The Delusions of the Canadian Mind

What explains the outrage at Prime Minister Stephen Harper?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets the press. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

The Australians call it “the colonial cringe,” and it may explain why the most influential newspaper in Canada is The New York Times. The New York Times is likely more influential in Canada than it is in New York. So when The New York Times published last weekend a long and harsh attack on the personality and record of a Canadian prime minister, that fact alone ranked as news in Canada, all the more so since it came in the opening days of a federal election (Canadians vote on October 19).

The long and harsh attack by the Canadian novelist and political commentator Stephen Marche, titled “The Closing of the Canadian Mind,” claims the following: “The nine and half years of [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s tenure have seen the slow-motion erosion of [Canada’s] reputation for open, responsible government. His stance has been a know-nothing conservatism, applied broadly and effectively. He has consistently limited the capacity of the public to understand what its government is doing, cloaking himself and his Conservative Party in an entitled secrecy, and the country in ignorance.”

And there’s more: Harper is “classically Orwellian,” his tenure characterized by the “active promotion of ignorance” and a “peculiar hatred for sharing information.” Worst, Harper “seems to think that his job is to prevent democracy.”

Yikes. That sounds awful! So what did Stephen Harper actually do? How precisely did the Canadian prime minister silence debate, suppress information, and squelch democracy? In which dungeon do his critics languish? What are the secrets he has concealed?

Even after reading all 17 paragraphs of Marche’s indictment, it’s hard to say. As so often happens with anti-Harper invective, the accusation combines intense outrage against the man with gaseous vagueness about the man’s offenses. You’re supposed to just know. If you don’t know already, it won’t be explained to you.

In fact, the very difficulty of explaining Harper’s horribleness is—to critics—among the leading proofs of Harper’s horribleness. As Marche complains, Harper is not only a dictator in the making, but also “bland and purposeless.” His policy changes “have been negligible.” He aims to govern in a way that is “steady and quiet”—a totalitarian nightmare, only “polite and rule abiding.” If you can’t see why all of this is oppressive verging on the fascistic, then you have succumbed to “the politics of willful ignorance.”

Stephen Harper is a right-of-center politician. Some people like that; others don’t. Which is fine. That’s how democracy works.

Harper is a highly cerebral man. He eschews public displays of emotion and expresses himself in terse, well-chosen words. That style, inevitably, seems cold and remote to people who preferred the back-slapping warmth of his two immediate predecessors. Harper also runs a tight ship. As a young political staffer in the 1980s, he witnessed the destruction of the 1984-1993 Conservative government resulting from then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s indulgent attitude toward the mistakes and misdeeds of his caucus and cabinet. Some observers believe Harper has over-corrected—that his discipline is too severe and unforgiving. That’s a reasonable point of view. The next prime minister of Canada will probably over-correct in the opposite direction.

But there’s a distinction between objecting to a politician’s policies and personality, and the extreme disproportion between cause and effect in anti-Harper critiques leveled not just by Marche but others among Canada’s well-bred, well-educated, and well-connected. Let’s take a closer look at Marche’s indictment—and pierce through the verbal fog to the underlying facts.

Item One: “[Harper] has chosen not to participate in the traditional series of debates on national television, confronting his opponents in quieter, less public venues …”

The first of five scheduled party-leader debates already took place on August 6. You can watch it here. If you do, you will be joining some 4.3 million Canadians who tuned into one of the most-viewed political events in years. It’s just bizarre to describe the 2015 debate plan as either “quiet” or not “public.”

Item Two: “[C]ampaign events were subject to gag orders until a public outcry forced him to rescind the forced silence of his supporters.”

On the back of tickets to some Conservative Party events in the first days of the election campaign was printed a request that attendees not make video or audio recordings. The request was ridiculed, ignored, and abandoned within 72 hours.

Item Three: “At [Harper’s] notoriously brief news conferences, his handlers vet every journalist, picking and choosing who can ask questions. In the usual give-and-take between press and politicians, the hurly-burly of any healthy democracy, he has simply removed the give.”

This refers to Harper’s practice of calling upon journalists by name rather than responding to whoever shoves an audio recorder closest to the prime ministerial nose.

Marche holds Harper to account because his prime ministership happened to coincide with Rob Ford’s notorious mayoralty in Toronto—and because Harper said something ambiguously complimentary about Ford’s family at a 2011 barbecue. Harper is blamed because a Conservative campaign worker in Guelph, Ontario, violated an election law in 2011.

There are things—many things—to criticize in Harper’s record. The collapse of the price of oil this spring has brought an abrupt end to Canada’s superior economic performance during the global economic crisis, and that news may well cost Harper reelection. But those criticisms should be grounded in facts and context. Read these words: The government “has restricted the chief executive of Elections Canada from promoting the act of voting.” They leave the impression that the Harper government has somehow attacked the freedom to vote, don’t they? But the underlying story here is about whether the independent agency that operates elections and enforces campaign laws should also control the government’s C$8.5-million budget to encourage voting. The Harper government decided to sever that latter responsibility and relocate it elsewhere. Good call? Bad call? Canadian election specialists will debate the question endlessly on the dedicated cable channel for Canadian political junkies. For non-specialists, let’s just say … this isn’t how Francisco Franco got his start.

The Democracy Report

I happen to know Stephen Marche, the author of the Times takedown. Marche is the son-in-law of the man who gave me my first paying job in journalism. Our families have been friendly dating back to the early 1960s. I also happen to have a close view of some of the controversies in question because my sister is a member of the Canadian Senate, appointed by Prime Minister Harper. I’ve donated money to Canada’s Conservative Party, and from time to time I have volunteered advice to members of the Harper government about politics, policy, and communications.

I say all this not merely for reasons of disclosure, although that’s of course necessary. I say it because the enmeshing of Canada’s political and media elite is crucial to keep in mind when assessing the imbalance between the furious rage against Harper and the puniness of the micro-transgressions that ostensibly provoked that rage.

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.