Stephen Harper (born 1959), an often-underestimated Canadian politician, became his country's first conservative prime minister in 13 years when he led his party to victory in January of 2006. Harper got into politics as part of a conservative revolt against Canada's traditional center-right party, then rethought his movement's strategy and engineered a merger between his upstart right-wing party and the old center-right. As prime minister, he has tried to increase his party's appeal while negotiating with the other three parties in Parliament.
A Young Conservative
The future prime minister was born in Toronto, Ontario, on April 30, 1959. He grew up in a middle class family in the Toronto suburbs. In 1978, after graduating from high school, he moved to Alberta. He worked in the oil industry there, and soon enrolled at the University of Calgary, a bastion of conservative thinking, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in economics. Harper and a fellow grad student often debated politics and free market economic ideas outside of class, avidly watched American conservative William F. Buckley's television show Firing Line, and followed the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the conservative leaders of Great Britain and the United States.
Not impressed by the center-right politics of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney's Progessive Conservative party, Harper joined the new right-wing Reform Party, which was mostly based in Alberta, a conservative province. The Reform Party made Harper its policy chief in 1987, and he ran for a seat in the Canadian Parliament in 1988 and lost. In 1991 he met Laureen Teskey, a graphic designer, at a Reform Party convention, and they married. They have two children, Benjamin and Rachel.
In 1993 Harper again ran for Parliament, and won. He spent four years in opposition to the center-left Liberal Party, which had won a majority. Harper sharply criticized Liberal rule; he called Canada "a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term," meaning that he felt Canada had become too much like socialist-influenced countries such as Sweden. He stepped down from Parliament in 1997 to become vice president of the conservative activist group the National Citizens' Coalition, which argued that the federal government, with its power base in the eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec, was not concerned enough about western Canada. He eventually became the coalition's president.
Leaving Parliament was a sign that Harper's political strategy was changing. In a 1998 speech, he revealed that he had decided two years earlier, during a vacation from Parliament after the birth of his son, Benjamin, that the Reform Party could never win a nationwide majority on its own. Reform's principles needed to be combined with the Progressive Conservatives' "penchant for incremental change and strong sense of honorable compromise," he said, according to John Geddes of Maclean's. A few years later, Harper made such a merger happen. In 2002 he was elected to Parliament again and successfully ran to replace social conservative Stockwell Day as leader of the former Reform Party, renamed the Canadian Alliance. That made him official leader of the opposition in Parliament. In 2003 a new leader took over the Progressive Conservatives, and Harper negotiated with him to merge the two parties, cofounding the Conservative Party of Canada. Harper became head of the new party in March of 2004.
Harper Took Power
Once Harper became Canada's opposition leader, the governing Liberals did their best to portray him as a right-wing ideologue. They often criticized his public statements from 2000 and 2001, in which he contrasted conservative, free-market-friendly Alberta with the liberal rest of Canada. In March of 2003, when the Liberal-led Canadian Parliament came out against the United States and Great Britain's invasion of Iraq, Harper rose to dissent, charging that the government had "betrayed Canada's history and values," according to Doug Struck of the Washington Post. "The government has for the first time in our history left us outside our British and American allies in their time of need."
When a national election was scheduled in June of 2004, Harper ran as head of the Conservatives. He would have replaced Paul Martin as prime minister if the Conservatives had won. But Martin attacked Harper for supporting the Iraq war, which was unpopular in Canada. Martin also pointed to Harper's pro-American comments to suggest that he was too sympathetic to conservative Republicans in the United States, especially President George W. Bush, who was also unpopular among Canadians. The charge was potent, since Canada's political culture is more liberal than its southern neighbor's, and because Canadians often feel overshadowed by the United States.
Personality was another factor in the race. Harper was still not well known to Canadians, in part because he is unusually private for a politician—"shy to the point of being aloof," observed Clifford Krauss of the New York Times. "He is known to have a fiery temper, and he barely disguises his distrust for reporters. His sense of humor on the campaign trail was most revealing in its self-deprecating jokes about his lack of charisma." As a reporter for the Economist noted, "when a television reporter asked him to repeat on camera a few sentences 'with feeling,' he shot back, 'I don't do feeling.'" The Liberals won the election, but the election still marked something of a comeback for Conservatives, who increased their bloc in Parliament by 25 seats. That included some wins in Ontario, usually a liberal stronghold.
Two years later, fate gave Harper another chance. The Liberals were tainted by a scandal: a multi-million-dollar government public relations fund in Quebec had been revealed to be a slush fund for Liberal politicians and their supporters. When a new election was scheduled for January of 2006, Harper, learning the lessons of his 2004 defeat, worked to present himself as a moderate who had shifted from his earlier hard-line conservatism. "Over the course of a decade, people's views evolve somewhat and situations change," he told reporters, according to Krauss. "I deal with the situation as I find it." He stressed issues such as anticorruption reforms in government, a sales tax cut, and longer prison sentences for criminals. He deemphasized foreign policy and divisive social issues. He favored increasing the size of the Canadian military and said he would reexamine Canada's decision not to participate in the U.S. attempt to create a missile defense shield, but he said he would not send troops to Iraq.
Martin again portrayed Harper as a right-winger too close to U.S. conservatives, but this time the strategy did not work. The Conservatives won the election, which took place on January 23, taking 124 seats, the largest bloc in Parliament. Harper was sworn in as prime minister on February 6. Because the vote was split among four parties, however, the Conservatives won only about 36 percent of the popular vote and did not win a majority in Parliament. Instead, Harper became the leader of a minority government, which needs to attract votes from one of the other parties to pass legislation.
Harper Was In Charge
Still a shrewd strategist, Harper immediately reached out to Quebec, hoping to build conservative support there. It was a bold move, since conservatives from Alberta, Harper's base, are usually opposed to addressing mostly-French-speaking Quebec's long list of grievances. But Harper quickly altered the federal budget to give the provinces more control over spending, a popular move in both the west and Quebec. He also gave Quebec a formal role in Canada's delegation to a United Nations' cultural organization. The hope was that Quebec might elect more Conservatives in the next national election, strengthening the party's fragile plurality in Parliament. By November, Harper introduced a bill into Parliament that would declare Quebec a separate nation within a united Canada. He was aiming to pre-empt a similar proposal written by the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec separatist party in Parliament, that would call Quebec a separate nation, without the "united Canada" language. Harper's bill quickly passed.
In May of 2006, Harper won a significant victory for his pro-American foreign policy, but by the barest of margins. A bill to keep Canada's contingent of 2,300 troops in Afghanistan passed Parliament by a vote of 149 to 145. Ever since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, Canada had participated in a multi-national force supporting the democratic Afghan government. But the mission had become increasingly unpopular in Canada. "We just cannot sit back and let the Taliban or similar extremist elements return to power in Afghanistan," Harper argued, according to Krauss. The bill approved keeping the troops in Afghanistan until early 2009. But by September, Harper was forced to defend the deployment again. The Canadian troops suffered an increased number of casualties in mid-2006 as they took a wider role in the dangerous province of Kandahar. Four soldiers died in one day in September, and a U.S. plane accidentally killed another Canadian soldier a few days later. "The horrors of the world will not go away if we turn a blind eye to them, no matter how far off they may be," Harper said in a speech commemorating the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, according to Christopher Mason of the New York Times.
As a candidate and opposition leader, Harper had spoken out against Canada's 2005 legalization of gay marriage. But his attempt to revisit the issue was rejected by Parliament in December of 2006 by a vote of 175 to 123. The three other parties in Parliament opposed the bill, as did 13 Conservatives.
As 2007 began, political commentators were anticipating that another election would probably take place sometime that year, possibly as early as spring, since minority governments in Canada usually only last a year or two. Harper was assumed to be calculating the best timing to call the election and strategizing how to increase his party's support among voters. As Canadians continued to ponder their leader's strengths and character, Paul Stanway, a columnist for the Edmonton Sun, sounded a sympathetic note. Harper's success at "reuniting Canada's fractious conservatives and returning them to government will surely stand as one of the great achievements of Canadian politics," he declared, "particularly if he can produce a majority government in 2007."
Chicago Tribune, November 28, 2006.
Economist, June 12, 2004.
Edmonton Sun, December 31, 2006.
Maclean's, June 14, 2004; May 9, 2005.
New Republic, January 30, 2006.
New York Times, March 21, 2004; January 16, 2006; January 25, 2006; February 11, 2006; May 18, 2006; September 28, 2006; November 23, 2006.
Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2006.
Washington Post, January 25, 2006; December 8, 2006.
"Prime Minister Stephen Harper," Prime Minister of Canada, http://www.pm.gc.ca (December 31, 2006).