Reading and listening to the Canadian news media
during those family trips could be a tad boring, but it also was
touching, like remembering your earnest grade-school civics teacher
lecturing about the wonders of the American democratic process.
But in my visit this past summer, I noticed that
the tone of Canada suddenly had changed. There was a nastier edge to the
commentary. There were not so subtle appeals to racism and xenophobia,
references to Muslim neighborhoods in Quebec as “Quebecistan” and to
Lebanese-Canadians as “Hezbocrats,” a play on the Muslim group
To someone who has covered U.S. politics for three
decades, there was a shock of recognition. Standing out starkly against
the bland traditions of Canadian governance was the pugnacious ‘tude of
American political combat, wedge issues pounded in with a zeal that put
the goal of winning and holding power over everything else.
It was as if a virus that had long infected the
people south of the border had overnight jumped containment and spread
northward establishing itself in a new host population. But – as I began
to study this new phenomenon – it became clear that this infection did
not just accidentally break quarantine.
Rather, it was willfully injected into the Canadian
body politic by conservative strategists and right-wing media moguls who
had studied the modern American model and were seeking to replicate it.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper even brought
in Republican advisers, such as political consultant Frank Luntz, to
give pointers on how the ruling Conservative Party could become as
dominant in Canada as the GOP is in the United States.
Canada had its version of Rupert Murdoch and Fox
News in the Asper brothers and their CanWest Global Communications
Corp., which owns the National Post, the Montreal Gazette and nine other
Canadian newspapers, 25 television outlets and two radio stations.
It was the Montreal Gazette and the National Post
that trumpeted the phrase “Quebecistan” after demonstrators in Ottawa
and Montreal protested Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in summer 2006.
Columnist Don MacPherson equated those protests,
where some demonstrators waved Hezbollah flags, with pro-terrorism.
“It’s finally becoming respectable again to express support for
terrorists,” MacPherson wrote on Aug. 8, 2006, in the Montreal Gazette.
Meanwhile, CanWest’s National Post offered up a
Canadian version of Ann Coulter in columnist Barbara Kay.
In one of Kay’s columns, she noted that 50,000
Lebanese-Canadians lived in Montreal and added, “We can expect those
numbers to swell as Hezbollah-supporting residents of southern Lebanon
cash in on their Canadian citizenship and flee to safety.”
Kay denounced Quebec as “the most anti-Israel of
the provinces and therefore the most vulnerable to tolerance for
“The word would go out to the Islamophere that
Quebec was the Londonistan,” Kay wrote. “It won’t if our political class
takes its cues from principled Stephen Harper rather than shameless
Quebec politicians who led the pro-terrorist rally.”
‘Clone de Bush’
Harper, Canada’s photogenic 47-year-old prime
minister, has emerged as the face of modern Canadian conservatism much
the way George W. Bush has come to personify right-wing politics in the
Born in Toronto in 1959, Harper moved west to
Alberta in 1978 to work in the petroleum industry. Similarly, Bush cut
his teeth as a Texas oilman, albeit a failed one.
Much as that oilfield experience shaped Bush’s
persona and Texas money fueled the American Right, so too did Alberta
and its oil industry influence the political development of Harper and
the emergence of modern Canadian conservatism.
Harper earned a bachelor’s degree and his masters
in economics from the University of Calgary. By 1985, then in his
mid-20s, he had turned to politics, gaining recognition as a bright
operative and landing a job as chief aide to a Tory member of Parliament
named Jim Hawkes.
But Harper grew disenchanted with the compromising
style of Canada’s Tories who – like Prime Minister Brian Mulroney –
often worked collaboratively with other political parties in Ottawa to
maintain social programs for Canadians. Harper concluded that Mulroney’s
Progressive Conservative Party was too liberal, so he quit it in 1986.
At age 28, Harper was recruited by Preston Manning,
the founder of Canada’s Reform Party, and became the party’s chief
political officer. Harper ran for the House of Commons against his old
mentor, Hawkes, in 1988, losing badly.
But the defeat did not dampen Harper’s political
ambitions. He continued to puzzle over how a revamped conservative
movement might shake up Canadian politics and ultimately gain power.
For inspiration in building this new brand of
Canadian conservatism, Harper looked to Washington, where Rep. Newt
Gingrich, R-Georgia, was promoting a combative style designed to shatter
the longtime Democratic grip on the U.S. House of Representatives. In
Gingrich’s view, Republicans had to replace cooperation with
In 1993, Harper ran for the House of Commons again,
this time aided by a tactic pioneered by U.S. conservatives – having
ostensibly independent organizations tear down one’s opponent with large
sums of money outside the legal limits on campaign spending.
In this case, a group called the National Citizens
Coalition went on the offensive against MP Hawkes, undermining his
political support enough so that Harper was able to win the seat in
Harper was learning, too, from conservative
spinmeister Frank Luntz, who helped Gingrich draft the “Contract With
America,” which became the centerpiece of the Republican victory in the
U.S. Congress in 1994. Luntz was a specialist at the
take-no-prisoners-style of politics that envisioned permanent
conservative control of Washington.
Harper picked up other tips from Bush’s political
adviser Karl Rove, such as the importance of transforming the Christian
evangelical movement into an activist base for conservative politics.
Harper’s brash conservatism grated on the more
populist positions of Manning’s Reform Party, which once rebuked Harper
for not standing with the party’s internal policies. For his part,
Harper considered Manning too inclined to compromise.
In January 1997, Harper resigned his Reform Party
seat in Parliament and went to work as vice president of the National
Citizens Coalition, the outside organization that had helped Harper
defeat Hawkes in 1993.
Harper soon rose to be the coalition’s president
and served notice that the group would become a vehicle for smashing
Canada’s political status quo.
In a speech in the United States to a major
conservative organization, the Council for National Policy, Harper
declared that “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worse
sense of the term, and very proud of it.”
Harper also mocked Canadians as complacent and
ill-informed. “If you’re like most Americans, you know almost nothing
except for your own country,” he told his CNP audience. “Which makes you
probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians.”
Back in Canada, Harper also began ratcheting up the
political rhetoric, co-authoring an article referring to Canada’s
Liberal government as a “benign dictatorship” held together by
incompetence. The article also sought conservative unity and praised the
hard-edged right-wing commentary in media outlets owned by mogul Conrad
Harper cobbled together a platform of issues that
exploited Canada’s latent social, cultural and economic resentments. He
proposed raising the age of sexual consent, permitting more corporal
punishment of children, initiating a program similar to school vouchers,
and resisting issues that favored French-speaking Quebec.
As this Americanized version of Canadian
conservatism took shape, Harper was cribbing, too, from another rising
U.S. politician, George W. Bush. Harper said his goal was to tap into a
political base “similar to what George Bush tapped.”
Amid a surge of anti-minority sentiments, Harper
merged his operations at the Canadian Conservative Alliance with those
of Peter MacKay, the last leader of the Progressive Conservative Party.
In 2003, they officially formed the Conservative Party of Canada.
Their timing was perfect. As with the congressional
Democrats in the United States a decade earlier, the Canadian Liberal
Party found itself beset with corruption allegations and suffering from
growing public resentment about high taxes.
In contrast to these tainted Liberals was the
fresh-faced Harper at the head of a shiny new movement with powerful
backing from right-wing interest groups, neoconservative media outlets
and stirred-up social conservatives.
Though Conrad Black’s media empire had collapsed in
a financial scandal, some of his properties, such as the National Post,
were snapped up by CanWest Global, which shared Black’s staunchly
pro-Israeli stance on Middle East affairs.
Harper also brought into play evangelical
Protestants, through his membership in the Christian and Missionary
Alliance, which opposed gay rights, was staunchly anti-abortion and
targeted North Africa’s Muslims for conversion to Christianity.
In 2004, Harper engineered a political breakthrough
for the Conservatives in Ontario, boosting their standing in the House
of Commons by 25 seats.
This new conservative coalition flexed its muscles
again in January 2006, denying the Liberals control of Parliament by
claiming 124 seats (out of 308) and putting Harper in position to piece
together a coalition government, which he did.
Harper was sworn in as Canada’s new prime minister
on Feb. 6, 2006, consolidating right-wing political power across the
North American continent. President Bush finally had a likeminded
Canadian leader who also shared Washington’s neoconservative doctrine
for confronting the Islamic world.
The tone of Canadian political discourse has
followed this shift in the government, especially with CanWest media
outlets ready to trumpet news that puts the Islamic world in the worst
For instance, on May 19, 2006, the National Post
published a front-page article by expatriate Iranian journalist Amir
Taheri, claiming that Iran was enacting legislation that would require
color-coded “badges” for Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians.
“Jews would be marked out with a yellow strip of
cloth sewn in front of their clothes while Christians will be assigned
the colour red” and Zoroastrians would wear blue, Taheri reported in the
article distributed by Benador Associates, a public relations firm
representing neoconservative writers, such as Michael Ledeen and Richard
With its obvious Holocaust allusion, Taheri’s story
flashed around the world, picked up by the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh
and the powerful U.S.-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public
Harper and Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard,
who was visiting Canada, joined in denouncing Iran for the purported
However, Taheri’s article turned out to be untrue.
The Iranian legislation contained nothing about making religious
minorities wear colored badges. After the facts were
challenged, the National Post retracted the story and later published an
In June 2006, Harper applied
another lesson from the U.S. Republican playbook: Even with a supportive
right-wing news media protecting your flanks, still pick a fight with
the rest of the national news media.
Claiming to be victimized by
hostile questions from Parliament Hill reporters, Harper announced that
he would favor regional news outlets with interviews, while shunning the
national press corps.
trouble believing that a Liberal prime minister would have this problem,
but the press gallery at the leadership level has taken an
Harper said, ignoring the role the same journalists had played in
highlighting Liberal Party corruption which cleared the way for the
Conservative Party victory.
Harper mandated that reporters
sign up in advance to ask questions at news conferences and then weeded
out journalists considered too liberal, according to Yves Malo,
president of the press corps gallery.
staff “made it very
clear they were taking their cue from the White House,”
Malo told me. “They
were always telling us how things were done in Washington. The first
time we resisted we were called
Now, we’re called
Much as Bush speaks almost
exclusively before friendly, well-screened audiences, Harper tends to
grant exclusive interviews to CanWest media outlets, Malo said.
Despite the lingering embarrassment
over the bogus “colored badge” story, CanWest’s neoconservative
attitudes resurfaced in July 2006 when war broke out between Israel and
As Israeli bombers inflicted heavy
civilian casualties in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah’s capture of
two Israeli soldiers, Lebanese-Canadians staged protests demanding that
Israel cease its attacks.
Montreal Gazette columnist
MacPherson chastised Quebec politicians who attended the rally for not
condemning Hezbollah and for not discouraging Hezbollah sympathizers
from participating. National Post writer Kay termed the rally
Launched from CanWest’s newspapers,
the words “Quebecistan” and “Hezbocrats” were suddenly buzzing through
Canada’s public debate.
While this kind of divisive rhetoric is common in
the United States and is even encouraged as a way to energize the
political base, it marked an escalation of political stridency for
Some of that fury seems to have subsided since a
ceasefire took hold between Lebanon and Israel in late summer. But the
larger question remains whether Harper will succeed in transforming
Canada into a more belligerent and bellicose nation, much as Bush has
done in the United States.
For generations, Canada has prided itself on its
well-liked image around the world. It is a nation renowned for sending
peacekeepers abroad not occupying armies. Aside from ice hockey and
occasional over-indulgence in beer drinking, Canadians are known for
their civility, not combativeness.
There is also the possibility that having seen the
consequences of right-wing governance in the United States, Canadians
will recoil at the thought of losing their pleasant country with its
national health insurance and fairly comfortable lifestyle, in favor of
the more cut-throat economic system south of the border.
Some analysts suspect, too, that the Bush
connection could ultimately hurt Harper, who is sometimes referred to as
“un clone de Bush.” With Canadian troops dying in Afghanistan and
violence rising in the Middle East, Harper’s coziness with Bush may
become a liability as it has been for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Over the past several months, Harper has seen his
popularity decline and the backing of his coalition partners erode. It
remains to be seen if Harper’s American-style conservatism can survive –
let alone thrive – in Canada.
The Liberal Party – after selecting new leadership
in December – is expected to force a new round of elections early in
2007. That election may well turn out to be a test of whether the
American brand of conservatism has a future as a political export.