Out of office, into the woods: Stephen Harper's trip to secret Bohemian summer camp

"I am back from the Bohemian Grove," Colin Powell tells Peter MacKay in a hacked email. "Surprise, Surprise, I sat next to Stephen Harper a couple of times and had a nice discussion."

Ex-PM joined male elite California retreat for a 'nice discussion,' Colin Powell says in hacked email

Leaked e-mails reveal that former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell and former prime minister Stephen Harper spent time together at Bohemian Grove this summer. Harper sips a beer as he plays the piano with a band in Ottawa in 2011. (Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images and Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Stephen Harper hasn't said much about his activities since he announced his intention to leave politics. Sure, we know he's starting a consulting business. And yes, he's made it known via social media that his firm arranged for office space and a strategic partnership with a large law firm in Calgary.

But what he's been doing to build up that international clientele for his firm, Harper and Associates? What is the suddenly reclusive former prime minister doing to turn his political connections into paying customers?

Well, now we have at least some insight, obtained via hackers who penetrated the private email account of former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell.

Among the emails made public, and widely reported by media around the world, is one Powell sent July 24 to his friend Peter MacKay, the former Harper cabinet minister.

And let's just preface what comes next by saying not only is the way the information became public unusual, but so is where Harper and Powell rubbed shoulders.
Redwood trees stand near the Bohemian Grove at the Muir Woods National Monument in Marin County, Calif., in this 2008 photo. (Associated Press)

"Peter: I am back from the Bohemian Grove," Powell writes. "Surprise, Surprise, I sat next to Stephen Harper a couple of times and had a nice discussion."

For those who don't know, the Bohemian Grove is an annual event in California that the Washington Post described in a 2011 article as "two weeks of heavy-drinking, super-secret talks, druid worship and other rituals" by some of the richest and most powerful men in the world.

The invited guests include business leaders. Politicians. Artists. All of them men. And it's been that way for nearly a century.

Not many journalists have made it past the gates to the tents set among the towering stands of redwoods. One who did, described a nine-metre-high owl that symbolizes the wisdom of those attending, writing that the owl serves as the backdrop for the annual theatrical production put on by and for those in attendance.

There's one rule. No business can be conducted.

What Harper was doing there, whether he's a member of the Bohemian Club or just a guest, isn't known. Former colleagues say it's the first they've heard of him attending the retreat.

Attempts to contact Harper were unsuccessful.

But anyone who followed his political career must find the idea of the former prime minister drinking heavily hard to imagine, or for that matter, his communing among the redwoods with like-minded conservatives, engaging in the worship of trees or animals as his personal spiritual source.

He was always, while in office, dismissive of elites.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper and former justice minister Peter MacKay chuckle during a bilateral meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, in 2014. Former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell told MacKay that Harper attended Bohemian Grove sessions this summer. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

What is consistent is that he would surround himself with other small-c conservatives intent on keeping the world out of the clutches of Democrats, Liberals and the similarly unenlightened.

Now, Harper is free to do what he likes. But keep this in mind: He was attending an event sponsored by a group that refuses to admit women.

That excludes the interim leader of his party, Rona Ambrose, and Kellie Leitch, a potential Harper successor whose campaign is built around screening immigrants for "anti-Canadian values" like, say, inclusiveness and equality, transparency and openness. The very values this club eschews.

The one exception, it appears, is that those rich Bohemian men can worship whoever, or whatever they  please.

Email is authentic, MacKay says

MacKay, in a brief email exchange, says he's never attended the retreat. But he confirmed the authenticity of the email Powell sent him.

For most of the world Powell's chat with Harper is not the most significant item contained in the email.

All of the coverage has been focused on his line that follows.

"Grove attendees know that Trump is a disaster," Powell wrote to MacKay. "Most will vote against, but quite a few will not vote for Hillary and will vote for a third-party candidate."

By Grove attendees Powell means, of course, wealthy, well-connected Republicans.
Protesters march toward the annual Bohemian Grove retreat in Monte Rio, Calif., on July 22, 2006. They opposed a plan to log coastal redwoods on a 2,700-acre grove owned by the Bohemian Club. (Associated Press)

Other Powell emails make similarly disparaging remarks about Trump. In one he refers to Trump as a "national disgrace" and an "international pariah." In still another he ridicules Trump for challenging where Barack Obama was born, and for taking African-Americans as idiots.

What makes the email to MacKay stand out is that it reinforces the view held by many that the billionaire Trump is exactly the political outsider he claims to be, that he's not a member of the political elite (the moneyed elite is a whole different issue) and will break the establishment's hold on Washington if elected.

For Canadians there's another thing to consider.

The 'Canuck letter' of 1972

More than 40 years have passed since this country unwittingly played a role in a presidential election south of the border. That was way back to February, 1972 when Democratic contender Edmund Muskie was undone by the so-called "Canuck letter" sent anonymously to a New Hampshire newspaper.

The letter said Muskie used the term Canuck, which was considered a slur against Americans of French-Canadian descent, many of whom lived in Muskie's home state of Maine and other parts of New England.

It was a fraud, people learned later, written by unscrupulous members of the committee to re-elect Richard Nixon as president, known as CREEP.

The letter and a subsequent editorial in the Manchester Union Leader so enraged Muskie that he held an impromptu news conference in a New Hampshire snowstorm denouncing the attack on his character.

Tears or melting snow?

Reporters said Muskie cried openly. Muskie said snow melted on his face. His chance for the nomination similarly melted away.

Now Canada's likely to play a role in this campaign, but of a different sort.

The Powell email to MacKay, with its prediction that none of the Republicans at this exclusive and bizarre retreat will vote for Trump, is all but certain to be part of the Republican nominee's narrative between now and voting day in November that he, alone, can give voice to the aggrieved, disenfranchised and non-Bohemian American.
U.S. Democratic Senator Edmund Muskie speaks in front of the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader on Feb. 26, 1972 after it was reported he had cried in response to the newspaper's attack on his wife. Muskie's presidential campaign was undone by the so-called "Canuck letter" sent anonymously to the conservative newspaper. It was a fraud. (Associated Press)


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @chrishallcbc