Stockwell Day, so-con icon, bows out

From the outset, Day’s religious streak bothered other conservatives, including his future boss


News that he isn’t going to run again in the next federal election has me thinking back on my favourite Stockwell Day stories, one of which features a telling one-liner from Gerry Ritz on the sensitive subject of religion in conservative politics.

It was late in the winter of 2002, and Day was running what turned out to be a losing campaign against Stephen Harper for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance.  In a meeting room above a curling rink in suburban Ottawa, Day had just delivered a bravura performance, energizing his supporters by portraying himself as the victim of both the national media elite’s scorn for social conservatives and the machinations of shadowy “backroom” schemers in his own party.

Much of Day’s support was coming from evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, many active in anti-abortion groups. At his own campaign events, I had heard Harper allude darkly to the makeup of his rival’s camp. Harper claimed to have overwhelming backing among mainstream Alliance members, and alleged that Day was “focused entirely on getting the support of outside organizations.”

At the back of the hall at Day’s curling club event, I spotted Ritz, then a reliably quotable backbench Alliance MP from Saskatchewan and a Day enthusiast. I asked him what he thought about Harper’s characterization of his chosen candidate’s supporters. “If Stephen Harper controlled federal infrastructure money,” Ritz said, “he’d be building colosseums and importing lions.”

Of course, Harper soundly defeated Day, went on to merge the Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives, and, in the end, smoothly integrated the so-cons, including Day, now Treasury Board president, and Ritz, now agriculture minister, into his government.  In fact, the Prime Minister’s success in melding faith-based and secular conservatives into a harmonious political force ranks as one of his signal party-building achievements.

Day remains a so-con icon. And his stature in Harper’s cabinet has grown ever more important as the old western Reform stream of the triumphant Conservative party has looked increasingly less potent in government than its Toronto contingent.

With Day’s retirement, any lingering what-might-have-been ruefulness among the faithful about his political trajectory—his rise to the Alliance leadership, his loss in the 2000 election, his ouster as leader, his denouement in cabinet—should be considered with Ritz’s old quip in mind.

As the joke reminds us, other conservatives were unsettled from the outset by the religious streak in Day’s politics. It wasn’t really those scornful media elites who thwarted his ambitions. Back in 2000, when Day was beating Preston Manning in the first Canadian Alliance leadership race, Manning’s operatives, notably his pollster, André Turcotte, warned that Day’s brand social conservatism was too overt to sell in Ontario. In 2002, Harper’s crew, notably Tom Flanagan, then his campaign manager, spoke out sharply against Day’s reliance on “special-interest groups.”

Day was a riveting political figure not so much because his persona exposed rifts in the broader Canadian political world, but because he compelled activists inside the conservative movement to think hard about what face they needed to put forward to succeed in national politics. As it turned out, not his.


Stockwell Day, so-con icon, bows out

  1. This is a pretty stunning development. If you had told me 5 years ago that it would be the old Tory wing of the Conservative Party that would eventually wrest control from the Reformers I would have thought you were crazy. The PCs were irrelevant for so many years, and the Reformers were so dynamic…it's mind-boggling to see how the fortunes have reversed.

    p.s. Geddes, you really should post more.

    • But it's not the old Tory wing. If anything, it's a third breed of promoted Harrisites from Ontario.

      • Yeah, I was just thinking that very same thing as I was pouring myself some coffee. The Harrisites were still PC in name though…so that's gotta count for something, no?

        I suppose that for the most part "Tory" has become synonymous with "Red Tory", and Red Tory these fellas ain't ;)

  2. Well you have to make up your mind whether you're running a political party or a tent revival meeting….you can't mix the two.

    At least not openly.

  3. Stephen Harper, John Baird, Tony Clement, not sure about Jim Flaherty.

    The first three I would consider as professional politicians – have they done anything else? Is it surprising, therefore that there are no ideas coming out of Ottawa, and everything is politics, all the time|?

    • Clement appears to have had a brief stint as a TV plant.

      • now wilted and leafless?

      • Chia pet?

      • Clement appears to have had a brief stint as a TV plant.

        Not to mention his recurring role on The Simpsons.

    • Flaherty does appear to have had a life before politics.

      But this is one of those rare occasions where I agree with Dot.

  4. “If Stephen Harper controlled federal infrastructure money,” Ritz said, “he'd be building colosseums and importing lions.”

    And spending millions of taxpayer $$$$$ telling Canadians why the 'Harper Government' is so great for doing it.

  5. I don't know why Harper had to come to Ontario, sponge up the greasiest slime left over from the Ernie Eves government and squeeze it out into his cabinet …

    So much for Western Canadian influence on the Conservative Party … ho hum … with the Bloc in Quebec, Ontario is all that matters to any Federal party …

    • And they are the lot of bums that were just tossed out of the provincial government in 2003.

  6. I certainly don't agree with Day's politics, but I've met him a couple times and he's an upstanding guy.

  7. Harper's religious views aren't much different from Day's. He is anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, pro-death penalty, pro-punishment and has that judgmental attitude found in those who think they are always right. Harper just doesn't make nutty statements about them the way Day does.

  8. Often usless and pretentious MP Stockwell Day isn't going to run again in the next federal election is good news

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