In scrums and interviews, Harper hotly claimed he’d never called for real live Canadian soldiers to be sent, in any quantity, to fight in Iraq. All he’d ever asked for was “moral support” — and besides, the Liberals had left Canada’s army in no shape to fight a shooting war in Iraq.
So on May 13,  when Tonda MacCharles showed up to compare Harper’s claims with the record, he took it badly.
Harper was doing a series of pre-election interviews. MacCharles, the Toronto Star reporter whose beat assignment was to cover the Conservatives, showed him a press release from January 28, 2003, on the letterhead of the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. The release was from Stock Day, the party’s foreign-affairs critic. Its title read, “Canadian Troops Must Join Allies in the Gulf.” The text made no reference to moral support. “More Canadian troops should now head to region to help enforce U.N. resolution, disarm Saddam.”
When faced with the evidence, MacCharles wrote, “Harper became visibly angry, and insisted he did not have to ‘revisit’ these questions. ‘If it was so important, you should have asked me about it at the time,’ Harper said, refusing to look at the release.”
At the time? Nobody would have thought to ask Harper “at the time” whether he really wanted Canadian troops sent to Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein because “at the time,” Harper was leaving no room for doubt on the matter. As his biographer William Johnson has pointed out, Harper spoke in the Commons on Iraq thirty-seven times between October 1, 2002 and May 5, 2003. He maintained that his Canadian Alliance would “urge the necessary military preparations that make the avoidance of war possible” — a line of argument that was being pursued, at the time, by George W. Bush and Tony Blair. He predicted that the Liberals under Jean Chrétien would “eventually join with the allied coalition if war on Iraq comes to pass” — but that Chrétien’s government would be ill-prepared for war, whereas an Alliance government would be well prepared.
When Chrétien finally did decide not to send Canadian troops in any significant number to Iraq, Harper openly mourned what he saw as Chrétien’s failure. “Reading only the polls and indulging in juvenile and insecure anti-Americanism, the government has, for the first time in our history, left us outside our British and American allies in their time of need,” Harper said.
Harper would argue, ex post facto and with an admirably straight face, that he had mourned only a lack of “moral support,” that in his mind — “at the time” — Canada could have lived up to its historic obligations to its British and American allies by offering them a hearty clap on the back as they filed on to the troop ships. Coul, in fact, have offeredno more because the Grits had let our armies rot. But there was the small matter of the press release from Stockwell Day. And thirty-seven interventions in the House during which Harper failed to make the distinction he would claim, in 2004, to have made so clearly. And the small matter of a vote in the Commons on March 20, 2003, on a supply-day motion from Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe:
“That this House call upon the government not to participate in the military intervention initiated by the United States in Iraq.”
The fifty MPs who voted Nay included every Alliance MP who voted that day, except Keith Martin. Stephen Harper was one of the fifty. If Tonda MacCharles had asked him on that day whether he really meant what he was saying, it is reasonable to suspect he would have become even more “visibly angry” than he did, thirteen months later, when she asked why the story had changed.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.