Right place, right time, right party

Paul Wells on how Ted Byfield helped pave the way for Harper’s majority win

Right place, right time, right party

Right place, right time, right party

Stephen Harper sent his regrets and a note, which was read to the 300-odd revellers the other night at the Coast Edmonton Plaza Hotel. “Special greetings to Ted Byfield and Preston Manning, who have done so much to inspire, inform and lead the conservative movement in Canada,” the Prime Minister’s note said.

The occasion was a “victory celebration” for a defunct magazine that never made anyone rich. The magazine was Alberta Report. Well, sometimes it had other titles, but we’ll stick with that one. Its founder was Ted Byfield, an irascible right-wing coot—I do not believe his friends would disagree with that description—and a mentor to dozens of journalists who went on to other roles, including this magazine’s Ken Whyte, Mark Stevenson and Colby Cosh.

But as I’ve said, the Report shut down in 2003. So what’s to celebrate? Power. “The West Is In,” the party invitations read. The reference was to the Harper Conservatives’ majority government. The dinner’s souvenir program promised a “national gala to reunite the original authors of Harper’s historic victory.”

Those “original authors” are Manning and Byfield. In May 1987, Manning was a key figure at the Western Assembly in Vancouver that gave birth to the Reform party. Months before the Vancouver assembly, Byfield met Manning and decided to put the weight of his magazine behind Manning’s venture.

Ken Whyte, who was Byfield’s right hand for a time at the Report, and has been my boss for most of the past 17 years, told the gathering Byfield’s decision was “a historic choice.”

In 1986, not even two years after Brian Mulroney’s landslide election, it was hardly obvious that the Progressive Conservatives had no future, Whyte said. Nor was Manning’s the only splinter group on offer. But Byfield “went out for dinner one night with Preston Manning and he came back the next day convinced that Preston Manning was the answer and that he had the answers,” Whyte said. “It was his choice, his decision.” Whyte called that decision “just one of the many reasons why Ted stands as one of the greatest journalists Canada has ever produced.”

Many Canadians would disagree. Most simply wouldn’t know what to think of such a claim. But one of the evening’s main arguments was that people who think like Ted Byfield are running the country now.

“It is a real honour to be speaking here to this nostalgic reunion of the vast right-wing conspiracy,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told the dinner crowd.

The “eastern elites,” Kenney reported happily, are “afraid and shocked” at Harper’s majority. “They say that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.” But those elites have already lost much of the battle, Kenney said. “Let’s recall just what it was like when Ted set out on this amazing mission to recast Canadian politics.” Back in those dark days, in the Progressive Conservative leadership race of 1983, “John Crosbie was the populist right-wing candidate.” Yes, Crosbie, “who was opposed to free trade with the United States; opposed to cutting federal spending to balance the budget; was in favour of tax increases; was in favour of tough gun control; made condescending remarks about social conservatives at every opportunity. And that was considered conservatism in 1983.”

Now, Kenney said, Canadians have a Conservative government that acts like one. “We’ve cut the GST. We are going to, in the next few months, end the Liberal long-gun registry. We are in the last few days of the monopoly of the Canadian Wheat Board. We are putting victims ahead of criminals in Canada’s criminal justice system. We have rebuilt Canada’s armed forces.”

One of Byfield’s early insights, Kenney said, was that “culture would be at the heart of many of these political debates. Of course the culture of the Byfield operation was—at all times, at least in intention, implicitly, in some sense—Christian, dare I say it.”

He certainly did dare. So did Byfield, nearly 83, who addressed the dinner crowd last. “All news is judged on the basis of certain assumptions. Most editors I’ve known aren’t even aware of this. But they have certain values. Certain things they think true and false and self-evident.” Alberta Report’s values, Byfield decided early, “would be Christian. As simple as that. What do I mean by that? I mean, the belief that the creeds of the Christian church were simply true.”

Now, all kinds of people believe they are being true to Christian faith. Bill Blaikie sat in the House of Commons for a quarter-century defending his conception of the social gospel for the NDP. Byfield’s Christian truth, on the other hand, led him to write, in 1980, “If adultery or homosexuality is wrong in the sight of God, then all the task forces in Christendom aren’t going to make it right.”

It may be Harper’s and Byfield’s shared good luck that the latter was no longer putting out a magazine when the former became Prime Minister. That way everyone can skip lightly over the way Harper countenances abortion, same-sex marriage, bilingualism, taxpayer money for Bombardier and other apostasies. Now, at least over dinner, they can claim that Harper’s triumph is a victory for Byfield’s values and ask no more questions.

“I have long believed and often said,” Harper’s note to the Edmonton dinner crowd said, “that fundamentally Conservative values are Canadian values. And I also believe that history will record that this year’s federal election began a new era of pre-eminence for those values.”


Right place, right time, right party

  1. Finally the misguided socialist ideals that PET forced on Canadians are being challenged. Canada is finally returning to it’s historic traditions and attachments.

  2. Harper’s made adultery and homosexuality ‘right’ without the task forces.  This is the new fiscal conservativism?

  3. One of the compelling contradictions associated with this article is that two men, one of whom is dominated by values (Christianist values but values nonetheless), another who is mostly concerned with fair process and evidence-based policy making would take comfort from the win of a pragmatic PM who has jettisoned his values and applies political strategy to every governance decision.  

    • It’s not such a stretch if you choose to believe, as i do, that it’s not only liberals whose principles fade to black or go walkabout when political power is at stake.

  4. Revealed to the public at last.  The hidden agenda.
    Because the Con party at its heart isn’t a political entity at all, having done nothing ‘fiscally conservative’.  It’s a badly disguised Tent Revival.
    The only headway Harper has been able to make is by temporarily stifling this old SoCred/Reform/religious movement with promises of future glory.  He acts as PC or even Red Tory for the most part, but occasionally throws bones to his base…those are the mystifying-to-the-general-public moves he sometimes makes. Removing the census, bringing back the word ‘royal’,  looking for wars to participate in,  promoting the idea of himself as the sole ‘Harper govt’, touting the ‘Anglo-sphere’, etc
    Because it’s also major Nostalgia for the ‘old days, the old ways’ when things were run by ’ irascible right-wing coots’ on the ‘frontier’.
    As was inevitable Harper is being hit by todays world where the razzle-dazzle no longer works…and if he has any IQ at all he knows very well Canada isn’t remotely a conservative or right-wing christian country….even red toryism won’t help him in the next few years.
    Meanwhile back at the ranch, the olde-tymers and bible-thumpers will wait in vain for the Promised Land.

    • Wow, you managed to contradict yourself in less that 3 sentences

      • Sorry, there are no contradictions on my part, so look for cover elsewhere.

  5. Enjoyed this one Paul, lots of trivia with some interesting ‘what ifs’.

    ‘Christian’ is slowly losing its ‘dirty-word’ status as the ‘hidden agenda’ was just a boogey-man made up by the liberals.   I would also like to believe that Byfield has learned tolerance in his old age as Harper has learned to be pragmatic.

  6. Harper has no problem with one of his parliamentary secretary exploring extra-marital affairs. That’s the new Christian value?

  7. This just goes to show why naming politicial parties after ideologies causes so many problems.  Reform is probably the most “classical liberal” (ie, libertarian) party in Canadian history.

    The question of whether the Conservatives or the Liberals have a bigger history of coddling the “Eastern elites” (which to me means Bay Street money, probably the most traditional conservative part of our country) is sort of an academic exercise.  The Liberals win, hands down, but that’s really a matter of competence rather than ideology.

    Railing after the “eastern elites” is cut-and-paste American $&!+ that ignores Canadian geography.  Most of the elites in this country come in three flavours:  Calgary, Toronto & Montreal, with the biggest group being Bay Street.  Are are old money anglophone white males, and conservative in policy and attitude if not party alliance.  An Eastern Elite would have to come from Halifax of St. John’s or the like.

  8. Now I know who, other than Preston, to blame for that mess of Harperites in Ottawa.
    They had it named right once. It was, if I remember right, the Conservative Reform Alliance Party. they should have kept that name as its acronym so accurately describes it’s policies and actions.

  9. Ah, Alberta. I still remember one of my visits. Sitting in a living room in a nice house
    in the Millwoods section of Edmonton. Owned and occupied by a well-read, well-travelled
    couple of folks, bright and funny. To get to the living room you passed through a foyer where
    you had to walk under a hanging metal pyramid which I think meant something back then.
    Beside the chair where I was sitting was a magazine rack with a few magazines and record
    albums in it. I browsed .. with considerable bemusement … through a copy of Alberta Report.
    The situation was rescued by the albums .. some early recordings by Ellen McIlwaine, who was 
    actually living in Edmonton at that time. Mid 80’s I think. And I’m still bemused.

    • I remember Ellen. She was great. Caught her many a time when i lived in Edmonton, which had an awesome music scene back then…Big Millar, Bill Bourne, Lester Quitzeau and a whole load of great blues artists up from the states…lucky enough to have caught John Hammond too..all free saturday afternoon jam stuf…f them was the days…i like that Alberta…i still do. Alberta as a great heartland of neo-conservatism is one of the great enduring myths of Canadian politics. Back when Byfield and Whyte were peddling their rag it had about as much street credibility as a Christian science pamphlet. The average guy doesn’t give a crap if Donald duck is charge as long as it’s possible to hold down a good job and go to an oilers/flames/Eskies/Stamps game, and still afford to put some gas in the truck so you can head out to the mountains on the long weekend. Fortunately for them the cons have managed that pretty well [ hell who wouldn’t in a province as blessed and resource rich as AB?] and now own the franchise and the keys to the treasury.

  10. “It may be Harper’s and Byfield’s shared good luck that the latter was no longer putting out a magazine when the former became Prime Minister. That way everyone can skip lightly over the way Harper countenances abortion, same-sex marriage, bilingualism, taxpayer money for Bombardier and other apostasies. Now, at least over dinner, they can claim that Harper’s triumph is a victory for Byfield’s values and ask no more questions.”

    The inherent ability of politicians, particularly “Christian”politicians to beileve their own hypocritical humbug never ceases to amaze. This column had me steaming until Paul dropped the other shoe as he just about never fails to do[ it’s what makes him such a good read], when he points out that religious convictions are not the sole preserve of the moral right a la Blaikie. Mulroney, Chretien, Martin were all catholics and christians[ as far as i know] for godsake…i guess they weren’t good enough christians for the likes of Byfield and the ever odious Kenny[ yes i dispise that smug pompous little man]. Even the dark lord on his thrown, the arch cad PET was a lifelong convicted catholic and yes a christian; like the other PMS , and unlike Kenny, he didn’t feel it was his business to foist it on others; and he had the grace, good sense and intellectual honesty to believe it had no  business being at the core of our political life. He was wise enough to know that there is a distinction to be drawn between the state, it’s laws, and the moral life of the country; and that the two are not synonymous.He said the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. He did not say that the church should not take a view, neither did he indicate what view he as PM took in the matter; that was personal, as it should be for a politician. In a modern secular state they must be kept apart. If Kenny, Byfield et al., want to live in a theocracy join a monestery or something. It’s not the christian thing that gets me – i’ve no time at all for secular bigots; it’s the smug assumption that your particular brand of politicized christianity shall prevail in our nation. Indeed, ideally the two should be deemed inseparable if at all possible.

  11. How about lying versus telling the truth. Messrs. Byfield and Harper? Your Bible must be a very different edition from mine…

  12. There is a very valid reason, and thousands of years of historical evidence why state and religion are required to be separate.
    I do understand these men are ‘christians of convenience’ and cherry pick scripture for support ignoring that which contradicts their ‘beliefs’. This is a shameful practice, but a common one.
    Attempts to gain credibility for personal policy or belief via the manipulation of any religious doctrine shows the true nature and the danger of the person.

    Spirituality in itself requires no political or religious leader, unless of course that leader is seeking to exploit the power that the control would provide to them.

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