Calgary·Analysis

As Stephen Harper leaves politics, record shows mixed results for Calgary

As former prime minister Stephen Harper leaves Parliament, his local legacy is mixed. He didn't bestow federal goodies on a town that likely didn't want them, but he also didn't deliver on the things that Calgarians wanted most.

While some PMs shower their hometown with federal money, Harper aimed for western-style government

Conservative leader Stephen Harper pauses for a moment as he addresses the crowd on election night in Calgary in October 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Not every city gets to be represented in the House of Commons by the prime minister.

Entire provinces have yet to have a PM of their own.

Yet, it's happened for Calgarians twice in the city's short history — R.B. Bennett and Stephen Harper.

Harper held the top job for almost a decade. The list of Calgary-specific benefits from his tenure isn't clear for all to see.

Liberal leader Jean Chretien spent plenty of time as PM in his hometown and ensured federal dollars rained down on Shawinigan, Que.

Torontonian at heart

Harper's Calgary legacy doesn't include a bunch of stuff or some shiny bauble.

Yes, under his government, Calgary saw federal infrastructure spending — most notably on projects for its transit system, and even on that ring road that may run around the city sometime next decade.

But many other communities in Canada also got Economic Action Plan signs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his then 10-year-old son Ben watch the jumbotron during a break in play between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators during NHL regular season action in Toronto Wednesday in 2006. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Trips home were infrequent during his time in office. It was usually either during Stampede, or on a holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving.

There have probably been more Harper sightings here since he left 24 Sussex Drive last fall than there were in his 10 years as PM.

His house is here yet some critics maintained Harper is more a Torontonian at heart.

Sure, he was spotted wearing red whenever the Flames made a playoff appearance.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, shakes hands with Ashleigh Budd, four, as he dishes out pancakes at Stampede breakfast in Calgary in 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

But Harper always talked about the Toronto Maple Leafs. That loyalty was instilled in him growing up in the Toronto area in the 1960s.

That didn't exactly send Calgary voters to other parties.

The reality is Harper was exceedingly popular in the two Calgary ridings where he ran for office. And many people were pleased to vote for him.

Back when he called himself "Steve Harper," he suffered his only loss as a candidate.

Stephen Harper as Reform candidate in 1988 was known as Steve Harper. (Postmedia)

He ran as a Reform Party candidate in Calgary West against his former boss, Progressive Conservative Jim Hawkes in 1988. Harper defeated Hawkes in 1993 but didn't complete that term.

When Harper came back to win the Canadian Alliance leadership and then became the first leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada, he ran for the seat in southwest Calgary vacated by Reform founder Preston Manning.

Western mindset

Voters gave him massive victories over the years and stood staunchly behind him through to the 2015 campaign.

Harper's biggest legacy here might be governing with a western mindset, even for a guy originally from Toronto.

"Overall, he delivered the kind of government that a majority of Calgarians probably would like to see," said Tom Flanagan.

He was Harper's chief of staff in Ottawa during his time as leader of the Opposition. Flanagan, now a professor emeritus at University of Calgary, was part of the so-called Calgary School — a group of conservative-minded academics who influenced Harper's political thinking.

Upon winning his first minority government in 2006, Harper famously riffed on Manning's refrain that "the West wants in."

Tom Flanagan, chief of staff to Stephen Harper when he was leader of the Opposition, was also part of a group of conservative-minded academics who influenced Harper's political thinking. (CBC)

The election night crowd in Calgary roared when Harper said: "The West has wanted in. The West is in now. Canada will work for all of us."

Flanagan said Harper's message was that this country is stronger if Western Canada and all regions see their interests reflected in the federal government.

"I would hope that lesson has been conveyed, but when I look back over Canadian history, I'm not all that confident about it to be honest," said Flanagan.

Promises of pipelines and senate reform

If there was an issue many Calgarians cared about during Harper's time in office, it was the oil and gas industry.

Long before the current downturn, Harper was acutely aware of the importance of energy.

Political strategist Rick Anderson said that wasn't just because Harper was elected in Calgary. He knew that what was good for the Alberta economy was also good for Canada as a whole.

"Oil, for most of the time that he was in office, was Canada's No. 1 export," said Anderson, who was national campaign director for the Reform Party in the 1993 general election when Harper was first elected. He also had a role on Harper's 2015 campaign.

"That was basically not understood in the rest of the country. If you asked most Canadians 'What's our biggest export?', they would probably say wheat or cars or something else."

Given the poor state of the industry in Alberta today, a hushed criticism is that Harper's government didn't get pipelines built to get that oil to other markets.

President Barack Obama ultimately rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, though Harper called it a "no brainer." (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Harper did promote Canada as an energy superpower but was frustrated by the Obama administration's handling of the Keystone XL file.

He called the decision on whether or not to approve it "a no-brainer." Ultimately, President Barack Obama did reject it.

Still, Anderson counters that some pipelines were built on Harper's watch. Construction on the Alberta Clipper pipeline from Hardisty, Alta., to Wisconsin started in 2008 and it opened in 2010.

The first phase of the Keystone pipeline to the U.S. was approved in 2007 and started operating in 2010.

The pipelines the industry and Alberta politicians wanted — Northern Gateway, Energy East and Keystone XL — were stymied during the Harper years.

Anderson points out that compared to past decades, "The environment for pipelines has become a lot more complicated politically."

Senate reform is another Calgary hobby-horse. Harper gave up on reforming the upper chamber — but only after he appointed 59 new senators.

Although he didn't deliver on the senate or on pipelines, having a PM representing your town is a point of pride.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pauses while addressing supporters at an election night gathering in Calgary, Alta., on Monday October 19, 2015. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

'My responsibility — and mine alone'

Upon hearing that Harper would be resigning as MP, Calgary's mayor paid tribute to the former PM.

Naheed Nenshi said whether or not people agreed with Harper's government, he is "a man of enormous integrity."

"He's had an enormous impact and we're very proud as Calgarians that we had a prime minister for a decade who hailed from this city," said Nenshi. "It made a big difference to have in Ottawa a western voice, an Alberta voice and a Calgary voice."

Calgay Mayor Naheed Nenshi said it made a big difference to have a western voice in Ottawa for roughly a decade. (CBC)

The night of his election loss to Justin Trudeau's Liberals last fall, Harper took to the stage in Calgary to speak to the subdued party faithful.

Harper didn't actually say at the podium that he would be resigning as Conservative Party leader. That was revealed in a statement from the party's president.

But Harper did tell his most loyal supporters: "The disappointment you must also feel is my responsibility — and mine alone."

On that night, it was the most Calgarian thing Stephen Harper could have said.

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