How it all ended for Stephen Harper

A silence choked the air when the results came in. Stephen Harper struck proud notes in his political eulogy—but an era had passed.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a pair of thumbs up gestures as he gives his concession speech after Canada's federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a pair of thumbs up gestures as he gives his concession speech after Canada’s federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

When people file into a funeral parlour for someone beloved, they shuffle their feet, solemnly say little, force smiles easily mistaken for grimaces as they shake hands with fellow travellers they haven’t seen in too long. A few sighs of “Oh, I’ve been better,” met with sympathetic nods. Later, plenty of hugs when the relatives take their seats. This was how Conservatives carried themselves Monday in defeat.

Stephen Harper’s supporters had just begun to enter the convention centre hall after Alberta polls closed as the video screens declared a Trudeau government. A silence choked the air.

“I hate to hear this. I really hate to hear this,” Ric McIver said to nobody in particular, as CTV’s decision desk announced an early verdict that would stick. McIver is the interim leader for what remains of Alberta’s provincial Tories. It was a scene he and many right-leaning Albertans could easily recognize from May’s provincial election—a dread that loss was coming, the other guy’s colour spreading onto parts of the map they would have never expected a few weeks or even days before opponents began their stampede in one dominant direction. Fatally for the Harper Conservatives, national voters stormed away from orange and into the deep red.

There were many questionable choices in the Conservative campaign’s endgame, from the game-show cash register stunts to letting Rob and Doug Ford within 500 feet of a politician hoping to position himself as a credible choice. The final one had to be the first song played over the hall’s loudspeaker: Enter Sandman by Metallica. “Exit light, enter night. Take my hand, off to never-neverland.”

But aside from that apparent backhand at the return of Trudeau rule, the departing Prime Minister struck proud notes in his own political eulogy. A voiceover announcer introduced him. Harper walked into the hall with his wife, but stood at the lectern on a long, narrow stage on his own.

“We put it all on the line, we gave everything we have to give,” Harper said. “And we have no regrets, whatsoever. Friends, how could we? We remain citizens of the best country.”

He lauded his tax measures, his late-term budget balance, his trade agreements, his bid to give a nation that had fancied itself as peacekeepers some military gruffness.

“Know also this: The disappointment you also feel is my responsibility, and mine alone,” he told the crowd. Whether or not speechwriters gave him subsequent lines in his speech about his resignation as Conservative leader, he did not deliver any. In a nod to the tradition he has built, Harper did not speak to reporters. Aides suggested he might not. He left it to a surrogate, the party president, to issue a statement announcing his news, and another surrogate to explain Harper’s own likely enduring silence on this matter. He chose to say something else, came a spokesman’s explanation to perplexed reporters. Conservatives quickly headed for the exits, some likely unaware their party was now headless. As one Twitter user noted, Harper and fellow Calgarians will wake up Tuesday morning with Naheed Nenshi as their mayor, Rachel Notley as their premier and Justin Trudeau as their prime minister-designate.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at Rideau Hall to ask Governor General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament, beginning the longest federal election campaign in recent history, in Ottawa August 2, 2015.  (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrives at Rideau Hall to ask Governor General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament, beginning the longest federal election campaign in recent history, in Ottawa August 2, 2015. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The signs were there throughout the day that it would be bad, though perhaps not this bad. The party never notified journalists of where Harper would be voting, so only the Canadian Press pool crew could get the perennial photo op. Conservatives wouldn’t give the reporter the voting location’s address, and drove him to the polling station, at a Royal Canadian Legion branch.

Results rolled in at the same venue where Harper celebrated his three consecutive victories. But the space was much smaller than it was in 2011. The hall was cut in half by black curtains, TV screens, and Canadian flags that—for Stephen Harper—seemed relatively modest, a mere six arm spans wide. Instead of inflatable blue thundersticks, small flags sat on each chair, the patriotic red-and-white numbers they hand out by the sackful on Canada Day. The signs came out after the results rolled in, when there was a now-former leader to cheer for.

Conservatives will now get an interim party leader, a possibly fractious party race between Jason Kenney and eventually perhaps an Anyone But Jason Kenney, and a long four years to make a comeback.

Some party activists and organizers remained proud of their campaign, crediting the majority defeat to the NDP’s tremendous collapse. But some felt less need to follow the former leader’s no-regrets line, and second-guessed the Conservative strategy. “What was there to vote for?” asked one former cabinet aide. “ ‘We’re going to keep things going, the way they are?’ That’s not going to get people excited in a change election.”

In 2004, Harper had to accept a Liberal win in his first election as Conservative leader, in a race his backers thought was theirs. As he congratulated the Liberals, the thunderstick-wagging crowd began booing. Harper tried to redirect the crowd by clapping off-mic, and the crowd followed suit.

Eleven years later, as Harper welcomed another Liberal’s victory—“Canadians have elected a Liberal government, a result we accept without hesitation”—there were no boos. Instead, the crowd politely applauded, an acknowledgement an era has passed.


How it all ended for Stephen Harper

  1. Harper seemed almost relieved in defeat, like a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Perhaps the man he saw in the mirror no longer resembled the young man with ideals and principles – and it began to dig at him. The cash register game show….. the appearance with the Fords (all the Etobicoke ridings voted Liberal, by the way)… it was all very demeaning and beneath a 10 year PM.
    The CPC is at a crossroads and it will be interesting to see what they do. Myself, I was never going to consider voting Conservative again until Harper was gone, gone, gone. I hope their next leader changes style and presents a reasoned alternative to the other parties; Canada needs that for a healthy democracy. I am once again open to hearing what they have to say
    I hope the Liberals keep their promise and get rid of FPTP. My feeling is that in the long run, strategic voting is as corrosive as antagonistic, wedge politics.
    The style of politics in the USA is becoming a horror show that is just plain ugly. We seemed to be heading down that road ourselves, but last night that “Canadian-ness” I hold so dear reared it’s head and roared.
    A new road lies before us and with a majority government. I guess we shall see what Mr Trudeau can do.

    • Yeah, strategic voting is a curse and it’s surprising how many Canadians are willing to beg folks to vote against what they really want and believe in. I’m excited to see Trudeau’s decisive win and I wish him — and all of us — great times ahead. He ran one hell of a campaign!

    • I am really hoping that the preferential ballot replaces FPTP. No more strategic voting, plus a need for parties to appeal to voters outside of their base.

  2. Canada wanted a change. But after Harper
    started to talk like Trump regarding the niqab
    issue, that turned me against him even more.
    So it was either the Liberals or NDP. Tom
    Mulcair was against TPP, and he looked like
    another old white guy lacking personality,
    so I went with the Liberals.

  3. Listening to CBC radio today where several CPC members made a guest appearance, I was totally struck by how obtuse and tone deaf they were. Several of them resorted to election campaign scripts by way of answering questions; two suggested that the majority of Canadians supported their views; two reiterated the ‘just not ready’ mantra; all of the cabinet ministers claimed to have done a bang-up job … while seemingly barely aware that they actually lost: a common theme was that they didn’t need to change anything other than better educating the media about their policies. The most confusing part was attempting to determine which cohort of economies the Canadian economy did better than though there must be one as they repeatedly made that point (the phrase technical recession didn’t come up).
    Lisa Raitt made a big point about how the other parties went negative while the Conservatives stuck to policy – really!? One can only marvel that Justin was featured so prominently in Conservative policy advertisements.

    • The denial runs deep in the Conservative Party of Canada, they don’t seem to understand what happened and are continuing to tow their failed party line even after it cost them the election. Harprtd conceddion speech sounded like he was at a campaign rally. And I love the general consensus of Conservative voters who think, like Harper, that he owned the office of Prime Minister and that it was just a bunch of haters that voted him out.

  4. Sadly, I guess we’ll never know what ‘balanced budget economics’ is. I studied some econ in university so I cracked the books to find out: Harper’s an economist, right? Nada. Scanned publications and learned papers in case this was some modern theory – zip. So I looked at the record assuming there might be a clue in reduction to practice: with 6 declared deficits in a row followed by a 7th that was bailed out through 11th hour sales of government assets, there was still not much to go on; perhaps the idea is that ongoing liquidation of public assets will plump the economy. Harpernomics must be ever so complex; in any case, the election campaign did little to elucidate. There was that confusing bit where individual citizens dished out cash to the PM … possibly related to GDP in some way? When the whole explanation devolved into an ersatz version of ‘Let’s Make a Deal’, the message was hopelessly lost.

  5. I hope that I don’t have to deal with another anti-Harper comment for a very long time. That is the only relief I feel after this election. Whether anti-Harper people want to hear it or not, I remember his 2006 campaign when he was elected. I remember the promises he made. He delivered on everything he said he would deliver on. While people who never voted for him to begin with, or people who did vote for him, may not have liked what he accomplished, that doesn’t change the fact that he delivered. He’s the same guy he has always been. He has been largely upfront about his policies and beliefs. Not like the Liberals who campaign like NDP during elections and govern more like Conservatives when they get in. For a Conservative to be so successful for so long in a country that is largely socialist left, it is a real accomplishment. Love him or hate him, Harper is very intelligent, incredibly successful and worked diligently to change our government and he succeeded. People will again tire of the Liberals false promises and they will eventually wear out their welcome again. I am disappointed to see Stephen Harper step down and I just hope that the Conservatives are able to elect another strong leader. I don’t know that any Conservative leader will be liked by Liberals or NDPs, but that person will be good enough once the Liberals are back to their old tricks. I remember Chretien’s rule when I was young, I remember Paul Martin in my late teens / early 20’s and I have been fortunate enough that once I was ready to head out into the workforce, it was under a Conservative government. Thank you for your reform, thank you for helping me to keep more of what I earn and thank you for your consistency. While I may not have agreed with all Conservative ideas, I have been most well-represented by Harper. I’m looking forward to The Liberal government delivering on their promise to reform the voting system after 18 months. Of all the promises they made, that is the one I will actually watch. Proportional representation is what people seem to want the most and I think that has been made very clear to our new government.

    • Right. And thanks for being the only P.M. guilty of contempt of parliament, for introducing attack ads into election campaigns, for using omnibus bills to sneak through contemptible changes to legislation, for attacking the chief justice of the Supreme Court and parliamentary officers and for passing retroactive laws to ensure his buddies illegal acts could not be prosecuted. A real believer in democratic process…NOT. The man was a disgrace to the office of P.M.

    • Stephen Harper promised that when he got finished with Canada you wouldn’t be able to rcognize it. He certainly kept that promise, Canada used to be recognized for progressive thinking, now we’re known for racism, intolerance, xenophobia, anti-science policy making, mandatory minimums and a corrupt government that went down while mired in scandal. Yes, Harper kept his promises, I don’t recognize the Canada that Harper left behind. PM elect Trudeau has a lot of cleaning up to do.

  6. Thank you Canadians for NOT falling into the trap of DIVISION and FEAR.

    Canadians were really awesome in this election for showing that they would rather work and live in HARMONY.

    Canadians voted for NOT finding little differences between us and blowing it out of proportion so as to divide us into many little groups.

    Canadians voted for NOT hating each other and NOT to let bigotry be an election platform.

    VIVA CANADA. You have shown the small people that you are BIGGER than divisive politics.

    May GOD Bless all Canadians and guide the wayward ones to become true to the REAL Canadian values of Tolerance and Togetherness

    We are a BIG country and we are a BIG people with BIG hearts.

    Do NOT let anyone bluff you into thinking otherwise.

    Yacoob Bayat

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