BY: Joan Baxter
Dear Mr. Harper,
I am worried about you, I mean truly, deeply worried about you. It’s not that you haven’t worried me before. You and your political agenda cooked up to serve the wealthy made me leery long before you slipped, serpent-like, right through the schools of squabbling Liberals and NDP in 2006 to form a minority Conservative government.
But since you got your majority – even if only with a minority of the popular vote – it looks as if the power is doing very dangerous things to your head, as absolute power does. And like many of my fellow Canadians, I am sick with worry about what that means for the country.
Many democracies around the world limit the number of terms or length of time that elected leaders can stay in power. The idea is that no one person should taste power for too long; it is too addictive and it clouds judgement, brings on delusions of infallibility. Alas, Canada doesn’t have such a limit. And it doesn’t seem as if you have any in-built mechanism to tell you that enough is not just enough, it’s too much, that it’s time for you to quit. Retire gracefully. Watch lots of hockey and write another book about it, bang about on the piano, hang about at Tim Hortons, take up Tiddlywinks, whatever it is that turns you on – besides humiliating and destroying everyone that doesn’t agree with you, that is.
But it seems you’ve imbibed too much of the elixir of power and want to stick around, seek another mandate. At least that’s what you said in your recent interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC, the public broadcaster that I fear will no longer be recognizable if you stay on as Prime Minister, just like Canada itself.
What makes you tick, and not like to talk to us (without a script)?
For the past eight years, ever since you moved into the Prime Minister’s Office, I have been trying to figure out just what kind of person you really are and what on earth it is in you that makes you determined to wage an all-out assault on our democracy.
You’re a secretive guy, so information on you is worryingly scarce, given that you’ve already led the country for close to a decade. I don’t know whether that means you’ve kept us at a distance because you’ve got a lot to hide, or whether you really are the banal, Double-Double-drinking, blockbuster-movie-watching, uninteresting and blinkered Steve that you seem to be. Worse, I don’t know which is worse.
You have admitted that you lack “charisma”, so I don’t think you will mind when I say that you’ve never come across as a particularly kind or compassionate man.
And yet your former fiancée describes you as “honest”, “very, very loyal” and “funny”. One of your close friends in high school, Larry Moate, describes the young Stephen Harper he knew as someone with “deep empathy with human beings, with his fellow man”.
Many of us have an awful lot of trouble believing either of these descriptions. We’ve witnessed too many cruel insults (remember “Taliban Jack”?), too much bullying, denying and stonewalling in the House of Commons, not to mention all the extremely vicious Conservative attack ads on television. And we’ve seen far too much of your fear- and hate-mongering in Conservative mail-outs, which is foul propaganda that we, the taxpaying citizens you like to pretend to defend, are paying for.
We’ve cringed through the smarmy and often scripted interviews with you on television (rare as these are, given your aversion to the media), in which you are either not asked difficult questions or refuse to answer them.
Your public persona, underneath the thick make-up and stiff hair, can be not just awkward and awful but sometimes a bit creepy, because, as one journalist put it, of your “barracuda eyes” and “monotonous voice, and an obvious intelligence detached from any evidence of wit, curiosity, or charm”.
It is said that Preston Manning, once upon a time your mentor, advised you thus: “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.”
Who do you love?
So I have to ask you, Mr. Harper, do you hate Canadians that don’t vote for you, and for Canadians that don’t agree with your extremist views on everything from so-called “free” trade deals that give corporations and foreign countries control of our resources and supersede our laws, to your misguided and reckless foreign policy, and your disdain for environmental protection and tackling climate change?
The thing is this: no matter how many fuzzy sweater vests you don, no matter how much you try to force a smile or jolly us all into a sing-along of Beatle songs with ideals that you betray every single day, none of that is enough to override the impression you give of a very controlling, angry, mean-spirited man.
You make lofty speeches about freedom of expression, while muzzling scientists and public servants and suppressing reason and science, and you rewrite history selectively to glorify war. These are traits that are not generally associated with open and mature democracies like Canada’s (used to be), but perfectly suited for dictatorships, for totalitarian regimes.
Don’t you see the contradiction? Don’t you worry yourself that perhaps you’ve got it all wrong? That you’ve chosen to champion the wrong side, attack the very pillars of democracy – the media, government institutions and councils, the Supreme Court, scientific research, civil society groups promoting social and environmental causes – that are our only defence against totalitarianism, fascism and environmental catastrophe?
You say that your late father was the “greatest influence” on your life. He was too young to see active service during World War II, but he apparently swore never to forget the horrors of the Holocaust and thus is said to have inculcated in you a hatred for totalitarianism.
This leads me to assume that this means you grew up appreciating how precious and fragile is democracy, power by the people and for the people. And yet you seem dead-set on power for yourself and against the wishes of the majority that didn’t vote for you. You sure don’t behave like someone who loves democracy and hates totalitarianism.
How to fathom this contradiction? Is the answer found in your childhood? Nothing obvious springs off the pages of your personal history. Admittedly, there is the very tragic disappearance of your father’s father, Harris Harper, who went missing, never to be found, in Moncton in 1950. But I imagine that would have been more traumatic for your father than for you, born nine years later after your dad had moved to Ontario.
Unless it’s been carefully hidden from all accounts of your childhood, you had no first-hand acquaintance with hardship. When you were a wee lad in the early 1960s, you lived in comfortable two-storey brick house on Bessborough Drive in the Toronto suburb of Leaside, a community in which you have said you “felt safe, you knew people were looking our for you”, and people were “civically minded”.
A photo of you with your father and two brothers shows that even then you seem to have had trouble smiling, but you still looked a normal kid. Nor is there any outward sign that your childhood was anything but wonderful with a close-knit family, your mom Margaret there to look after you, and your dad, an accountant with Imperial Oil, there to share with you his love of military history and jazz music. In those early years, your family attended the quintessentially tolerant and moderate United Church.
One upon a time a Liberal lad
Things must have been going very well for your parents when you reached your teens, and they were able to move the family to a larger ranch-style house in the suburb of Etobicoke, where you attended Richview Collegiate Institute. Again, you seem to have been blessed. You were a gold medal student, and despite your asthma you took up cross-country running, and supported the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1978, represented your school on Reach For The Top, a quiz game hosted by none other than Canada’s public broadcaster, CBC. Heck, you even signed up for a Liberal club.
All round, a fine Canadian lad. No sign of any inherent cruel or unusual tendencies lurking under the surface.
But that was then and this is now, and I am truly perplexed, hoping to understand what it was that made you so angry about the country that treated you so well.
What did prosperous and secure Canada ever do to you that made you hate it so? You didn’t suffer the injustices meted out to Canada’s First Nations people and other immigrants and minorities. You had wonderful public services, excellent and free public education and health care. So what made you want to decimate the progressive thinking and democratic institutions that made this country a safe place to grow up (especially for middle class male WASPs, of which you were one), to eliminate every regulation that protects and promotes human and environmental health, to pretend to value the working and middle class while helping the ultra-rich to screw it royally, to label as radical extremists citizens concerned about social and environmental issues and sic the security forces on them when they stand up for genuine Canadian values?
Why, Mr. Harper, why?
From what I can tell, the transformation seems to have begun after you dropped out of University of Toronto and moved to Alberta, where you went to work in the mailroom at Imperial Oil in Edmonton, reportedly became outraged by Trudeau’s National Energy program and then decided to study economics at the University of Calgary. There, you got your first taste of the dangerous potion of neo-conservative politics laced with neo-liberal economics espoused by Margaret Thatcher, and you drank deeply from the greed-inducing ideologies of Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek.
In the mid-1980s you became involved with Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party in Calgary, and eventually became the legislative assistant to MP Jim Hawkes in Ottawa under the government of Brian Mulroney. But then you quit and went back to Calgary.
You told a family friend that you were fed up with the politics you saw in Ottawa. “It’s all top-down,” you complained. “Things are decided and you don’t really have any influence.”
Hmm, sound familiar? But I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. I’m still struggling with the why of your conversion to conservatism of the most rigid and ruthless kind.
From the United Church of your childhood, in Alberta you migrated to the more conservative Presbyterian church. Then you took a huge leap of faith, joining the evangelical Christian Missionary and Alliance in Canada, with its fundamentalist faith in a second coming of Christ, evangelizing missions around the world, strict interpretation of Old and New Testaments, and the imperative that adherents be “born again”.
I can’t help but notice that David Hearn, president of Christian Missionary and Alliance in Canada, was one of 10 evangelical leaders and 21 Rabbis (mostly orthodox) on the list of people who accompanied you on your official 2014 visit to Israel and love-in with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it’s hard not to notice that there wasn’t any room in the stable for anyone from mainstream Protestant churches, and only one Catholic clergyman, a well-known conservative, joined your 208-strong delegation to Israel.
Despite such signs that your evangelical leanings may indeed influence your policies, especially your refusal to address climate change, your fear of scientific findings, and your dogged devotion to Netanyahu’s Israel, and even if the Israeli press happily describe you a “devout evangelical Prime Minister”, you do an admirable job of keeping this under wraps here at home.
Still, you haven’t been able to completely stifle the Christian press from occasionally divulging your religious awakening and leanings. When evangelical talk-show host Drew Marshall of Joy 1250 in Toronto asked you if you were a genuine follower of Christ, you admitted you were and that you don’t always keep your faith and politics separate. Then you tried to sidestep this worrisome admission with this bit of double-speak: “…but I don’t mix my advocacy of a political position with my advocacy of faith”.
In his 1995 biography of you, “Stephen Harper’s Pilgrimage”, Christian journalist and writer Lloyd Mackey quotes from an interview that appeared in the erstwhile religiously and politically conservative paper, The Ottawa Times. This is what you had to say: “I’m not a person who was born with a particular set of values and has held them my whole life. I like to think that the values I hold today are in the process of a life of education, both academic and experiential.” And you continue, “Twenty years ago [when you would have been 16], I would have been an agnostic, central Canadian liberal,” but “my life experiences have led me to come to other conclusions about life and political values…both intellectually and spiritually”.
Time to reflect and repent
I think this may be the crux of the issue, the very heart of what’s the matter, Mr. Harper.
Those “life experiences” that you say shaped your “other conclusions” about life and political values are – if you will please forgive me for being so blunt – bathetic, a useful word that combines bathos (sudden appearance of a silly idea) and pathetic.
To recap. You had been a mail clerk for the oil company for which your father worked all his life. You had been a student, the chief officer of the fledgling and fringe Reform Party, executive assistant to a Reform Party MP, and were in 1995 a Reform Party MP yourself.
You had lived in three of the richest cities on earth, never known poverty, hunger, another culture, war, natural disaster. Never kicked around the planet – or even the country – to figure out how other people live and think. Never had to eat in a soup kitchen. And apparently never had to cope with immense hardship or personal tragedy or a broken home or an abusive one or no home at all. You never experienced war.
And yet, you seem to think that you had the life experience to reach some hard and fast conclusions about the way the country should be run, people should live and be governed, what institutions and government services are dispensable.
Mr. Harper, I know that you like to side with the victims of crime, you’ve made “tough on crime” one of your wedge issues, spent billions on new prisons in which to lock up criminals, even minor ones.
But you know what? I am thinking that maybe you were a victim yourself. As an apparently nice, normal and apparently open-minded young Canadian man, you were vulnerable, the perfect chalice into which right-wing think tank gurus (think Fraser Institute) and their corporate and billionaire backers could pour their poison, intoxicating you with their nasty, mean-spirited neo-conservative politics and neo-liberal economic doctrines of greed and selfishness designed to serve the rich and powerful.
And that is why I am writing you this letter. I implore you, Mr. Harper, to step back, think hard about what you have done to the country that offered you every advantage in your youth, and to share this enlightenment with those around you in the Conservative Party, to protect Canada from sliding into the very totalitarianism that your father taught you to abhor.
A citizen sick with concern