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Profile of Stephen Harper for The National

Producer: Harvey Cashore
Reporter: Gillian Findlay
Associate producer: Scott Anderson
Editor: Avi Lev
Camera: Doug Husby, Dean Haywood
Air date: June 24, 2004

Okay. Imagine this. It's Calgary. Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final. You're running for prime minister and this is your hometown.

As luck would have it, you're actually in town this day campaigning. The crowds are there. The cameras are there. It's a photo op made in P.R. heaven.

Your competition knows it. He flew in the day before and had his picture taken – and he's not even from Alberta.

So as the puck drops on a night when millions of Canadians are glued to their TV sets, where is Calgary's favourite son? Where is Stephen Harper?

Nowhere near the Saddledome. Hours before, the leader of Canada's Conservative Party actually pulled out of Calgary, headed for Vancouver, leaving all that publicity to the hockey players.

Writer William Johnson has spent the last two years researching a book about Harper. He thinks he knows why he walked away from the chance to shine at the Saddledome.

"It tells you something about his earlier sense of contempt for politicians, for the cheap tricks they play...

"It goes against the grain... It's part of his concept that politics is about not process. It's about policy."

Policy is what has always driven Stephen Harper. Those who know him sometimes wonder how he became a leader at all.

But he did. And the story of how he did may be unique in Canadian politics: The would-be prime minister who for most of his life never wanted power.

Take his high-school yearbook. What aspiring future PM would list "reality" as his pet peeve?

At Richview Collegiate in suburban Toronto, Harper won the gold medal for academics. But an extrovert? Forget it. Harper's sport was a lonely one: long-distance running.

"I spoke to some of his friends and they felt they were the outsiders," says Johnson.

"I don't think he gave any sense of having political ambitions... Certainly he never said, 'Someday I'm going to be prime minister,' as some other people have done."

He headed to Alberta after graduating, first chasing a job in the oilpatch, then, three years later, starting an economics degree at the University of Calgary.

It was there that he first met a young journalism major named Cynthia Williams.

"He was very bright and he made me laugh," she recalls. "You know, he is probably a little shyer than some guys were back then."

Soon the two were going steady. Dates included a trip to Calgary's zoo with Harper's brother, listening to old Beatles records, and watching a lot of TV news.

"He was very interested in the world," Williams says. "It was an exciting place and ... that to him was a good drama, better than any show we could watch."

Back in the early 1980s, Alberta was filled with drama. Pierre Trudeau had just imposed his National Energy Program. Albertans fumed as their oil was taxed and blamed Ottawa for the crash that followed.

"This really changed his views of politics," says Williams. "He said... this faraway government took a few measures and look what it did to the people I know in Calgary and the people I know all over Alberta."

The boy from the East, whose parents had always voted Liberal, was becoming an alienated westerner and thinking like a Conservative.

"He's always believed that [government should] get out of the way of the individual, don't take so much off their cheques with taxes... and they will make the right choices," Williams says.

But it wasn't until Cynthia Williams took him to meet Jim Hawkes that Stephen Harper gave any thought to politics himself.

Back then, Hawkes was the Progressive Conservative MP for the riding of Calgary West, and one of the most hard-working and popular politicians in the province.

"He came to a public meeting with his girlfriend and the two of them had obviously prepared and they were interested in topics," Hawkes says of the young Harper. "Then the next thing you knew, they were working within my riding association as volunteers and on the executive."

Yet even then, Williams remembers Harper as a guy more interested in writing policies than in selling them.

"The side of politics – you know, the gladhanding – that just wouldn't have been him... Steve used to poke fun at what he called 'future prime minister types'... He would just say, 'Oh God, there goes some more future prime minister types.' He certainly was not a future prime minister type."

Future prime minister type or not, just being a Progressive Conservative was an exciting thing in 1984. Brian Mulroney's Tories had swept the country, and the West had hope that things would change.

"Our mandate is clear and precise," Mulroney said at the time. "It comes from equal force and eloquence from a West too long ignored and Quebec too long misunderstood..."

Among those heading back to Ottawa in the Mulroney victory was Jim Hawkes, who asked Stephen Harper to join him as an assistant.

"He was very keen to do it, very keen to do it, because at that age you have a chance to influence public policy.

Policy. Right up Harper's ally.

But Ottawa would prove a huge disappointment to him. All those ideas he'd studied at school, and refined over late nights on Parliament Hill, never seemed to get any traction.

In a city where compromise was everything, his former boss says Harper was lost.

"The part of that process that bothered him was the constant necessity to modify things, to develop consensus," says Hawkes. "Canada is a big, diverse country, and as you develop policy, it can't be the kind of pure policy that comes out of a textbook."

Asked if his prot�g� ever gave any sign that he wanted a career in federal politics himself, or even lead a national party one day, Hawkes replies: "At that age, I think he clearly would have said – very clearly – he wouldn't ever want to do that."

So, a year after he arrived in Ottawa, Harper quit his job and headed west again. Sobered, some say even disgusted by his time in power, he returned to the sanctuary of the University of Calgary and his first passion: economics.

Talk to anyone who knew him back then, and they'll tell you the expectation was clear. Stephen Harper would get his PhD, probably move on to a think tank somewhere. If he were ever to have any political influence, it would be from the sidelines.

And that's how it might have unfolded, if not for Preston Manning.

"I called up Dr. Bob Mansell at the University of Calgary – he's one of the best economists in this part of the country – and said, 'Bob, we're starting this new political adventure and we need to do some policy work. Who's your brightest, youngest graduate student?"

The Reform Party of Canada was about to be born.

By now, these westerners were as disaffected with the Mulroney Conservatives as they'd ever been with the Trudeau Liberals. In Manning, they felt they'd finally found a leader who spoke their language.

But what many didn't know is that the guy writing much of the script, a face almost lost in the crowd, was a 27-year-old university student. Officially, Stephen Harper was Manning's policy advisor, but early Reformers like Calgary lawyer Andy Crooks say he was always much more.

"He was the philosopher behind it. He was the idea guy," says Crooks. "Manning himself was a very bright and capable idea guy, but Stephen was the writer and shaper of the ideas."

And what were his ideas? The first speech he ever gave to the party was all about economic injustice (PDF - 564 k). The West was a victim of central Canadian colonialism, he said. The welfare state was the taxpayer's burden. Above all, Harper was a fiscal conservative – but then, as now, his party was a magnet for reformers of all kinds.

Asked whether Harper was uncomfortable in a party with people tossing around some very different ideas, writer William Johnson replies: "No. No, I don't think so. They knew it would attract secessionists. It would attract the gun, ah, rifle lobby, it would attract the abortion, ah, you know, Campaign Life, all these. They knew that what they had to do was control these people."

One way to control them was to find more "acceptable" faces to run.

In 1988, Harper ran unsuccessfully for the Reform Party in Calgary West-against his former boss, Tory MP Jim Hawke.
In 1988, Harper ran unsuccessfully for the Reform Party in Calgary West against his former boss, Tory MP Jim Hawkes.  

In 1988, Harper was drafted as a Reform candidate – and had the chutzpah to run against his old friend and mentor, Jim Hawkes.

"He phoned me one day and asked if I would mind if he ran against me in Calgary West. But he didn't want to be a politician, and he was quite sure that if he did [run], he wouldn't be a politician... He felt he should run, or had to run, and he was quite confident he would lose."

Hawkes says he didn't take Harper's opposition personally, but as the two men debated in town halls across the riding that autumn, many loyal Progressive Conservatives did take it personally.

Cynthia Williams, by now Harper's ex-fiancée, was one.

"'Traitor', I guess, is the kind of word that comes to mind for a lot of people. Like, 'He had an opportunity, he's learned a lot of things, and now all of a sudden he's using it against our candidate, against us.'

"That stunned me quite a bit. I thought that Jim had been really great to us, taken us into his family – we used to be over at his family's house with all of his family."

Williams says that bothered her so much, "I jumped on board with Jim Hawkes and tried to help him win."

Hawkes did win – and the Reform Party lost every riding it ran in. But by 1991, things had changed. Mulroney's Tories were in a tailspin. Reform was on a roll.

At the party's convention that year, the talk was all about electoral breakthrough. Now radicals really had to be controlled. And no one knew that better than Stephen Harper.

According to an internal party memo (PDF - 108k), Harper warned Reform candidates to watch their tone. Most voters, he is reported to have said, are "uninformed and apathetic. They will read into the party the impression they get from you as a person. Project responsibility and common sense. Be congenial."

Harper continued: "To avoid problems, stick to the themes and the party priorities...The biggest problem candidates will have is when they get off our themes. Don't fight the issues that other parties bring up. Make incumbents defend their party's record rather than debate Reform proposals...."

In other words, put a lid on controversy.

Harper is quoted at the time as following his own formula: "As policy officer, I have never backed down on insistence that this party... address issues of language and immigration... and we must address them. But at the same time, we must not allow ourselves to be shot by radicals who have done this to new parties before...."

The party listened. And in 1993, Reform won 52 seats, almost enough to become the Official Opposition. In the West, they had obliterated the Progressive Conservatives and given the riding of Calgary West a brand-new MP: 34-year-old Stephen Harper.

Those were heady days for Reform; the Prairie Protest movement was now a legitimate political party. And Harper was on his way back to Ottawa.

This time it should have been different for him – and yet, just three years later, it would be all over. Harper would resign his seat in frustration and come back home to Calgary, retreating from the political spotlight yet again.

 Harper won in Calgary West in the 1993 election, but later left after-publicly criticizing Reform Leader Preston Manning.
  Harper won in Calgary West in the 1993 election, but later left after publicly criticizing Reform Leader Preston Manning.

As party insiders knew, the cracks were there from the beginning. Preston Manning was, above all, a populist who believed in listening to the party's grassroots. Harper and his academic friends argued that the grassroots didn't always know what they were talking about. So when Manning consulted widely on complex issues like tax reform, they couldn't understand why.

Manning spells out how they reacted: "'Why do you take these [policies] – which some have spent our entire lives studying and working – you take them to these meetings in school gyms and skating rinks and expose them and listen to people who haven't thought about it for 15 minutes – why do you do that?' And I used to say, 'Because it's their money. That's why.'...

"Of course, Stephen and others would point out there's a dark side to populism. Majorities can not only be wrong but viciously wrong ... but I was always more on the optimistic side."

Still, over time, the philosophical divisions became political ones, and Harper, once again, became disillusioned. When questions were raised about Manning's spending allowances, Harper broke ranks and criticized his leader publicly. Once again, Harper was being accused of disloyalty.

Those who know him say Harper understood that one of them had to go – and it wasn't going to be Manning.

"The bottom line was they were not going to get along any more," says lawyer Andy Crooks. "In those situations, the junior guy leaves, not the senior."

And Crooks believes that when Harper left the Hill this time, he had no intention of going back.

Manning would later write critically about Harper's tendency to withdraw, to not be a team player. For his part, Stephen Harper seemed happy to move on.

"Frankly, I'm looking forward to being a position where I can speak much more independently than I'm able as a Member of Parliament," he said at the time.

And back in Calgary, speak he did. From his new pulpit at the right-wing National Citizens Coalition, Harper was more blunt than he'd ever been.

Official bilingualism?

"As a religion, bilingualism is the god that failed. It has led to no fairness, produced no unity, and cost Canadian taxpayers untold millions," he wrote in the Calgary Sun in 2001.

Two-tier health care?

"I think it would be a good idea," he said during a 1997 CBC panel discussion. "I think we're headed in that direction anyway."

In 1999, he told a writer for B.C. Report that human rights commissions, "as they are evolving, are an attack on our fundamental freedoms and the basic existence of a democratic society. It is in fact totalitarianism. I find this is very scary stuff."

Canada under Jean Chrétien was "content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economic and social services to mask its second-rate status, led by a Second World strongman appropriately suited for the task," he wrote in the National Post in 2000.

And then there was the famous "firewall" letter (PDF - 56k), published in the National Post in January of 2001. Fed up with what he called Chrétien's attempt to marginalize Alberta, Harper and five like-minded friends wrote an open letter to Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, telling him the province should start collecting its own taxes, funding its own health care system, building its own pension plan. In short, he said Albertans should set up a "firewall" around their province.

If you were aspiring to be a national politician, would you ever say those sorts of things?

"Oh no, you'd never... You would not," says writer William Johnson. "At that point, he was giving up on federal politics. He wasn't planning on coming back as prime minister, obviously."

So what happened?

Stockwell Day happened.

As the Reform movement's new leader, Day represented just about everything Harper was not. He couldn't resist photo ops. But by the summer of 2001, the newly renamed Alliance Party was divided, broke and sinking in the polls.

"The lifework of Stephen's adult life was going down, crumbling, falling apart before his eyes," says Crooks.

Day was eventually forced to call a leadership convention. Out in Calgary, sitting in Andy Crooks' office, Stephen Harper was watching the media coverage.

"Stephen turned the monitor off and said, 'What do you think?' So we talked about it then and I think that was the beginning of the decision to run. It was entirely fortuitous."

The rest, as they say, is history.

"Fellow Canadians," Harper said as he took over the newly reunited right Conservative Party of Canada in March of 2003, "maybe it took us a couple of extra years, but welcome to the 21st century."

From political exile to leader of the Alliance to leader of the new Conservatives, all in just two years.

The guy who never wanted power was revelling in it.

Yet so many questions remain.

This is the man who left the Progressive Conservatives because he wouldn't compromise, who quit as a Reform MP on principle. Is it possible that he has really changed?

Recently, Harper admitted to taking advice from Brian Mulroney – the P.C. leader whom he, like so many other westerners, came to despise.

So how does he reconcile it? Andy Crooks says he doesn't have to.

"The prodigal son is now running the House," says Crooks. "I don't think Stephen reconciles it, because he is the leader now. The thing did come full circle. It is a different kind of full circle...

"Did we have to go through that experience? I don't know. It's a tough question. Would we have been better to spend the time trying to re-engineer the [Progressive] Conservative Party? Maybe. But we are where we are today. He is where he is today."

He is where he is ... he is perhaps resigned to doing what politicians have to do.

Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals found him among the crowds watching the action in Tampa Bay on the big screen at Calgary's Saddledome.

Maybe it wasn't the greatest photo op ever. But for a guy who never aspired to be here, it was a start.
Special Thanks:
Jeff Goldhar
Brian Groberman
Greg Hobbs

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