis or an almost suicidal act of political will, his successors would not do a whole lot differently if they wanted to gain or retain office.
Canadian Conservatives learned this lesson the hard way, losing fourteen of the nineteen federal elections held between 1921 and 1980. In hindsight, the governments of Arthur Meighen, R. B. Bennett, John Diefenbaker, and Joe Clark were mild, rapidly processed purges ingested from time to time to flush the toxins of corruption, arrogance, and inertia from the “natural governing party,” as the Liberals came to be called.
At the provincial level, too, the most successful Conservatives were typical Red Tories, such as Bill Davis in Ontario, Robert Stanfield in Nova Scotia, Duff Roblin in Manitoba, and even Peter Lougheed in Alberta, all of whom borrowed the Liberals’ winning formula by using the state to help develop a strong economy and introduce progressive social policies.
That was the reality Brian Mulroney faced in 1984. Inspired by the anti-government rhetoric and electoral victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he entered stage right huffing and puffing about blowing down Ottawa. Nine years later, he exited stage left with a $42-billion deficit, $450 billion in federal debt, and the largest cabinet in Canadian history. Though he managed to overcome the country’s historical resistance to free trade with the United States, he hardly made a dent in our attachment to public health care, old age security, unemployment insurance, regional development programs, or business subsidies—not to mention the jobs, contracts, and boondoggles his government dispensed to Tories across the land.
The problem was, Mulroney had built his two majorities on an unstable alliance of anti-Liberals: Quebec nationalists, Ontario Loyalists, and western malcontents. It was a combustible mixture of interests and views, only held together by the delights of power and Mulroney’s extrasensory application of carrots and sticks. When it detonated, John A. Macdonald’s party found itself reduced to just two seats, and from the ruins emerged a pair of regional protest parties, the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party.
Both the Bloc and Reform catered to extremes that challenged the Canadian modus operandi: the one dedicated to the independence of Quebec; the other shaped by the grassroots populism of the American right, a contradictory and often irrational mélange of individualism, libertarianism, capitalism, evangelicalism, and a distrust bordering on hatred of all government, but especially big central government.
As it turned out, neither extreme gained much purchase. Though the Bloc helped to push support for sovereignty-association to an electrifying 49.4 percent in Quebec’s 1995 referendum, the federalist parties mounted a comeback in subsequent elections at both the national and provincial levels. As for Reform, while it undoubtedly helped shift the political agenda toward balanced budgets and lower taxes, in 2000 it managed to win just two seats east of Manitoba.
Ideologically as well as politically, Reform (which rebranded itself as the Canadian Alliance, in a fruitless attempt to broaden its support) ended up competing against moderate Progressive Conservatives as well as Liberals and New Democrats. The split vote helped to secure three majorities for Jean Chrétien, who deliberately used such wedge issues as gun control and abortion to hinder the right from uniting. In 2003, when Paul Martin Jr. succeeded Chrétien as prime minister, most pundits assumed that the Liberals—and liberal values—remained as entrenched as ever.
In this context, eastern Tories and western Reformers chose to paper over their differences and regroup under the Conservative banner as their only chance to break the Liberal hegemony. Gone was the word “Progressive.” Gone, along with $300,000 in cash from a German lobbyist of shady repute, was the Mulroney brand. Gone, at least from public view, was any scary talk of privatizing health care, outlawing abortions, or restoring capital punishment. In their place, like the Big Bad Wolf in Grandma’s dressing gown, sat stately, plump Stephen Harper.
“Oh, Stephen, what right-wing ideas you have,” said Little Red Riding Voter during the federal election of 2004.
“All the better to oppose the corrupt and arrogant Liberals, my dear!”
“Oh, Stephen, what hidden agendas you have,” said Little Red Riding Voter during the federal elections of 2006 and 2008.
“All the better to squeak in with two minority governments, my dear!”
“Oh, Stephen, what a weak and divided Opposition you have,” said Little Red Riding Voter during the federal election of 2011.
“All the better to win a majority, my dear!” Then, throwing off his disguise, he gobbled up Canada.
But the fairy tale did not end there, and neither perhaps did Canadian liberalism.
Canada has never had a prime minister quite like Stephen Harper. Most days, he reminds me of William Lyon Mackenzie King, a notoriously manipulative strategist who will be remembered, as the poet F. R. Scott put it, “Wherever men honour ingenuity / Ambiguity, inactivity, and political longevity.” But King made a virtue out of compromise, assembled a team of regional barons, communicated with the dead, and loved dogs. Harper is more of a cat person, solitary, stubborn, slit eyed, sleepily basking in the sunlight of his omnipotence while remaining ever watchful for the right moment to pounce upon and devour his prey, the smaller and more vulnerable the better.
On other days, he seems like the reincarnation of R. B. Bennett, the Colonel Blimp of Canadian prime ministers, who whistled past the graveyard of the crash of ’29 until forced to come up with his own version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like Harper’s father, Bennett came from Loyalist stock in New Brunswick. Like Harper, he headed west to seek fresh opportunities in Calgary. As leaders, both men have been perceived as aloof, brainy, autocratic micromanagers (though Harper has yet to be his own minister of foreign affairs and finance, not officially anyway).
There is one significant difference. Bennett was a self-made millionaire who died a viscount in an English country house. Harper has never shown any entrepreneurial skill, any interest in making money, or any of the trappings of a social climber beyond his rather adolescent infatuation with the royal family.
That certainly distinguishes him from Mulroney, who may have been unique among Canadian prime ministers in viewing the job not as the pinnacle of an illustrious career, but as a prerequisite to substantial wealth. Pulling himself up the greasy pole by means of his street savvy, blatant ambition, and Irish charm, he entered public office as a successful lawyer and business executive living right at the fucking top of the mountain, as he so characteristically expressed it, and he left nine years later to hobnob among the new aristocrats in corporate boardrooms and in Palm Beach.
By way of contrast, Harper wouldn’t know a Gucci from a Rockport and could care less (vide the khaki fishing vest he wore without embarrassment on his first official visit to Mexico), and he seems as indifferent to the old money of Toronto or the nouveaux riches in Montreal as to everyone else on the planet. If they serve his purpose, fine, he’ll lend them a fleshy handshake and an attentive ear. But it is usually apparent from his tight smile—the grimace of a man stoically undergoing a rectal examination—that he would rather be home alone in his den watching a hockey game.
As a result, though he rewarded a few well-heeled supporters with Senate seats and borrowed an executive from Onex Corporation for his chief of staff, he has managed to preserve a moral rectitude even when some of his senators and that same chief of staff became embroiled in scandal. Nor has he been nailed as a lapdog of American imperialism, shamelessly trying to sell his country and himself to the president of the United States and Goldman Sachs.
This helps explain why Harper, despite being a pro-business, anti-taxation conservative, has avoided being pinned as a Bay Street flunky like John Turner, Brian Mulroney, and Paul Martin Jr. before him. They were taken for what they were: corporate insiders, old buddies with movers and shakers from the same law schools and social circles, backslapping networkers who always knew the key person to call, you-owe-me-one deal makers at home in the private clubs of the central Canadian axis of power. Everything, in a nutshell, that Stephen Harper wasn’t.
Everything, moreover, that he had despised as a Reform MP and erstwhile president of the National Citizens Coalition. The Harper of those days valued ideological purity over electoral victory; individual liberty above social justice; and free enterprise cut loose from government regulation. From that perch, Mulroney had been little better than Trudeau and maybe worse, a traitor to the cause for compromise with the centre left, running up the federal debt, wallowing in patronage politics, and pandering to Quebec voters.
This brings us to Joe Clark, another socially awkward outsider who, like Harper, tried to make up for his relative youth by assuming the physical stiffness of a much older man. But Clark was a genuine Albertan who had grown up in the bosom of a small Prairie town in the 1940s and ’50s, and High River infused his conservatism with a deep sense of community. He was famous for describing Canada as “a community of communities,” where the pioneers’ rugged individualism was tempered by the organic view of society passed down from our European founders, the ethnic solidarity of the immigrants, the social gospel, and a reliance on the kindness of others for survival in an unforgiving land.
“You might not agree with everybody. You might not even like everybody,” Clark once said of High River, “but this community knew that when you had to build a flood dike or fight a fire, the community would come together. It was there when you needed it.”
As a result, he never bought in to the American-style fundamentalism of Social Credit, the redneck populism of John Diefenbaker, or even the province-first petrocracy of Peter Lougheed. Instead, he worked to build a modern, moderate, inclusive Progressive Conservative Party—different, but not all that different, from Trudeau’s Liberals.
Harper, meanwhile, was afire with the conviction of a convert, from “an agnostic central Canadian liberal” (as he once described his teenage self) to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, to Alberta, to Ronald Reagan. Not only is he the first Canadian prime minister to come of age in the ’70s, the “Me Decade,” when two oil crises, stagflation, and the end of the postwar boom challenged the Keynesian consensus, but he is also the first to come of age in the suburbs.
Just as Mulroney was defined as the Boy from Baie-Comeau and Chrétien as the Little Guy from Shawinigan, so Harper is the Leader from Leaside, the ET from Etobicoke. But if we had an inkling of what Baie-Comeau and Shawinigan implied (Quebec hinterland, resource industries, Catholic working class), what on earth do Leaside and Etobicoke mean?
Ifear to tread into this barely explored territory: not the suburbs themselves, but the suburban mind of metropolitan Toronto, wherein Stephen Harper dwelt for the first nineteen years of his life. As a latte-loving, operagoing, bicycle-riding journalist living in a downtown neighbourhood once fingered by a Harper cabinet minister as the hotbed of “flippant secularism,” I’m an easy target for charges of snobbery, elitism, and ignorance.
So let me suit up with the armour of science—or at least the pseudo-scientific method known as Political Microtargeting Profiles, a demographic database that segments Canadians into sixty-six clusters differentiated by age, income, education, employment, ethnicity, and official language, each with a distinct set of values and lifestyles.
Here, thanks to Environics Analytics, is a snapshot of my federal riding, Trinity-Spadina, currently held by the New Democratic Party: while running the gamut from the very rich to the very poor, it is mostly made up of tech-savvy singles and young couples, well educated and ethnically mixed.
“Because many residents have yet to start families,” the EA report says of the riding’s largest cluster, Young Digerati, “they have the time and discretionary income to pursue active social lives, enjoying dancing, bar-hopping, listening to music and going to film festivals.…But they’re not simply acquisitive materialists; many are socially conscious consumers who donate to arts and environmental groups.”
And here is Harper’s constituency, Calgary Southwest: while various in their own ways, all but one of its eleven clusters are different from those of Trinity-Spadina. The richest are not quite as rich, the poorest not quite as poor; and the majority is a prosperous blend of upper-middle-class families, younger multi-ethnic families, dual-income professionals with older children, and successful working couples.
“With their upscale incomes, they have crafted an active, child-centred lifestyle,” is how the EA report describes its main cluster, dubbed Pets and PCs, which also happens to be the largest lifestyle type in Canada. “They participate in a number of team sports…[and] fill their homes with an array of computers and electronic gear, telling researchers that they enjoy buying new products ‘just for the sheer joy of the novelty.’ ”
Drilling down into the data, EA surveys compared the social values of one against the other. Trinity-Spadina ranked disproportionally higher than Calgary Southwest in such attributes as social responsibility, personal creativity, ecological lifestyle, belonging to the global village, government involvement, rejection of authority, and sexual permissiveness. Meanwhile, it scored disproportionately lower in religiosity, fatalism, regional identity, utilitarian consumerism, ethnic intolerance, cynicism, primacy of the family, fear of violence, and confidence in big business.
What’s more, just as most urban ridings will correspond to mine, most suburban ridings will correspond to his, whether they are in the West or the East, and both of our ridings will contrast with those in farm areas and the remote backwoods. (The major exception is Quebec. Its cities and suburbs report dramatically different values than those of English-speaking Canada. However, urban francophones differ from suburban francophones in similar patterns.)
So the divisions are evident. Less clear are the reasons. Do cities and their suburbs have conflicting interests, even if they share the same regional economy? Do like self-select with like, or do we undergo a “conversion by conversation” into thinking and behaving like our neighbours? Why should the mere act of moving from a downtown apartment to a suburban bungalow, or vice versa, trigger a change of political views or even of personal values?
The conventional narrative goes something like this:
Once upon a time, country folk poured into cities in search of work, adventure, and personal freedom. As the cities grew denser and more squalid, those who could afford it headed for the outskirts to enjoy cleaner air, quieter streets, and greener spaces. Thanks to industrialization and democratic politics, wealth trickled down from the owners to the managers to the workers, allowing more and more people to achieve the North American dream of owning a single-family house with a bit of backyard and a car in every garage.
Amid the general prosperity that followed the Second World War, public policy and private developers joined forces to meet—even stoke—the demand. Corporations purchased great swaths of farmland, erected cookie-cutter homes on circles and crescents, and offered easy financing. Governments built the highways, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure needed to service these instant towns. Chain stores in gigantic malls sucked business from historical main streets by providing discount prices, ample free parking, all-weather comfort, and perpetual muzak.
At their best, the suburbs represented an advance in human progress. Millions of families escaped congestion, crime, and disease to enjoy lives infused with the middle-class virtues of thrift, decency, cleanliness, and self-reliance. Dad was a law-abiding, tax-paying commuter. Mom had all of the latest appliances with which to cook the meals and keep the house spic and span. They bred healthy, white-toothed kids who attended newly constructed public schools with bright classrooms and fully equipped sports facilities. On Saturdays, they might go skiing or boating. On Sundays, they attended church or worshipped at the altar that is the patio barbecue.
Here lived the average Canadian, the envy of the world, no longer a wheat farmer or a lumberjack but the skilled inhabitant of a growing metropolis: optimistic, patriotic, and at peace. Here, too, lived the backbone of Canadian liberalism, whether Blue Grits or Red Tories, fair-minded and forward-looking people, ready to throw off the aristocratic patrimony of Great Britain and the proletarian radicalism of Europe, to transform Canada’s frontier economy and its antiquated institutions, and to share their abundance with the less fortunate at home and overseas.
They were people, according to biographer William Johnson, much like Joseph and Margaret Harper, first of 332 Bessborough Drive in Leaside, a small planned community northeast of downtown Toronto, and then of 57 Princess Anne Crescent, a ranch bungalow with a large lawn and a two-car garage in the western suburb of Etobicoke. Joe, the son of a school principal in Moncton, New Brunswick, worked for Imperial Oil and dabbled in military history. Margaret gave up her secretarial job to raise their three boys. Stephen, the eldest, was a conscientious A student, a Maple Leafs fan, a Boy Scout, and a member of the Liberal club at Richview Collegiate. By all accounts, they seem like a happily ordinary family, if one overlooks rumours of the suicide from depression of Joe’s father, or the series of childhood illnesses that may have arrested Stephen’s social development.
As with all utopias, though, a disconnect grew between the original ideal and the evolving reality. As documented in countless novels, films, and sociological studies, there was a price to pay for uprooting human beings from integrated neighbourhoods (however disadvantaged) and plunking them down in insulated boxes (however neat). The distance between houses, the empty streetscape, the drive to work, the drive to school, the drive to the mall, fostered an isolation bordering on anomie. Families turned in on themselves, which could be as claustrophobic as it was comforting. Dad left earlier in the morning and came home later in the evening. Mom was left behind with only the babies and daytime TV for company. Many a teenager grew suffocated and bored:
They heard me singing and they told me to stop
Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock
These days, my life, I feel it has no purpose
But late at night the feelings swim to the surface
’Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, “Come and find your kind!”
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl
Living in the sprawl
—Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
In effect, the suburbs accelerated the privatization of life in the Western world in the twentieth century. As individuals vanished into the anonymity of crowds, as social interaction gave way to mass media, as busy streets and public parks turned into corporately owned malls with artificial climates and set hours, it became harder and harder to retain any strong sense of community. Active citizens were tranquilized into passive consumers. Self-absorption undermined the old virtues of service and sharing.
There were myriad exceptions, of course, depending on the uniqueness of families, and the same cocooning was happening downtown for many of the same reasons. But the suburbs of the ’50s and ’60s were notable for their lack of diversity. The neighbours were unlikely to be of a different income bracket or race. (Leaside, for example, was almost 85 percent WASP and solidly lower middle class when Harper lived there.) Nobody had to navigate past panhandlers on the sidewalks. What news there was of strangers tended to be bad news—criminals, terrorists, refugees—blared by top-of-the-hour radio headlines and the American-style sensationalism of the six o’clock television news.
No wonder suburban parents filled their children’s heads with spooky tales of the big bad city. If you go down in the town today, you’re sure to encounter rapists and thieves, drunken Natives and street gangs, drugs, pornography, dirt—despite or because of which an astonishing number of ambitious, creative, cooped-up kids moved back to their grandparents’ slums as college students and gentrified them as young professionals.
There’s an odd scene in one of the odder books in our literary canon, The Moved and the Shaken, by Ken Dryden, the goalie turned author turned politician. In an attempt to examine the unexamined life of the Ordinary Canadian, he tracked the life of a Babbitt named Frank, who lived with his wife and three children in Scarborough (the Toronto suburb mocked by oh-so-cool downtowners as Scarberia), and who happened to work, like Joe Harper, in the corporate offices of Imperial Oil.
One day, Dryden accompanies Frank on his commute. Despite the punitive gas prices and the rush-hour traffic, Frank prefers the solitude and comfort of his Dodge Caravan to being pressed up against other passengers on a subway or bus. As his frustration mounts, he speeds up to pass any guy he sees “in some big, fancy car,” which segues into a rant about people with power and money who get what they want by breaking the rules that Frank feels like a sucker for obeying, which somehow prompts a screed against immigrants who don’t respect the laws and traditions of Canada and make Frank feel like “a stranger in my own country.”
By the time Dryden started hanging out with Frank, the economic upheavals of the ’80s had shattered the expectations and sapped the confidence of suburban families. Manufacturing jobs were lost or threatened by the export of industry and capital to the developing world. White-collar positions were rationalized out of existence by corporate mergers and the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement. Interest rates near 20 percent wiped out the housing market and many small businesses. Mortgage payments, personal debt, and inflation climbed. Employment opportunities, living standards, and income fell.
Amid the uncertainties of the new world order, middle-class voters searched for quick, simple solutions when none existed. In Ontario, for example, they swung from David Peterson’s Liberals in 1987 to Bob Rae’s New Democrats in 1990 to Mike Harris’s Conservatives in 1995, and back to the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty in 2003. As federal, provincial, and municipal governments of every stripe were forced to cut back spending to reduce their deficits, everyone began scrapping for scarcer tax dollars. The suburbanites wanted expressways; the downtowners wanted redevelopment. The suburbanites wanted lower property taxes; the downtowners wanted better social services.
Diverging inputs, diverging experiences, and diverging interests led to what has been described as a culture war. On one side stood the culture of inner-city neighbourhoods—as celebrated by urbanologists such as Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs—magnets for the creative class, incubators of new ideas, arbiters of taste and fashion, fast paced, ever changing, cosmopolitan. Across the divide lay the culture of the “lawn people” in the Eden Acres of affordable living, bedroom communities populated by young families with small children, where predictability was valued above originality, conformity above eccentricity, and safety above all.
In the ensuing tussles, it benefited certain politicians to widen the cleavage as their ticket to power. They won by playing to the worst of the suburbs: a witches’ brew of grievance, envy, inferiority, insularity, powerlessness, and fear. In this play, downtown became the redoubt of the head offices, the big banks, the ivory towers, the hip media, the gay villages, socialists and socialites young and old, where arrogantly sophisticated, obnoxiously trendy insiders disguised their privilege and control behind a hypocritical, patronizing liberalism.
Corrupt and decadent Rome, it seemed, could only be sacked by angry, alienated barbarians—which was basically how anti-elitist, anti-intellectual yahoos such as Mike Harris, Mel Lastman, and Rob Ford came to power. “My idea of Canadian culture,” Harris once boasted to a black-tie crowd of executives and diplomats in downtown Toronto, “is Tim Hortons.”
Stephen Harper is no yahoo, despite his weakness for junk food and double-doubles. He has impressed the civil service with a thorough grasp of his briefing books. He is an effective debater, adept at smothering the flames of controversy with the wet blanket of his monotone. “His understanding of issues is nuanced,” observed journalist and biographer Lawrence Martin, not generally a fan of the prime minister, “and he applies that knowledge shrewdly and strategically.”
Indeed, for someone with no executive experience in government or in business, Harper has demonstrated an impressive capacity for leadership—tough, methodical, disciplined, decisive—not least by turning his weaknesses into strengths. Like a withholding parent, he uses his inscrutable reserve, his volatile temper, and his icy sang-froid to intimidate and command, while success has loaned him the mantle of an organizational genius.
Beneath that cerebral, taciturn exterior, however, one detects an insecure, hapless control freak, quick to sulk when he doesn’t get his way, shy, awkward, and deeply repressed. It is not hard to imagine him as a dweeb showing up at the University of Toronto’s downtown campus in the fall of 1978, sizing up his classmates as socially superior but intellectually beneath him, and dropping out after a few weeks to reinvent himself as an office boy at Imperial Oil in Edmonton, where no one cared what Etobicoke implied and everyone hated the smugness of downtown Toronto—real or projected—even more. How delicious it must have been for him, years later, to trounce Michael Ignatieff, the epitome of the big man on campus.
Trudeau’s National Energy Program turned Harper into a neo-conservative economist and yet another pissed-off Albertan, which led him from the Liberals to the Tories to the emerging Reform Party. As if to prove his loyalty, he became a born-again Christian and subsequently advocated the erection of a “firewall” to protect Alberta from the interventionist policies of the national government.
Yet he never fully bought in to Preston Manning’s western fixation and grassroots democracy, partly because he was neither an Albertan nor a populist at heart, but mostly because they got in the way of beating the Liberals. It was simply and always a matter of numbers. Even if the resource-producing hinterlands of western and eastern Canada could be persuaded to rise up as one in opposition to the resource-consuming urban areas where the Liberals and the New Democrats held sway (a very big if, indeed), they still would not have enough seats to form a government.
Harper conceived of a different model, based on the two demographics he knew best: Alberta conservatives and Ontario suburbanites. (He included Quebec nationalists until he realized he couldn’t keep them and didn’t need them.) “The key,” he wrote in a memo to Manning in March 1989, “is to emphasize moderate, conservative social values consistent with the traditional family, the market economy, and patriotism.”
In this model, the lines would be drawn between the “strivers” in the suburbs and the “creatives” downtown, between those who toil in the private sector and those who depend on a government cheque, between the taxpayers and the tax receivers. As if everyone in the suburbs were striving harder than the Young Digerati downtown. As if everyone in the private sector were more economically and socially productive than teachers or nurses. As if everyone in the suburbs were not benefiting from public spending on highways, sewers, schools, and hospitals.
At some point in the process of deciding to run for the Canadian Alliance leadership in 2001 and then to push for an alliance with the Progressive Conservatives, Harper crossed the Rubicon: he would jettison his fanatical purity for the sake of doing whatever it took to win power. The whistle was blown, the puck was dropped, and his ruthless competitive instincts took over.
With Alberta secure in his pocket, he set off to woo the forty-seven seats of the Greater Toronto Area (more than any province except Ontario and Quebec, and slated to increase to fifty-eight in the next election), and so he picked up the rallying cries of Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution—down with taxes and bureaucracies, up with private enterprise and old traditions—along with a squad of Harris operatives such as Jim Flaherty, Tony Clement, Peter Van Loan, and John Baird. To speak to the fear, he vowed to get tough on crime. To speak to the consumerism, he promised to reduce the Goods and Services Tax. To speak to the anger, he identified himself with those “ordinary working people” who see their hard-earned dollars going to subsidize “a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala.”
“He’s my new fishing partner,” Rob Ford boasted when Harper dropped in unexpectedly for a barbecue party at the mayor’s home in Etobicoke, and though he was referring to a trip to a northern lake they had taken together, they were indeed casting their nets in the same pool of voters.
However, Harper knew his people well enough to know that they were not really right-wing zealots. Sure, they were anti-waste, anti-corruption, disillusioned with politics, and cynical about politicians. Yet they remained deeply attached to their government services; their fiscal prudence did not translate automatically into social conservatism; they were just as likely to get their news from the Toronto Star and CBC as from the National Post and private broadcasters; and they had given Jean Chrétien all of their seats in the 2000 election. Health care and higher education, pensions and subsidies could only be reformed with the deftest of touches. Charter rights and ethical relativism, legal abortion, and gay marriage were best left alone.
“Canada is not yet a conservative or Conservative country,” admitted Tom Flanagan, the Calgary professor who was Harper’s neo-con soulmate before being ostracized for writing an insider’s account of the Conservatives’ rise to power. “We can’t win if we veer too far to the right of the median voter.”
Harper also understood that the Toronto suburbs had changed since his day. Some of them had become major population centres in their own right, with office towers, high-rise apartments, IT labs, cultural facilities, and shopping plazas. Leaside and Etobicoke had grown increasingly diverse and upwardly mobile, so much so that Environics Analytics now categorizes them among the older inner suburbs of the 416 area code, more upscale and downtown in their values and tastes than the newer outer suburbs of the 905.
More importantly, immigrants had been skipping the old settlement pattern, moving directly into brand new subdivisions on the outskirts of the GTA, where they adopted many—though not all—of the values of traditional suburbanites. (Environics Analytics found them generally more open to risk taking and less averse to complexity in the world, for example.) If the Conservative Party wanted to win these populous “ethnic” ridings, it could no longer exploit the subtle and not-so-subtle racism that works so effectively for US Republicans.
Under the direction of Jason Kenney, a Calgary MP who would emerge as Harper’s powerful minister of citizenship, immigration, and multiculturalism, the Conservatives set out to become as welcoming as the Liberals have been historically. Yes, they could go after the bogus refugees and queue jumpers. Yes, they could seek out a wealthier, better-educated class of immigrant. Yes, they could try to integrate new Canadians more speedily into Canadian society and the requirements of the Canadian economy. But the wider they opened the doors to entrepreneurial foreigners with old-fashioned family values, no matter of what colour or faith, the faster they could secure the multicultural vote for generations to come.
It took three elections—and a divided Opposition—to convince suburban Ontario to trust Harper with a majority. To win it, he needed to ride roughshod over the extremists and rednecks he had inherited from Reform. He must have had days when he surveyed his candidates and recalled the words ascribed to the Duke of Wellington: “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.” Nor, for the same good reason, did he stop muzzling the members of his caucus and cabinet once he formed a government, with nary a peep of resistance until Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber quit the caucus in June 2013.
Indeed, Harper’s first years in office were marked more by his bully boy tactics than by any neo-con agenda. Who knew that Joe and Margaret’s asthmatic goody-goody harboured such depths of nastiness, pettiness, and vindictiveness? Or had he picked them up on the job by watching the Liberals? Either way, he revealed a disdain for parliamentary institutions and democratic debate never before seen in federal politics.
The extent to which he has stifled any opposition goes beyond obvious political expediency. It is almost pathological. Trudeau may have called MPs a bunch of nobodies and told them to fuck off, but he was never ruled in contempt of Parliament by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Chrétien may have joked about pepper-spraying demonstrators or throttling a protester with the “Shawinigan handshake,” but he never spent almost $1 billion to ring downtown Toronto with concrete barriers, steel mesh fences, and armed forces as part of a three-day meeting of the G8/G20, which resulted in the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history and egregious violations of civil rights.
Where some see a crypto-fascist, I see a suburban dad. Not the avuncular kind, like Bill Davis or Dalton McGuinty, but the authoritarian kind who still insists on deference and obedience as the head of the household in charge of the family accounts. The kind who wants to put everything and everybody in their proper place. The kind who sees emotion as weakness, passion as filth, a toke a crime. Even Harper’s own father had to caution him against being too puritanical.
But Canada is not a rerun of Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, or Leave It to Beaver. It’s more like The Beachcombers, King of Kensington, or Little Mosque on the Prairie. And democracy is not a house in the burbs, squeaky clean and protected around the clock by a security system. It’s chaos, it’s insubordination, and it’s beyond Pop’s control.
If Harper doesn’t trust the people, the people don’t trust him either. According to an Environics Institute poll conducted in the spring of 2012, only 16 percent of Canadians had much trust in Harper, lower than the rank for almost every other leader in the twenty-six countries surveyed in the Americas.
Harper’s use and abuse of power only raise the question, power for a purpose or power for its own sake? Does he really have a vision for a new, improved Canada—and the will to implement it—or has he become just another centrist politician, albeit with a bias to the right? In leadership parlance, is he a transformational or a transactional prime minister?
Here we are reduced to examining the entrails of sheep or, with more difficulty, the government’s omnibus budget bills.
The first big test of his principles came in the fall of 2008, when the crash of the financial titans on Wall Street threatened to plunge the entire world into a prolonged economic crisis. Harper’s ideological reaction was to fall back on the textbook solutions he had imbibed from studying Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman: don’t intervene, don’t spend, and let the free market sort it all out. “There are probably some great buying opportunities out there,” he told Canadians as their life savings went down the toilet.
Such was the panic, however, that even George W. Bush could not deny the need to spend hundreds of billions of tax dollars to bail out the banks, stimulate the economy, and create jobs. In January 2009, with his hand forced by the other leaders of the G20 nations and at risk of losing the confidence of the Commons via a coalition of the Liberal, NDP, and Bloc Opposition, Harper reversed course as suddenly as R. B. Bennett had done. His government announced $40 billion in stimulus spending over two years, a $10.8-billion bailout of General Motors, and a projected $33.7-billion deficit.
The measures worked more or less as Keynesian economics predicted they should. Harper disingenuously assumed credit for that success—and got away with it—when every objective analysis attributed Canada’s exceptional recovery to government spending, government regulation, and government make-work projects. If the Conservatives had allowed our big banks to merge, if they had deregulated our financial sector, if they had pushed ahead to balance the books, or if they had trusted our corporations to spend massive amounts of capital on infrastructure upgrades and job creation, the results would have been quite different.
“We are not going to be ideological about it, and throw the baby out with the bathwater to get a balanced budget in a year or two,” finance minister Jim Flaherty told the Globe and Mail in the aftermath of the crisis. “We have to be realistic about protecting Canada, protecting the Canadian people—especially young people who are unemployed.”
Canada would be in an even stronger position today if the Conservatives had not squandered so much public money before the crisis and thrown it around so irrationally afterwards. They took the surpluses they inherited from the Liberals and turned them into deficits before the economic meltdown. They cut the GST by 2 percent, costing the government some $14 billion a year that it would soon need. They steamrollered over a host of experts and the Parliamentary Budget Office to waste hundreds of millions in a pigheaded commitment to the F-35 fighter jet, whose estimated costs soared (to the surprise of no one, probably not even themselves) from $16 billion to $40 billion. They pressed ahead with an estimated $9-billion initiative to build more prisons, at a time when crime was actually down. They blew through tens of millions on the Toronto G20 summit in 2010, in addition to the astronomical security costs, including the construction for the G8 of an artificial lake, and a score of irrelevant infrastructure projects in Tony Clement’s riding.
’Twas ever thus. Anti-government rhetoric is usually a ruse by which outsiders can bamboozle their way into power. Once in, they quickly discover its rewards and delights; reality wrecks the best-laid plans; and responsibility, compromise, and pragmatism take charge. With its relatively small population spread across vast distances, with its social and regional differences, with its imperial neighbour to the south, Canada simply cannot be thrown to the vagaries of laissez-faire economics or massive decentralization.
Harper learned that when he set up the Canada Job Grant to grab back power over labour training from the provinces. He understood it when he tried to establish a national securities regulator and changed his mind about taxing income trusts. He surrendered to it when he launched the Venture Capital Action Plan, poured hundreds of millions into the Automotive Innovation Fund, and gave almost $1 billion to the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.
But nothing was more telling, more ironic, than his decisions to nix BHP Billiton’s acquisition of PotashCorp of Saskatchewan, and to outlaw future takeovers of Canada’s oil sands by state-owned foreign corporations. Telling, because they made nonsense of his ideological puffery about keeping government out of the marketplace. Ironic, because they were justified on the grounds Pierre Trudeau had employed to explain the creation of the National Energy Program: that the government has the right and the obligation to intervene in economically and strategically important sectors to protect the national interest and ensure a net benefit to all Canadians.
“Stephen Harper is really two politicians,” an anonymous Conservative lobbyist told the Toronto Star. “Which one shows up depends on which day it is.”
The first seven years of Harper government may not have been as ideological as most Canadians feared when they voted for the Liberals and New Democrats in 2011. But the secretive nature of Harper and his government has only perpetuated the suspicions that he has not altogether abandoned his neo-con agenda, deciding instead to unfold it incrementally and by stealth whenever he so chooses.
No shocking surprises, no dramatic moves, no unnecessary pushing of the hot buttons that might arouse the wrath of the dormant voters who have hung Do Not Disturb signs on their bungalow doors. Instead, like the proverbial frog (or Canada’s current minister of the environment), liberalism would be boiled alive before anyone noticed how hot the water has been getting. “Small conservative reforms are less likely to scare voters than grand conservative schemes,” Flanagan advised, “particularly in a country like Canada, where conservatism is not the dominant public philosophy.”
To buy time, this thinking goes, Harper needs to hug the centre as tightly as his base will allow, to leave the smallest middle ground from which the Liberal Party of Canada might mount a comeback. Not only would that improve the Conservatives’ odds of dislodging the Liberals as the “natural governing party”; it would slake their thirst for revenge for all the years of condescension and insults they have ever suffered from the likes of me. “He hates the Liberal Party,” a senior Harper adviser told Lawrence Martin, “and I would say his aim from day one—and I don’t think anyone would disagree—was to break the brand. The long-term strategy, that was it.”
OMG, that’s who Stephen Harper is! He’s John Diefenbaker redux! He’s the Chief’s second chance! He wants to take us back to Leaside in the early ’60s, before Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau screwed everything up!
Diefenbaker may have been an irrational, incompetent paranoid who spoke like a Baptist preacher and looked like a deranged owl; Harper may be an analytical, systematic enigma who speaks like a simultaneous translation and looks like a satiated badger. But that’s the brilliance of the disguise. Though born in Ontario, both recast themselves as western mavericks; both rode a wave of Prairie populism to capture the Canadian right from the Establishment Tories in Toronto and the Maritimes; both won elections without support from Quebec; both had to deal with a liberal, more popular president in the United States. And though Dief held Parliament in higher esteem, he and Harper are united in their bathetic love for the British monarchy and a neurotic hatred of the Grits.
As a vision for the future, a return to the past seems rather lame. Dragging portraits of the Queen out of storage, slapping the word “Royal” on our armed forces—they would be a farce if they had not handed ammunition to the Quebec separatists. Recycling Diefenbaker’s Northern Vision, committing $720 million for a new polar icebreaker to be named after him—they would be nice if they were not so poorly conceived. Lower taxes, freer trade—we have been there, done that, under Chrétien and Martin, no less.
Besides, there is no going back. By the Constitution and Harper’s own example, the battle for official bilingualism is over and won. Four decades of immigration have put paid to the romance of English Canada—or even French Quebec—as white, Christian, and European. The democratic and egalitarian principles of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are entrenched forever, no matter what a particular government might think about gay marriage or equalization payments. Beyond a slash here, a burn there, do the Conservatives really intend to do away with the Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Health Act, the CRTC, the Investment Canada Act, or the Maple Leaf flag?
The Liberals did not remain in office for most of the twentieth century by political machinations alone. They did so by defining and reflecting the nation. It is virtually impossible to change a nation’s political culture within a decade or even a generation, because a political culture is like a human personality: an inherited and inculcated set of values and views by which we see the world and ourselves.
Of course, societies evolve, attitudes shift, policies change. The forces of globalization have weakened central institutions and the welfare state everywhere. Deindustrialization and new technologies have shattered many historical assumptions about the role of government and the efficacy of protection. The influx of immigrants arriving from around the world in such a short period has undoubtedly altered the public debate. Harper’s Canada is not Trudeau’s Canada, just as Trudeau’s Canada was not King’s. Yet for all of the triumphant chest thumping about a seismic shift to the right, most Canadians remain defiantly liberal.
There is no solid evidence that Harper’s election reflects a fundamental change in national values rather than a fortuitous break in political circumstances. On the contrary, the majority of Canadians voted against him; his government now rarely scores higher than 30 percent in opinion polls; more Canadians identified themselves as small-l liberals in 2012 than in 1997; health care and the Charter far surpass hockey and the monarchy in importance; and 78 percent of us would have voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in the latest US election, including 57 percent of Albertans and 58 percent of those who support the Conservatives.
Truly transformational leaders need either a national crisis or a messianic will. Pierre Trudeau, it could be argued, had both when the rise of the independence movement in Quebec drove him to entrench the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As with the Charter, success inevitably requires the taking of risks, the shattering of shibboleths, the knocking of heads. Transformational leaders ignite the citizenry to embrace change through the power of their persuasion and the clarity of their goals. They gamble short-term partisan victory for the long-term good of the country.
Instead, Harper has opted to do what Diefenbaker should have done: dupe, reward, or re-educate the Alberta cowboys and the Ontario traditionalists into going along with the equality of French, the multicultural hordes, Keynesian deficits, gay marriage, women’s rights, abortion, the residential school apology, and responsible appointments to the Supreme Court—or else lose at the polls.
While it is entirely possible that Harper himself has been duped, rewarded, or re-educated by the rationalizations of power, I suspect that he is smart enough, cynical enough, and maybe even liberal enough to know exactly what he is doing. Like Bob Rae’s socialism, Harper’s political ideology was not bred in the bone. It is an artificial construct superimposed upon a child of middle-class, suburban postwar Ontario who did time at St. Luke’s United, got swept up in Trudeaumania, and wept when the Toronto Argonauts lost the 1971 Grey Cup.
Thus, Harper’s anti-elitist, family-centred, consumer-based individualism, as much a reflection of his introverted personality as of any acquired principle, may differ from Robert Stanfield’s patrician Loyalism, Joe Clark’s organic communitarianism, or Brian Mulroney’s corporate continentalism, but it is certainly closer in practice to Progressive Conservatism—and thus to liberalism—than to western populism. As Senator Marjory LeBreton noted, based on her inside knowledge of every Conservative government since 1962, the most extreme right winger in Harper’s caucus would have looked like Jack Layton in Diefenbaker’s.
Indeed, having successfully distanced themselves from Preston Manning, the old Reformers now seem to be trying to insinuate themselves into the liberal narrative rather than to rewrite it altogether. Macdonald, Borden, and Diefenbaker are elevated into the pantheon; Laurier, Pearson, and Trudeau are dethroned. A Canadian Museum of History takes the place of a National Portrait Gallery. Warriors replace peacekeepers along the Highway of Heroes. Environmental protection, human rights, job training, immigration, patriotism—all get re-spun into Conservative values.
If Harper is taking us anywhere, it is probably full circle, after a generation of fracture and extremist experimentation, back to the days of two centrist alternatives: one on the right, with Bay Street Liberals, immigrant small business owners, and federalist bleus exercising a moderating influence over the Conservatives’ reactionary, predominantly white base; and one on the left, whether a formal alliance or an expedient coalition of true Grits, progressive Tories, pragmatic New Democrats, and disillusioned bloquistes. In such a scenario, I dare insist, the left of centre will again win fourteen out of nineteen times.
Iam not suggesting that Stephen Harper will not do real damage by the time he is through with us (or we with him). The poor, the elderly, the unemployed, and the public servants have already paid a heavy price for his Boys’ Own militarism and pet projects. The long-form census, the long gun registry, the Canadian International Development Agency, the Wheat Board, Rights and Democracy, the Kyoto Protocol, the Court Challenges Program, the Katimavik youth program, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, the Health Council of Canada, a national child care program, and a portrait gallery have already fallen under his axe. Canada’s reputation at the United Nations and around the world, painstakingly crafted by more than half a century of constructive diplomacy, foreign assistance, and environmental initiatives in a host of multilateral organizations, has been wilfully—maybe even irreparably—blackened. Given another majority mandate or two, the drip, drip, drip of careless cuts could erode the foundations of many a national institution, maybe even of national unity itself.
Harper’s worst sins will more likely be ones of omission than commission, opportunities wasted, roads not taken, destruction rather than creation. In the early years of the PM’s regime, a political consultant I know was invited to come up with strategic advice for a particular department. The first question put to the new minister was “What do you want to leave as your legacy? ” The response was speechless bewilderment. The novice minister’s primary ambition, it seemed, was to avoid doing anything that might incur the ire of the prime minister.
“His first reaction to anything new is almost always negative,” Tom Flanagan concluded after watching Harper up close for many years. “It’s a personality trait.”
It is probably good for the country that Harper is not bolder or more principled. It is certainly good for Canadian democracy that the angry and the ideological are getting a turn with the practical operations of government. Whatever has been broken can usually be repaired; whatever has been taken away can generally be restored. Nor is there a program or a policy so perfect that it could not benefit from a periodic overhaul or a complete rethink.
But good statecraft is neither a macroeconomic theory nor a matter of bookkeeping. It is more than hard work, superior brains, or honest intentions. It is an art, never more so than in tough economic times, when proactive leadership must take the place of easy money.
Here is where the limitations of Harper’s suburban mentality are most apparent. The emptiness of his imagination, when joined to his laissez-faire bias, his don’t-rock-the-boat strategy, and his own cautious nature, has produced a void at the centre of our national politics. There is a hole—some might choose to add the vulgar prefix—at the centre of our Tim Hortons maple dip.
It is not just Quebecers who feel Ottawa has no presence in their lives, though that is an absence with serious potential consequences. Young Canadians feel it even more. The premiers are left to work out a national health strategy and a national economic strategy on their own. The premier of Alberta, no less, pleads in vain for a national energy strategy. Corporate executives and community leaders beg for federal direction on such issues as the future of our cities, youth unemployment, post-secondary education, industrial innovation, Aboriginal affairs, transportation, water, housing, wireless communications, and the environment.
Across the land, in fact, legions of highly intelligent, remarkably dynamic men and women are doing and achieving extraordinary things in a host of fields. They know from real, everyday experience how much needs to be prepared, reformed, pushed forward for us to compete in an interconnected world. They are not necessarily asking for more money or protection. Rather, they are looking to Ottawa for a coordinated, coherent set of national priorities that will help secure Canada’s prosperity and our culture. If they don’t want government in their face, they do want it at their back and by their side.
Well, dream on, for Harper is a reactive politician stuck in a nineteenth-century institution with an archaic belief in the “watertight compartments” of federalism. He is a head of government who doesn’t trust government, a national leader who doesn’t believe in national leadership, a man of the people who doesn’t care for people.
He has not gathered at the table with the premiers for a federal-provincial conference since 2009. It took a hunger strike by Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence and the Idle No More marches to get him to agree to meet with a delegation of First Nations leaders. He has never led a Chrétien-style mission of premiers and CEOs to drum up foreign business. He even drops out of sight altogether from time to time—who knows where or why?
In hockey terms, Harper is not the captain of the team. He is not the owner or even the coach. He is Canada’s general manager, a conventional bean-counter who has surrounded himself with other conventional bean-counters, his front bench about as dynamic and diverse as a Rotary Club board circa 1960. It’s enough to make one nostalgic for Brian Mulroney’s hyperbolic, sentimental bullshit humanity.
Not to say that the Conservatives won’t win another victory. The very success of the Liberal Party of Canada has left its intellectual well dry, its veteran players throwing a Hail Mary pass to a rookie. The New Democrats have yet to prove themselves a credible alternative as custodians of the public purse. The split on the left, the benefits of incumbency, the redistribution of seats, the successful wooing of entrepreneurial and socially conservative immigrants, an arsenal of campaign donations and dirty tricks, all will work to Harper’s advantage.
Sooner or later, the same desire for change that brought the Conservatives to power will bring them to defeat. For this is a government led by an unloved leader and built on precarious support from one-third of the electorate—and that is during relatively good times. A plunge in oil prices, a rapid deterioration in the economy, an ongoing failure to create more jobs, a couple of lurches too far to the right, another blunder as unexpected as the Duffy-Wright fiasco, hubris, exhaustion, small-mindedness, the ten-year itch, the pure animal pleasure of Justin Trudeau’s vitality and warmth—and an unforgiving electorate with a long memory will show neither loyalty nor mercy.
I have underestimated Stephen Harper in the past. I may be underestimating him still. He could grow into the job. He could call off his Rottweilers. He could become as comfortable as a hand-me-down La-Z-Boy. But even if the poor boob remains prime minister for decades to come, he will never be other than an uninteresting mediocrity. The risk is, neither will Canada.