Watch a video of comedy host Rick Mercer's overnight stay at the home of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. From YouTube.
Stephen Harper's eloquence and grasp of issues resulted in him becoming the party's first chief policy officer. The next year he ran for office but was defeated. The following year, 1989, Deborah Grey was elected the Reform Party's first MP and Harper moved to Ottawa to become her legislative assistant.
Though Harper was viewed by many as a natural successor to Preston Manning, his relations with the Reform Party's founder soured during the tense period leading up to the referendum on the CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD in 1992. Harper adamantly opposed the accord; by contrast, Manning was somewhat more willing to accept it.
In 1993 Stephen Harper again ran for political office under the Reform banner and this time captured the federal riding of Calgary West. In office, Harper assumed the post of Reform Party critic for finance and national unity. Four years later, however, he stepped down from politics. Shortly thereafter, Harper took a position with the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), a right-wing lobby group.
As head of the NCC, Stephen Harper led attacks on federal government efforts to limit third-party advertising. He also directed the coalition's campaigns in favour generally of private business and markets and against such things as the Canadian Wheat Board and human rights commissions.
Never far from politics, Stephen Harper was led back more directly into the political arena in 2001 by events within his old party. In the election of 1997 the Reform Party of Canada emerged as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Nonetheless, the party seemed still confined to its Western Canadian political base. Preston Manning and others sought over the next few years to build a broader, national right-wing political coalition to defeat the governing Liberal Party. These efforts bore fruit with the founding in early 2000 of the CANADIAN ALLIANCE party. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, the new leader of the party was not Manning but a relatively untested Alberta politician, Stockwell DAY. Under Day's leadership, the new party succeeded during the federal election of 2000 in becoming once more Canada's Official Opposition. His leadership soon crumbled, however, and by the spring of 2001 an open revolt occurred by some party MPs. Day resigned as leader later that summer. Harper quickly emerged as a possible successor.
In August 2001 Stephen Harper announced his resignation as president of the National Citizens' Coalition and in December of the same year declared his candidacy for the Canadian Alliance leadership. A few months later, on 20 Mar 2002, Harper scored a decisive victory to become the party's new leader and shortly thereafter gained a House of Commons seat, running in Manning's former Calgary riding.
Stephen Harper's victory brought back to the Canadian Alliance fold many of the MPs who had defected under Day to the rival Progressive Conservative Party. The two competing parties on Canada's right seemed destined to continue their internecine fight. However, the resignation of Joe CLARK as Progressive Conservative leader in August 2002 and the subsequent election of Peter MACKAY in May 2003 as his successor resulted in talks of a merger. These talks proved successful. On 8 Dec 2003, following ratification by the membership of both parties, Harper and MacKay announced the birth of the "new" Conservative Party.
On 20 Mar 2004 Stephen Harper won the leadership of the Conservative Party, defeating Tony Clement and Belinda Stronach. Shortly thereafter, an election was called. For a time, it seemed Harper's Conservatives might form a minority government. However, a series of verbal gaffes by some Conservatives combined with past remarks by Harper supporting the unpopular Iraq War limited Conservative gains. The Liberal Party won while the Conservatives settled once more for the status of Official Opposition. Still, the new party had performed respectably, winning 99 seats and gaining a foothold in the key province of Ontario. Harper himself again easily captured his seat in Calgary Southwest.
Though weakened by scandal, the Liberal minority government nonetheless survived over the next year and a half, which frustrated Conservative supporters and led some to question Stephen Harper's abilities as leader and marketability to the Canadian public. Amidst this criticism, Harper's public image as a cold and stern policy wonk underwent subtle changes designed to reveal a more personable image. The party also abandoned or downplayed some of its more contentious policies and focused its attacks more directly on the Liberal government. These efforts paid off in January 2006 with Harper's Conservative Party winning the federal election, a feat for which Harper could claim much of the credit. Though the Conservatives formed a minority government, Harper's own position as party leader was unquestionable.
Harper was sworn in as Canada's 22nd prime minister on 6 Feb 2006. He immediately chose his Cabinet of 27 ministers, down from the 38 positions held by the Liberal government, and did not appoint a deputy prime minister. Harper is viewed as a staunch defender of laissez-faire capitalism; smaller, decentralized government; and, to an increased degree in recent years, social conservatism. The Harper government's first 2 years saw it take steps to reshape Canada's political culture along neo-conservative lines, reducing taxes, cutting funding to progressive organizations and the Canadian gun registry, taking a tough stand on crime and enlarging the military.
In the realm of foreign policy generally, the Harper government moved Canada closer to the United States and away from multilateralism, increasing the Canadian military's role in Afghanistan, embracing the American stance on terrorism generally and rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. At home, the government also took a bold, calculated risk in recognizing symbolically the existence of a "Québecois nation" in an effort to blunt Québec SEPARATISM and establish Conservative roots in that province. The Harper government was successful in pursuing these policies and others, despite its minority status, because of divisions within the House of Commons and specifically within the Opposition Liberal party led by a new leader, Stéphane DION.
At the same time, the Harper government also suffered some notable defeats, especially in its efforts to end the CANADIAN WHEAT BOARD's monopoly on barley sales and in being forced by public pressure to acknowledge the fact of global warming. Moreover, despite Stephen Harper's careful orchestration of the government's agenda, the Conservative government was not able to rise substantially in the polls. In the view of some observers, voter reluctance to turn to the Conservatives was a result of Harper himself. Bilingual and articulate, Harper was widely respected by the public but also viewed as cold. Some voters presumably found a Harper minority government tolerable but feared what he might do if given a majority.
One of the Harper government's first acts after coming to power was to pass legislation fixing election dates, thereby prohibiting governments from arbitrarily holding elections. In September 2008, however, Harper circumvented his own law. Declaring that Parliament had become "dysfunctional," Harper announced that an election would be held on 14 October.
Going into the election, it appeared that Harper's Conservatives were in a good position to obtain their long sought-after majority. Yet two unexpected events upset these expectations. First, government cuts to cultural programs, apparently done to solidify support among its populist supporters, created a backlash in Québec where culture is tied to national identity. The result was a decline in support in a province where Harper's party had hoped to make significant gains. Second, a global economic crisis, brewing since 2007, crossed the border in the midst of the campaign and caught all of the parties off-guard.
Harper appeared particularly uncertain how to deal with the mounting crisis. Ideologically opposed to government interference in markets, he appeared unsympathetic to the damage being wrought. When the votes were tallied on 14 October, Harper's government gained seats, but not a majority.
In the election's immediate aftermath, Harper appeared conciliatory, offering to work with the opposition parties to deal with the mounting economic crisis and in general to improve parliamentary relations. But a fiscal update in mid-November abruptly reversed this. The update offered little economic stimulus. Instead, it announced restrictions on public sector unions and the intention to remove public financing of political parties based on votes.
Many viewed the update as a transparent effort at hobbling the government's political opponents. It set off an immediate firestorm in Parliament, where the three opposition parties - the Liberals, the NEW DEMOCRATS, and the BLOC QUEBECOIS - formed a coalition to topple the government. Harper's government immediately withdrew the contentious proposals. The coalition refused the offer, however, arguing that Harper no longer had their trust and that, in any case, the update ignored the growing economic crisis. Faced with a vote of non-confidence, Harper successfully gained a prorogation of Parliament until 29 Jan 2009.
In the meantime, Harper and his government took its campaign against the opposition to the airwaves, denouncing it as a "coup d'etat." Viewed as sheer demagoguery by some, these efforts nonetheless found converts, and Harper's popularity soared in the weeks that followed. In consequence, the coalition began unravelling. Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader and head of the coalition, stepped down in mid-December and was replaced by Michael IGNATIEFF. Going into 2009 Harper's government still faced the possibility of a non-confidence vote in January and the more long-term prospects of managing a crumbling economy. Harper was able to weather the storm, however, in part because the opposition parties sensed their own weakness.
The next year saw Stephen Harper adroitly steer his party through the economic crisis. Public opinion polls repeatedly showed Canadians believed Harper to be the leader best able to deal with the economy.
Harper is credited for his political acumen in forging the Conservative Party into a political war machine. Harper's single-minded focus on political strategy paid off in the May 2011 election when the party at last gained its much sought-after majority. The Liberals, once termed Canada's "natural governing party," were reduced to 34 seats and less than 20 percent of the vote, in third place behind Jack LAYTON's New Democrats, who took over the mantle of Official Opposition. At the Conservative convention, held a month after the election, Harper mused that Canada was now a conservative country. Few listening could argue with his assessment, nor could they but concede that Harper was the chief instrument of the change.
Author TREVOR W. HARRISON
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Conservative Party of Canada
The official website for the Conservative Party of Canada.
First Among Equals
Learn about the private lives and political careers of Canada’s Prime Ministers. Includes biographies, speeches, and other historical documents. A Library and Archives Canada website.
The Hill Times
The website for the Canadian newsweekly "The Hill Times." Features news and opinion about Canadian federal politics.
Political Parties and Leaders
Profiles and related data about past and present leaders of Canadian political parties. From the Parliament of Canada website.
CPAC, the Cable Public Affairs Channel, provides a window on Parliament, politics, and public affairs in Canada.
Rick Mercer visits 24 Sussex
Watch a video of comedy host Rick Mercer's overnight stay at the home of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. From YouTube.
Prime Minister of Canada
The website for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Stephen Harper becomes an actor for a day in Canadian primetime television
Watch a video clip in which Stephen Harper talks about his performance as Constable Armstrong on Citytv's primetime drama "Murdoch Mysteries". From YouTube.
Allan Gregg: Craig Oliver on Mulroney, Chretien & Harper
Craig Oliver relates his encounters with Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, and Stephen Harper. From TVO.
Besides hockey and the maple leaf, there is little as symbolically Canadian as the CBC – the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It grew out of a developing nation's need to express its identity and find its voice.