PM Stephen Harper — a.k.a. Mr. Canada — and the power of symbols

Behind the PM’s new focus on history and heritage
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) inspects an honour guard during a ceremony to honour regiments who participated in the War of 1812, at the Fort Lennox National Historic Site in Saint-Paul-de-l’Ile-Aux-Noix, Quebec, September 14, 2012. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ANNIVERSARY) - RTR37Z9I
Christinne Muschi/Reuters

A year ago, Stephen Harper flew to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum to proclaim an agenda of “major transformations” for the “next generation.” This year Harper skipped the summit in Switzerland and chose to outline his priorities to the first weekly Conservative caucus meeting of the new session with a far more modest message. He listed four priorities, the first three of which—creating jobs, keeping streets safe and supporting healthy families—were unsurprising. But it was Harper’s fourth pillar, an appeal to the Canadian identity, that was something else altogether.

In his speech, Harper foreshadowed the next wave of national commemorations, including the centennial of the First World War in 2014, the bicentennial of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth the year after that, and planning for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017. He also waxed eloquent about the importance of remembrance. “We can look back with pride and forward with confidence as part of a Canada standing tall, the best country in the world.”

Harper wasn’t always known for proclaiming his love of country. On day one of the election campaign that would eventually send him to 24 Sussex Drive in 2006, the first question put to the soon-to-be PM was whether or not he loved his country. Harper said a lot of nice things about Canada, but he did not answer directly in the affirmative. The perceived flub didn’t cost him the election, but it didn’t do him any favours, either.

That was then. In the years since, Conservatives have been accused of appropriating the military, the RCMP and the monarchy, among other national symbols, as they’ve built a formidable national vision. Harnessing Canadian pride worked wonders against Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal leader who Harper trounced in the 2011 campaign. The image of Ignatieff  “just visiting” Canada—repeated ad nauseam in attack ads—juxtaposed with a flag-draped Harper helped propel the Conservatives to a majority win.

Expect the Prime Minister to use the same tactic against NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. As the NDP works to change the rules surrounding future sovereignty referendums in Quebec by introducing a bill to repeal the Clarity Act—a reform that panders to the province’s soft separatists, if you believe the plan’s critics—it creates an opening for Harper, says Frank Graves, president of polling firm Ekos. “Mr. Mulcair is going to have difficulties constructing his national identity,” says Graves. “He can’t really come out with his flag on his sleeve to the same extent as Mr. Harper or Mr. Trudeau, because he’s limited to some extent by the fact his success is very much built in Quebec. Frankly, about half the constituency that supported him would be pretty favourably disposed to Quebec as not only a distinct society, but a separate country.”

While many have observed that the Tories haven’t been hard at work defining the new leader of the Opposition like they did with Stéphane Dion and Ignatieff, Harper’s renewed focus on history and heritage could be the beginning of such a campaign. To date, Mulcair is known mostly to Canadians for two things—his comments about Dutch disease, in which he claimed oil exports have led to an artificially high loonie that’s punished manufacturers, and repealing the Clarity Act. Neither plays well in the West, and the Tories may subtly try to define the NDP leader as another 1970s-style Quebec intellectual who doesn’t love Canada in his bones.

Casting a light on Canadian history certainly finds fans in predictable conservative corners. Bob Plamondon, a consultant and former Conservative insider, says reflecting on the country’s past pays dividends. “I have long taken the view that we are stronger as a nation when we understand and embrace our history. This is particularly important in a bilingual, multicultural and geographically disperse country like Canada,” he says. “There is an element of nation-building in what Harper is trying to accomplish.”

Not everyone agrees with that interpretation. Mulcair has dismissed Harper’s focus on anniversaries as an exercise in “political branding and jingoism” and said the government would be “better off focusing on our obligations for the future.”

The government’s critics have often lamented its appeal to only certain parts of Canada’s history. When Heritage Minister James Moore announced the Canadian Museum of Civilization would be rebranded as a history museum and given a refurbished mandate, the opposition cried foul. Liberals predicted the museum across the river from Parliament Hill would become just another arm of the “Conservative spin machine.” There have been complaints about the scant attention paid to the 250th anniversary this year of the Royal Proclamation, which fundamentally altered the relationship between European settlers and Aboriginal people in Canada. And when the government started naming public buildings in Ottawa after Conservative heroes like Macdonald and John Diefenbaker, a Liberal adviser saw a “strong political impulse at play.”

Likewise, as the government ramps up its preparation for Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations, opposition MPs on the House heritage committee hoped the feds would set up an independent agency to oversee the celebrations—a body similar to that which administered the country’s centennial. But in December the government rejected that option, a move NDP MP Andrew Cash warns could lead to “political interference” in the planning process. Cash also points out that Harper’s government made no mention of the 50th anniversary of public medicare in Canada. In short, opposition parties are accusing the government of trying to lock in a conservative-minded version of Canadian history to entrench the party’s support.

Still, Harper is only the most recent leader to cherry-pick from history to bolster his party’s image, says Tom Flanagan, Harper’s former chief of staff. “The Liberals had a long run at redefining Canadian identity in terms of bilingualism, multiculturalism, socialized medicine and peacekeeping,” he says. “Now it’s time to undo the damage.”

As Harper continues to wrap himself in the flag as Mr. Canada, it will only make life more difficult for Mulcair. But Graves says the two men’s competing appeals to nationalist pride—with Harper, Canada; with Mulcair, Quebec—leave a glaring gap in the middle for a man like Justin Trudeau, who’s hoping to be crowned Liberal leader in the spring. “It opens an opportunity for Mr. Trudeau, who will be able to speak to at least some of the connecting values that transcend the cross-cutting loyalties in English Canada and French Canada,” he says. Outflanking Harper on patriotism would be no easy task. The PM has spent eight years taking an axe to much of the older Trudeau’s legacy. The fireworks in the House might give the Canada Day light show a run for its money.