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Seeking Stephen Harper

By John Boyko

Stephen Harper once joked that even his friends don’t like him. Despite his having been prime minister for nearly a decade, Mr. Harper left the public stage as much an enigma as when he first strode upon and then commanded it.

With his legacy now being written, perhaps the best way to seek an understanding of a man who was among our most inscrutable prime ministers is to recall three others with whom he shared policies, principles and personalities.

Mr. Harper’s control of his cabinet, caucus, and senior bureaucrats knew few bounds. All appearances, speeches and press releases were vetted to ensure that the government spoke with one voice – his voice. The prime minister’s own remarks were seldom extemporaneous while reporters’ questions were always limited and often ignored. In this way, Mr. Harper reminds one of R. B. Bennett.

Like Harper, Bennett was an easterner who represented a Calgary riding. Like Mr. Harper, Bennett enjoyed a reputation as a skilled political strategist and nearly every member of his caucus rode to Ottawa on his coat tails. Bennett held a similar lock on his colleagues, disdain for the press, and a reputation for running a one-man show.

A popular joke had a Parliament Hill tourist query a guide about the well-dressed man walking alone and talking to himself and being told that it was the prime minister conducting a cabinet meeting. Bennett used to speak of “his” government like Harper’s PMO referred not to the Canadian government, but to the Harper government. Bennett’s iron control, like Mr. Harper’s, rendered all errors his and all opposition personal.

Mr. Harper also reminds one of Joe Clark. Like Mr. Harper, Clark called Alberta home and was a career politician who entered the profession quite young. They both earned reputations as astute policy wonks. While both exuded obvious intelligence and political acumen they also appeared uncomfortable in their own skin, walked to podiums as if to gallows, and often read speeches like they couldn’t wait for them to end. Many Canadians grew uncomfortable with both, perhaps because they seemed so uncomfortable with themselves.

The ice in Clark’s manner seemed even colder when contrasted with the fire of Pierre Trudeau for whom magnetism came as naturally as breathing. Alas, another Trudeau radiated heat around the icy Harper who, like Clark, was an introvert in an extrovert’s game.

The most similar prime minister was John Diefenbaker. Like Harper, Diefenbaker was born in Ontario but became a transplanted westerner who voiced the alienation of his adopted region. Both behaved as outsiders even after becoming the ultimate insider. Both perceived politics as a war waged with enemies.

There are other similarities. One of Diefenbaker’s goals was to open the north. Mr. Harper sought to protect Canada’s Arctic sovereignty while spurring economic development in the vast part of the country that, with climate change changing everything, holds more potential than Diefenbaker could have imagined.

Diefenbaker also fought for imperial ties long after the empire was gone, including keeping the Red Ensign as our flag. He would have saluted Mr. Harper’s re-hanging pictures of the Queen and putting the Royal back into our military while reviving old ranks and insignia. Diefenbaker spoke of nationalist unity and sought to end hyphenated Canadianism. He called his vision One Canada. Harper held a similar view of the country.

While Diefenbaker rejected and largely ignored Quebec’s ethnic-nationalism, Harper emasculated it by having a bill passed that recognized “the Québécois” as forming a nation within a united Canada. That is, Quebec is not a nation, just those French-speaking people who self-identify as Québécois. The Harper bill channelled Diefenbaker’s pan-Canadian, One Canada nationalism.

Harper’s relationship with the United States was as tricky as Diefenbaker’s but their motivating ideas were similar. Throughout the difficult 1963 campaign in which he was accused of being anti-American, Diefenbaker said that his fight was for Canada and not against the United States. He repeated the point in his memoirs: “It was simple logic that Canada could not maintain its independence if we continued existing Liberal policies. Recognition of this implied no hostility to the United States. It was a case, as it was for many of my government’s policies, of being pro-Canadian, not anti-American.”

Two generations later, on November 19, 2012, Prime Minister Harper answered questions before the Canadian-American Business Council. He echoed Diefenbaker by offering, “We are strong Canadian nationalists who value what is distinctive and unique about this country and think in our own modest way that this is actually a better country. What we’ve tried to do and tried to tell Canadians is there’s no need for true Canadian nationalism to have any sense of anti-Americanism.”

Diefenbaker would not have agreed with everything Harper did or how he did it. Diefenbaker was a man of the House and so would have risen in outrageous anger at the prorogations and other parliamentary parlour tricks through which Harper bent the rules. Further, like Bennett and Clark, Diefenbaker was a Red Tory and so would have been orphaned in Harper’s party that purged the word Progressive and had the Conservatives become more conservative. The similarities nonetheless remain.

That Harper recognized his link to Diefenbaker was seen in the ways he saluted him. Harper’s government provided money to update and upscale Saskatoon’s Diefenbaker Canada Centre. When Ottawa’s old city hall was renovated to house government departments it was renamed the John G. Diefenbaker Building. A new Coast Guard icebreaker will be called the John G. Diefenbaker.

Prime Ministers Bennett, Clark, Diefenbaker and now Mr. Harper continue to serve Canada by inviting us to glimpse the road ahead not by peering through the windshield but, rather, glancing in the rear view mirror.

— John Boyko is the author of five books addressing Canadian history and politics including Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged and a Nation. Penguin-Random House will release his next book, Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front, in February 2016. Follow John at www.johnboyko.com


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