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Stephen Harper
Leader, Conservative Party of Canada

The youngest of the four main federal party leaders is also the most conservative one by far, on everything from taxation to social issues like gun control and gay marriage. But Stephen Harper is betting his party's future on the belief that his views are more in tune with those of average Canadians.

Stephen Harper
Stephen Harper, leader of Canada's first fully united right-leaning party in almost 15 years.  

Harper had the formidable task of running a leadership campaign this winter rather than concentrating on getting his new party up and running for an election that would require a fresh strategy.

Competition among the right-wing parties for conservative voters in ridings across the country had sentenced their candidates to the Opposition benches – if they could make it to Ottawa at all. A single, united Conservative Party of Canada was to fix that problem.

After winning the new Conservative Party of Canada's top job on March 20, Harper had just two months to catch his breath before the election was called. But he came out swinging, drawing on his 20 years of experience in politics, which included working for three federal politicians before winning a seat himself in 1993.

Greg Rasmussen profiles Stephen Harper. runs 6:17AUDIO
Greg Rasmussen profiles Stephen Harper.
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His friend Tom Flanagan once credited him with "a rare strategic gift combined with a lot of brain power. He can size up a situation of political conflict; he can figure out who your main enemies are, where your opportunities lie."

Others could see weaknesses, though.

"People skills? He was more fond of policy," Deborah Grey once said about Harper, who worked for her after she became the Reform Party's first MP in 1989. "Constituency work seemed like a grind for him."

(Grey later said Harper mellowed after his marriage to graphic designer Laureen Teskey, whom he met at a party policy convention, and the birth of his children, Benjamin and Rachel.)

Harper also carries some regional baggage. In 2001 he co-signed a letter proposing that Alberta set up a "firewall" by getting out of the Canada Health Act and refusing to take part in the Canada Pension Plan. Atlantic Canada is still smarting from his 2002 comment that it has a "culture of defeat."

He has often explained those stances but never apologized for them. For example, he said setting up a firewall would be "more productive than people grumbling about alienation or separation." If elected as prime minister, he has pledged to give provinces more power to manage their own affairs, as well as hand over taxing authority instead of regional development grants.

 Stephen Harper
  Stephen Harper laces up for the Leaside Lions, around 1970.

Harper grew up in the Toronto suburbs of Leaside and Etobicoke. He once joked that he became an economist because he didn't have the personality to be an accountant, like his father and two brothers. After high school, he worked as a computer analyst in the Alberta oilpatch before enrolling at the University of Calgary, where he would earn a BA and MA in economics.

Politics beckoned for the young man who had once considered himself a Trudeau Liberal, and in 1985 he accepted a job as the executive assistant for Calgary West Tory MP Jim Hawkes. He left within a year, disgusted with how the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was favouring Quebec and failing to balance the budget.

In 1987, he became Preston Manning's chief policy officer and later ran as a Reform candidate against his old boss, losing once before beating Hawkes in 1993. Two years later, the Ottawa Citizen called the fluently bilingual Harper "the Reform MP least likely to drag his knuckles."

Harper fell out with Manning in 1997, in part over Manning's opposition to the Charlottetown accord. He resigned his seat to run the National Citizens' Coalition, where he often spoke out on taxpayers' rights and fought limits on third-party election campaign spending.

When Reform became the Canadian Alliance and Stockwell Day imploded as leader during the 2000 election campaign, Harper started thinking about party politics again. He defeated Day to take over the Alliance's top job in 2002.

Harper's biggest legacy may be his role in reuniting the right, striking a deal with PC Leader Peter MacKay to merge Canada's two conservative parties in October 2003. This winter, he easily defeated car-parts CEO Belinda Stronach and former Ontario health minister Tony Clement to become the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada.


The Day B.C. Quit Canada, by John Haskett and Michael Haskett, published in 2003 by Durango.

Democracy Challenged: How to End One-Party Rule in Canada, by Howard Grafftey, published in 2002 by Vehicule Press.

Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics, by R. Kenneth Carty, William Cross and Lisa Young, published in 2000 by the University of British Columbia.

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