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October 2015 Issue [Revision]

The Nixon of the North

How Stephen Harper ruined Canada

Canada was once a smug nation. We thought ourselves virtuous, and the rest of the world took us at our own estimation, especially Americans who threatened to move here when a Bush president or two became particularly intolerable. And we would have welcomed you!

That was Canada for you: eager to meet kindred souls such as draft dodgers and conscientious objectors. We were peacekeepers rather than bomb droppers, environmentally aware, urban, gun controlling, laughably snowbound, and apologetic to a fault.

Now, I’m sorry to say, we can no longer invite you. I mean, we’d still like to, but you wouldn’t make it across the border. And normal, peaceful, thoughtful Americans wouldn’t enjoy it here anymore. We’re becoming precisely what you’re trying to escape.

What a long, strange slide it has been for Canada since 2006, when Stephen Harper became prime minister. You thought you saw the last of Richard Nixon when he helicoptered off the White House’s South Lawn. Wrong: the man had a clone. And that clone must have been watching a lot of Sarah Palin speeches. Harper is Nixon without the charm, he’s Nixon without the progressive social and environmental programs, he’s Nixon but he worships at a fundamentalist church. If he wins reelection in October, Americans might want to consider a northern wall.

You seem to have survived Nixon and Palin and George W. Bush. But we Canadians have never had anyone like Harper. His most recent biographer, John Ibbitson, calls him

slow to trust and quick to take offence, brooding and resentful at times, secretive beyond reason, perhaps the most introverted person ever to seek high office in this country.

It has been suggested that Harper, who is fifty-six, is a replicant of the Blade Runner variety: he speaks in a monotone, he’s impossibly rigid, and he seems unable to understand the emotions of others. His gray helmet of hair is a national obsession. Some say it’s cakelike, I say peaty. Is it damp to the touch? Many a winter evening has been spent speculating on the chemical composition of that fibrous, wind-resistant material.

In 2014, a mentally troubled man was killed after shooting at the security guards in Parliament Hill’s Centre Block building, where Harper’s caucus had gathered. Did Harper stay with his staff and his party? The other MPs initially assumed he had left. But in fact he had hidden in a closet for fifteen minutes. Not even a man-size safe like the one Dick Cheney had. A closet. Was this Harper’s lowest point? Not even close.

Harper has always disliked Canada. In 1997 he told the right-wing U.S. Council for National Policy that “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” He described the New Democratic Party, which has the best chance of defeating him in the upcoming election, as “a kind of proof that the devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men.”

I’ll give the man credit for doing so much damage in so short a time. He’s not smart, but he’s cunning. Canada uses a first-past-the-post system, with no runoffs, for federal elections, which means that a candidate needs only a plurality, not a majority, to win his or her constituency. This is how Harper’s Conservative Party could control 53.9 percent of the seats in the House of Commons after the 2011 election despite winning only 39.6 percent of the popular vote.

Canada once had what was semi-seriously known as a natural governing party, the Liberals, who were famously led in the Nixon era by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, an international-minded intellectual and devoted federalist. (Trudeau’s son Justin now leads the Liberal Party and is the political rival Harper hates most.) In the Canada most Americans grew up next to, the Liberals ran the show. They were reasonable people who believed in consensus and generosity, bilingualism and multiculturalism, free national health care, women’s rights, and an unofficial national slogan, “Peace, order, and good government.”

Harper, meanwhile, is a vengeful, damaged, grudge-holding punisher of the “urban elites” who vote Liberal, and has spent a lifetime plotting to transform Canada into a nastier version of Texas. He and his allies took what was once called the Progressive Conservative Party (filled with Red Tories, akin to the long-gone Rockefeller Republicans of America’s eastern seaboard), merged it with a nightmarish pressure group of government haters called the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party (they realized too late that the acronym would be CCRAP), and created the modern Conservative Party.

He performed his most consequential act just after he took office, in 2006. He lowered the national consumption tax and the taxes on income. This cut the legs off the federal government. Most politicians, even on the right, want more money rather than less. Their pet causes, be they wars or pork barrels, require money. But Harper is a true believer; he really wants a government that’s too small to help its citizens. The few initiatives he’s been willing to embrace are those that Americans are now abandoning: mandatory minimum jail sentences, an expensive military, and an escalation of the war on drugs.

Some of his decisions are simply baffling. He killed the mandatory census, which he saw as an invasion of privacy. Can you run a country effectively with a voluntary census? I guess we’ll find out. He also eliminated the long-gun registry, a database valued by police forces across the country but loathed by Harper’s rural base.

On climate change, he’s much like the know-nothings in the Republican Party, but with one important difference. It isn’t that Harper doesn’t believe in climate change — in an earlier incarnation he said he did — it’s that he doesn’t appear to be bothered by it. Lately he has targeted scientists the way Joe McCarthy went after Communists. Government researchers have been pressured, their funding has been squeezed flat, and they have been told never to speak to the public without permission. Charities that deplored the mountain pine beetle (our forests, once soft and green, are now orange and as spiky as nailbrushes) or praised clean water or measured fish populations were singled out for tax audits.

Harper’s government is the most secretive Canada has ever known. The Conservatives have scooped and scalloped our freedom-of-information laws to the point that requests take years to fulfill and are prohibitively expensive, and the documents they produce are often so redacted that they resemble zebras. Studies have been kept secret, courts have been muted, and critics have been silenced.

Harper’s cabinet is full of misfits and fools. Take John Baird, who was put in charge of the budget (mandate: spend less on everything), accountability (see that there is none), environmental rules (undermine and break them), and foreign affairs (adore Israel all the time, basically), until he resigned suddenly for reasons that may never become clear. Or Jason Kenney, who serves as both minister of national defense and minister for multiculturalism, even though he is incompetent at the former (he dearly wants to join as many American wars as he can insert Canada into) and despises the latter. Kenney, a silly and vicious man, was once a great joy for me to cover, but when I saw the misery he imposed on refugee claimants after he excluded them from the health-care system, I realized that my work had become grotesque. Who’s laughing now? Not me.

Harper’s treatment of his staff has at times left them terrified. “There is a huge streak of paranoia in Stephen,” says Tom Flanagan, his mentor at the University of Calgary. “He can be suspicious, secretive, and vindictive, prone to sudden eruptions of white-hot rage over meaningless trivia, at other times falling into weeklong depressions in which he is incapable of making decisions.” After Flanagan wrote a book about Harper’s political strategy, his former student never spoke to him again.

I’ve been puzzling over whom Harper most resembles. Nixon and Palin are strong contenders. Also Nosferatu, Judge Jeffreys of the Bloody Assizes, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. But most of all, Harper reminds me of Captain Ahab.

Ahab hates Moby Dick; his hatred is contagious. Chris Power at the Guardian has beautifully described how Ahab

can communicate his extreme, dangerous hatred to an entire crew, even educated, sensitive and openhearted Ishmael. . . . All the Pequod’s mates are described almost as automata controlled by their captain: “Like machines, they dumbly moved about the deck, ever conscious that the old man’s despot eye was on them.”

Harper’s obedient, dark-suited, rural, punitive, women-despising MPs likewise do as they’re told. They read their talking points; they vote as instructed. “The Ahab that wins out,” Power writes, “is part Macbeth, part Faust, and part Milton’s Satan. In love with his hatred, he is the most dangerous kind of leader. The kind who, when he falls, takes the whole ship down with him.”

And what is Harper’s white whale? It’s liberalism as a whole — the sensible, humane state that saner Canadian governments have been building since the Second World War. In the election on October 19, Canada will have a chance to return to that tradition. Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party is solidly left-wing, smart and beardy, and cuttingly good during Question Period in the House whenever he asks Harper about bribes, lies, payoffs, and ethics advisers shuffling off to jail in shackles. If Mulcair doesn’t win a majority, he will have to do a deal with Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. What a delightful change it will be if we can debate things like introducing a national day-care system and repealing Bill C-51, the antiterrorism law that made almost everyone in Canada feel guilty of something.

But if Harper wins a majority, well, we will pretty much follow the plot of Moby Dick. The ship will sink, and everyone will drown in a hideous libertarian vortex. It will mean, among other things, the death of the CBC. The national health-care system will grow miserly; though its funding is stable for now, with an aging population gobbling up services the money will disappear quickly. Climate change will advance without any attempt to prepare for it, much less slow it. We will build pipelines to cheapen transport of treated tar, we will frack, we will fry in summer and freeze in winter, and we will flood all year round.

Chin up, Americans! You may benefit from Canada’s ruin. Our vast supplies of water, once emphatically not on the auction block, will be sold to the highest bidder. You can grow enough almonds to gravel your roads, for all Harper cares. As for Canadian liberals — the conscientious objectors, the environmentalists, the peacekeepers: we’re moving to Denmark, if Denmark will have us.

is a staff columnist for the Toronto Star and the author of two books of essays, Pearls in Vinegar and Cake or Death.

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October 2015

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