Stephen Harper's long political path from plucky upstart to the nation's helm

From his plucky candidacy with the upstart Reform Party, to becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance, to the creation of the modern Conservative Party of Canada, to being elected prime minister, Stephen Harper's path to power was long and winding.

Tracing the former prime minister's circuitous route to power through CBC Calgary's video archives

Stephen Harper in archive footage from CBC Calgary from the 1990s and 2000s. (CBC)

From Stephen Harper's plucky candidacy with the upstart Reform Party, to becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance, to the creation of the modern Conservative Party of Canada, to being elected prime minister, Harper's path to power was long and winding — all of it captured in CBC Calgary's video archives.

In Stephen Harper's earliest appearance in CBC Calgary's video archives, he's attacking Joe Clark.

It was September 1988 and, as a young member of the upstart Reform Party, Harper took dead aim at the former Progressive Conservative prime minister and then MP, accusing him of being more talk than action on issues Western Canadians care about — particularly agriculture, Senate reform and federal procurement policies.

"He's going to have to tell people what he's done on those issues and what he will do," Harper says.

"And, if he doesn't address them, he's going to be in trouble."

Harper '88 Joe Clark critique

6 years ago
Duration 2:09
Stephen Harper takes on Joe Clark of the Progressive Conservatives in this archive footage from 1988.

At the time, Harper and the Reform movement may have seemed like a minor threat to the governing PC party, which enjoyed a massive majority in Parliament.

The Tories suffered a small setback in the election later that year, losing seats to both the Liberals and NDP, but still earned a comfortable majority government, while the Reform Party won barely two per cent of the popular vote.

But with a worsening economy and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's introduction of the wildly unpopular GST, things had changed by the early 1990s.

Staring down sinking poll numbers, the Tories launched a pre-emptive strike on their Reform opponents in May 1992.

Harper seemed to relish the retaliation.

Harper '92 Tory attack on Reform

6 years ago
Duration 2:07
The Progressive Conservatives launch a public attack on the upstart Reform Party in this archive video from 1992.

"It's no secret that we wouldn't be attacked unless we were considered pretty important," Harper told reporters, in response to PC radio ads targeting Reform policies.

Sensing opportunity and seeing their party membership numbers swell, Harper and other Reform candidates began planning strategy for the looming election call.

On policy, Harper stressed a handful of issues that would become his refrain, including reducing government spending and getting tough on crime.

Harper '93 Reform candidates

6 years ago
Duration 2:05
Stephen Harper and other Reform Party candidates talk strategy in this archive video from 1993.

The strategy worked.

In the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party broke through, winning 52 seats and falling just short of forming the Official Opposition to the Bloc Quebecois.

The Liberals, meanwhile, swept to power under Jean Chretien, while the PCs were nearly wiped out, being reduced to a mere two seats.

Not one to sit quietly in caucus, Harper soon made headlines by taking on Reform Leader Preston Manning and the party brass.

He questioned the annual allowance of roughly $31,000 the party paid Manning, on top of his MP salary, for things like transportation, clothing and other expenses, without requiring receipts.

Harper '94 Manning critique

6 years ago
Duration 1:29
Stephen Harper takes on Reform Party Leader Preston Manning over his expense allowance in this archive video from 1994.

"I think it's not consistent with what we're advocating publicly," Harper said in April 1994. "I really would strongly urge the party … to make all of these allowances accountable."

By 1995, polls were showing declining support for the Reform Party and increasing support for the Progressive Conservatives, but both parties were being consistently walloped by public support for the federal Liberals under Chretien.

Alberta Premier Ralph Klein said at the time that Reform had created a "very strange political situation" that split the Conservative vote and paved the way for Chretien to continue effectively unchallenged.

Klein suggested it might be time for the right-of-centre parties to join forces.

Harper '95 Reform merger

6 years ago
Duration 2:24
Stephen Harper talks about the prospect of merging the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties in the wake of poor poll results in this archive video from 1995.

Harper, for his part, agreed, but stopped short of calling for an immediate merger.

"If you have three or four opposition parties in the next campaign, the only beneficiary is the Liberals," he said in July 1995.

But the merger talk produced little action and Harper started looking at other career options.

After revealing in late 1996 that he wouldn't run in the next federal election, he announced his resignation as an MP in January 1997 to take a position as vice-president with the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group.

"Frankly I'm looking to being in a position where I can speak much more independently than I'm able to do as a Member of Parliament," Harper told reporters at the time.

Harper '97 quits politics

6 years ago
Duration 1:41
Stephen Harper announces his resignation as an MP in this archive footage from 1997.

Five months later, the Chretien Liberals cruised to another majority government, but the Reform Party managed to pick up 10 more seats and edge ahead of the Bloc Quebecois to form the Official Opposition.

But, despite running a full slate of candidates for the first the time, no Reform MPs were elected east of Manitoba, diminishing the party's hopes of developing a national presence.

The sense that Reform's growth had stalled eventually led to the creation of a new party, the Canadian Alliance, in March 2000, and a new leader in Stockwell Day.

A snap election later that year caught the Alliance off guard, and again the Chretien Liberals cruised to another majority government, increasing both their number of seats and share of the popular vote.

Infighting within the Alliance led Day to call a leadership convention, and that paved the way for Harper's return to federal politics.

Harper '01 runs for Alliance leadership

6 years ago
Duration 1:51
Stephen Harper files his nomination papers for leadership of the Canadian Alliance in this archive video from 2001.

Harper was first out of the gate in December 2001 to file papers as an Alliance leadership candidate, calling on the party to stop "navel gazing" over the idea of a merger with the PCs, which had so far led nowhere.

"We've got to end this interminable mating dance," he said. "It's not leading us anywhere and it's demoralizing people. We've got to get on to offering a conservative alternative to voters, and I'll let [PC Leader] Joe [Clark] offer a second Liberal party."

Harper went on to defeat Day on the first ballot of the leadership convention in April and then set his sights on a return to Parliament.

A logical place for him to run was Calgary Southwest, a staunchly conservative riding that had been recently vacated by Preston Manning and was due for a byelection.

But there already was an Alliance candidate in that riding — Ezra Levant.

Despite pressure from the party, Levant refused to give up his spot, at least at first.

Harper '02 vs Ezra Levant

6 years ago
Duration 4:13
Stephen Harper and Ezra Levant both want to run for the Canadian Alliance in Calgary Southwest in this archive footage from 2002.

Levant had begun campaigning long before a byelection was even called and publicly asserted his "legal and moral authority to be the candidate" in Calgary Southwest.

That was in March 2002.

By April, however, Levant had changed his mind and agreed to step aside.

As the byelection campaign got underway, Harper described one of his biggest challenges as his status as the overwhelming favourite.

Harper '02 byelection campaign

6 years ago
Duration 1:36
Stephen Harper battles voter apathy the 2002 byelection in Calgary Southwest.

"What we're fighting, to a large degree, is apathy or people not knowing about the race or even, occasionally, people thinking I'm already the Member of Parliament," he said.

Only 23 per cent of Calgary Southwest voters ultimately turned out to the polls in May, but they elected Harper in a landslide, with 72 per cent of the vote.

Harper '02 byelection win

6 years ago
Duration 1:54
Stephen Harper wins handily in the 2002 byelection.

"I think we've really established ourselves as the major opposition party in Western Canada and the major right-of-centre opposition party in Ontario," Harper said.

Taking his seat in Parliament as leader of the Official Opposition, Harper used the opportunity to exchange jabs with Chretien over internal strife within the governing party over who would succeed him as leader.

Three months later, in August 2002, Chretien announced that he would retire in 2004.

In Calgary, some voters greeted the news by literally jumping for joy.

Harper '02 Chretien quits

6 years ago
Duration 1:40
Stephen Harper on Jean Chretien's retirement announcement in this archive footage from 2002.

Harper, too, must have been thrilled by the development.

While the Liberals were fighting over succession, the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives finally found common ground and agreed to merge into the present-day Conservative Party of Canada.

As the Liberals reeled from a damning auditor-general report into the sponsorship scandal, Harper was elected leader of the new Conservative party in March 2004, giving him his best shot yet at government in the federal election that June.

Not everyone in the small-c conservative movement was smiling, however.

Harper '04 Clark won't endorse

6 years ago
Duration 1:50
Joe Clark refuses to endorse Stephen Harper in this archive footage from 2004.

Clark refused to endorse Harper or the new Conservative party, even going as far as saying Chretien's replacement, Paul Martin, was a "marginally more acceptable" option for voters.

Despite the Liberals' challenges, though, Martin managed to eke out a minority government.

Harper, nonetheless, was buoyed by the Conservatives' 99 seats in Parliament.

"Tonight our new party has, in a very short period of time, made historic strides across this country," he said.

Harper '04 Election Loss

6 years ago
Duration 2:36
Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada make gains in the 2004 federal election but still lose to Paul Martin's Liberals.

But as the Martin government flailed, Harper smelled blood.

Less than a year after the election, he was laying the groundwork for a non-confidence vote to bring down the shaky Liberal minority.

"I will be asking our caucus to put this government out of its misery at the earliest possible opportunity," Harper said in April 2005.

It didn't take long.

By November the government fell, setting the stage for a Christmas campaign.

Harper '05 government falls

6 years ago
Duration 2:02
Stephen Harper prepares for the campaign as the minority Liberal government of Paul Martin is defeated.

Once the writ was dropped, the Conservatives hammered the Liberals over the sponsorship scandal while setting out key planks of their platform.

Harper criss-crossed the country promising to trim the GST, create a $1,200-per-child rebate for parents, toughen up the criminal justice system and boost military spending.

The message resonated with voters, who moved toward the Conservatives, not in overwhelming numbers, but enough to give the party a foothold on government that it would translate into nearly a decade of rule.

Under Harper, the party won 36.3 per cent of the popular vote in 2006 and earned its first minority government.

Harper '06 election win

6 years ago
Duration 2:41
Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada win their first minority government in 2006.

Harper and the Conservatives went on to earn a second, larger minority in 2008.

They finally won their coveted majority government in 2011.

In 2015, they were defeated by Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party, and Harper resigned as party leader.

On Aug. 26, 2016, Harper announced his resignation as a Member of Parliament.

A look back at Stephen Harper's political legacy

6 years ago
Duration 1:22
From 1993 to 2016, a snapshot of some of his greatest accomplishments, personal tastes and political choices.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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