The legacy of Stephen Harper will take many years to sort out, and many years for the post-election bitter feelings to subside before Canadians can give him a fair shot at interpreting that legacy. One thing is certain, Harper evokes strong mixed feelings amongst Canadians.
Last week we saw two separate online campaign initiatives relating to Harper which starkly reveal those feelings at play. On the one hand there was the positive, and perhaps justified, attempt to have Calgary airport renamed in Harper’s honour.
Justified because under Harper’s leadership traditionally Blue Tory Alberta was basically able to set the national agenda throughout the country by making a strategic coalition with Ontario Red Tories. Harper was able to bring the Reform party out of the wilderness and transform them from a regional activist party to a national powerhouse which ruled Canada for nearly a decade. Considering where the national Progressive Conservatives sat after the 1993 election with two seats and the Reform party with 52 seats (mostly in Alberta), it is incredible what Harper helped to create by the time he became Prime Minister in 2006. It also must be mentioned, while the Prime Minister was tossed out decisively by the Canadian electorate this year, Harper left the Conservatives in a very strong 99 seat position in Parliament before stepping down. As the Official Opposition they will be competitive in the next election and still able to set the narrative framework of how Canadians view the Liberal party.
Among Harper’s notable achievements was re-energizing and re-equipping the Canadian military to meet the challenges of the 21st century, tax policies which left the Canadian middle class stronger than when he entered politics, and the successful weathering of the 2008 economic storm which brought many nations throughout the world to their knees. The wonderfully successful Vancouver Olympic Games of 2010 must also be something which ticks over into the positive column for Mr. Harper.
On the other hand, Harper’s cold personality, his hyper-partisan politics and his tone deafness to the broader social concerns of Canadians led to an online counter campaign last week that, humourously, attempted to rename Calgary’s landfill in Harper’s, ahem, honour.
For all Harper’s successes there are some very big failures which must be acknowledged. The New Veterans’ Charter took away income security for wounded Canadian soldiers and broke the social contract. Under his leadership Canada’s relationship with First Nations sank to the lowest point in probably 50 years. Harper continually spurned any attempt to seriously address the environmental concerns of Canadians, and went out of his way to twist the knife in deeper any way he could. He did the same with many social organizations and institutions progressive Canadians value. Canadians can laud ideological commitment, but Harper’s pettiness struck many, even on the conservative side of the aisle, as ungracious and therefore un-Canadian. But perhaps Harper’s biggest failure was when he went out of his way to cause a major rift with the ruling party of Ontario over what amounted to ideological differences, and therefore alienated many of its citizens which ultimately ruptured the Blue Tory/ Red Tory coalition that had brought Harper to power in the first place.
For all his character flaws and hyper-partisanship, Harper was a remarkable politician. He left his mark on Canadian politics, and Canadians will demand future governments stick to the broad course of fiscal responsibility he laid out in his tenure. Renaming an airport in his home riding of Calgary, in the province he has done so much for, is probably minimally his due.