The Harper years have coincided with—and to some degree been made possible by—two large shifts in the locus of power in Canada.
The first is a shift in geography and with it a shift in outlook. It’s a shift the Canadian political columnist John Ibbitson explained in an important op-ed just after the last Canadian election:
[U]ntil quite recently, the direction of this country was determined by the elites in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and other cities along the St. Lawrence River or its watershed.
On all of the great issues of the day, the Laurentian elites debated among themselves, reached a consensus and implemented that consensus. In short, they governed the country.
This state of affairs was disrupted by the one thing that was supposed to preserve it forever: a huge surge of highly skilled immigration. Instead of voting for the parties of the Laurentian consensus, as the upholders of that consensus blithely assumed they would:
Immigrant Canadians, mostly of Asian background, along with other middle-class suburban, exurban and rural Ontario voters, allied themselves with Western Canada, forging a new Pacific-centric conservative coalition—shattering, in the process, the political influence of the Laurentian consensus.
Excluded from power, the Laurentian elites rage against this new normal, fearing that the Conservatives are about to dismantle everything they have achieved.
The second shift is in the media landscape. When Harper was first elected in 2006, Facebook had just marked its second birthday. YouTube was scarcely a year old. Twitter and Instagram did not exist at all. Almost one-third of Canadians had not used the Internet even once in the previous 12 months. In rural and small-town Canada, the figure exceeded 40 percent.
Today, Canadians rank among the heaviest Internet users on earth. Former media giants face unprecedented challenges to their reach and influence. Audiences for the state broadcaster, CBC, are vanishing especially quickly. Harper Conservatives have made no secret that they relish the change, though they didn’t cause it. But since Canada’s major media institutions and especially its broadcasters were the preeminent enforcers of Ibbitson’s “Laurentian consensus,” the weakening of those institutions is experienced by would-be upholders of that consensus as yet another attack and humiliation.
Yet of all the things to attack the new Canada for, insufficient availability of information seems among the very least plausible. On the contrary, one of Canada’s most ominous security challenges is precisely the ease with which groups like ISIS can reach into the country and recruit the children and grandchildren of Canada’s new immigrants.
None of this is to defend everything that Harper has done. It’s just a call for perspective. You think the prime minister has been slow to act on climate change? You object to his preference for tax restraint over big new spending programs? He’s too pro-Israel, too anti-Putin? You don’t like his voice, face, or haircut? Vote against him! But remember at the same time that Canada has posted the best economic record of any G7 country through the worst global economic crisis since the 1930s: more jobs, faster growth, and lower public-sector debt. To dismiss this record as creeping authoritarianism, and to cite as proof that press conferences are less rowdy than they used to be, is to reveal an appetite for grievance so ravenous that it will swallow anything and pronounce it a meal.