William Johnson was the first to write a book about Stephen Harper, and he has become the authority on Harper.
Who is this man? Everyone knows that he became leader of the Alliance Party and, against all odds, gathered in the old Conservative Party to create a force designed to win power. Yet what are his core beliefs? Where will he takes us now tha …
CROSSING THE DESERT
POLITICS WAS NOT FOR him. He did not want to be part of the politics he’d seen practised in Ottawa. But was there any other kind? He would find out.
Stephen Harper’s year in Ottawa had not been wasted. Before his involvement in the 1984 elections, he had no interest in a career centred on Canada and Canadian issues. He was attracted to the world. He’d wanted to be a diplomat, representing Canada abroad. But now that he had seen Parliament in action, he had observed how the politicians failed to deal with the country’s most pressing problems. He wanted to understand those problems and find their solution. The career path to fit his obsessions was the academic life. So, in June 1986, he was back in Calgary to work on a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in economics. Eventually, from a position in a university, he would develop and disseminate his own proposals on public policy.
The last thing on his mind was to become a member of Parliament. So says Jim Hawkes: “At that age I think he would have said very clearly he wouldn’t ever want to be an elected member. I think he saw up close the kind of lifestyle that it was, the kinds of things that you had to do — sit for hours, sometimes months at a time, for people to reach consensus. It was a much clearer path, something he knew more about, being a university academic. It was something that he could do and do well, and you could still have influence from that kind of a platform. That’s really what he came back to Calgary to do.”
Cynthia Williams is equally certain. “I don’t think he ever wanted to be on camera. I’m sure of it. He liked being behind the scenes. I think he always believed that he could find the candidate that he could get behind, and work for that person. I think he saw himself as an economist. There’s a problem, now here’s an answer, nothing to whine about, and let’s just get it done. And you can’t do that in Ottawa. All kinds of people have to be talked to, and feelings worked out — he would have just wanted to get it done.”
Harper was at heart a political economist, as Cynthia Williams confirms. “His interests were economics. He’s always believed that if you have strong financial management, then you can do all those other things that you want to do. With a good economy, you have more money for the arts, more money for social programs. I think he has always believed in the individual, too. He’s always believed, get out of the way of the individual, don’t take so much off their cheques with taxes, and let society make the right choices.”
So, at the age of twenty-seven, Stephen began the life of a graduate student. But he would not wait until the end of his studies to develop his own views. He’d worked in the real world for three years after high school before returning to university for his first degree. He had then seen real politics from the inside. He was a mature student in every sense, and a quick study. He could not be content to absorb what his professors told him, read what they recommended, write papers, and get good marks, then get a good job in a good university. He was beyond that. Compulsively analytical, his character made him unable simply to play the game by the rules set by others. He had to know why and why not.
And so he now set off on a personal pursuit that was parallel to his studies. He began a vision quest that would soon lead him far from where he began. He deliberately entered into the labyrinth of human thought, down through the ages, on the human and political condition. He enrolled in a course on the history of philosophy and began systematically reading his way through the works of the great philosophers. Then, in one economics course, he asked his professor to recommend the great classical works in the field, the ones he should read to form a solid foundation. He was shocked when he was told, with a wink: “Steve, no one really reads the classic texts any more. We may talk about them, but we don’t actually read them.” In fact, Stephen set about reading Adam Smith, the exponent of the “invisible hand” that guides the marketplace. He read David Ricardo’s Principles of Economics and Taxation, in which the economist argued that international free trade was the best policy because all would be best served when each specialized in the products where each enjoyed a comparative advantage. He read the classical economists, but also the social and political philosophers David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham.
He was on his own journey.
From the Hardcover edition.
This book shines a light of devastating clarity on French-Canadian society in the 1930s and 1940s, when young elites were raised to be pro-fascist, and democratic and liberal were terms of criticism. The model leaders to be admired were good Catholic dictators like Mussolini, Salazar in Portugal, Franco in Spain, and especially Pétain, collaborato …
A February afternoon in 1995, we were driving along Highway 20 on our way to Montreal. We had left Quebec City planning to arrive at our destination an hour early. We did not want to take a chance on being late for our meeting with Pierre Trudeau. But, what with the snow-clogged roads, we arrived at the Indian restaurant on Crescent Street barely a few minutes before the appointed time. He, as usual, was punctual. We were quite nervous, and for good reason. We had come to talk about our plan to write his intellectual biography. We had known him, now, for five years. We had told him of our intention, and he had expressed an interest. He wanted to discuss it with us, and that was the reason for our encounter.
As we shared a convivial meal, we explained as best we could what we had in mind. Trudeau listened carefully and asked a few questions. It was not his private life that interested us particularly, we told him, but we wanted to focus on his ideas, his political vision, and on how they evolved from his earliest years. To what extent, when he was actually in power, was he able to apply his ideals? He listened with interest. Finally, with some concern in his voice, he asked: “And what do you expect of me?” “Not much, really,” we replied. “We might, as the occasion arises, want to ask you a few questions, have access to unpublished documents that you still keep at home, ask you to help us contact some of the people who were close to you . . .”
He kept nodding in agreement. “No problem,” he said. Then, after a silence, he added: “I presume that you will want to maintain your intellectual autonomy. I understand, and I approve. So here is what I suggest: you will show me each chapter as you go along, I will make my comments, and you do with them whatever you choose.”
We were stunned. It was all we could do not to jump up for joy. “That suits us perfectly,” we said, as calmly as possible.
The bill arrived. He wanted us to be his guests. We refused and insisted that we should be paying. “Well, then,” Trudeau said, “let’s do what I do with my pals. We will share the bill.” “That’s fine,” we said. “But that means that we pay two-thirds.” “No,” Trudeau said, speaking to Max. “We share fifty-fifty. I take half of Monique.” And so it happened. Until his death, he took half of Monique.
When we got back home, we were jubilant. We began working out our program and our timetable for the research that we were undertaking — until April.
Anne-Marie Bourdouxhe, the daughter of Trudeau’s long-time associate Gérard Pelletier, resigned as the publisher of the periodical Cité libre. Though we sat on the editorial board, we expressed not the slightest interest in replacing her, and for a simple reason. We had absolutely no experience in actually publishing a magazine. And besides, we had set out on a project that was much closer to our hearts. Weeks went by. For a variety of reasons, the board of directors was unable to agree on any of the available candidates. Beginning in March, the directors began courting us. They increased the pressure. With a referendum on the secession of Quebec just months away, they asked us how we could live with ourselves if we allowed the only French-language magazine that stood strongly against secession to die. We were unsettled. We did not know which way to turn.
After many sleepless nights, we met Trudeau in a Chinese restaurant one April evening to lay before him our dilemma: if we agreed to take on Cité libre, we must drop our projected biography. He was understanding, he shared our anxiety about the political situation in Quebec, and he came up with the suggestion that we agree to publish the magazine for a year, until the referendum was well behind us. And that was the decision that we conveyed, clearly spelled out, to the board of directors of Cité libre.
It happened, though, that no one had anticipated the extent of the trauma that the 1995 referendum would trigger, before as well as after the event, among those who voted Yes as well as among those who voted No. With no one in line to take over, we could not bring ourselves to abandon Cité libre. On the contrary, we became convinced that it must expand and be read from coast to coast, and in both official languages. That is what we carried out in 1998.
Meanwhile, our relationship with Trudeau had settled into a friendship. We spoke often on the phone, we used the familiar “tu” with each other, we met regularly until his death in 2000. During the five years that we published the review that he and Pelletier had founded, he gave us his unfailing moral support amid all the inevitable controversies. He listened sympathetically when, now and then, we expressed our dismay at being unable to work on his intellectual biography. And he would come back with the same answer: “What you are doing at Cité libre is very important. No one else can do it. As for the other project, there is no rush.” But there is a rush, we would counter. He would only laugh.
Time would tell that there was in fact a rush. Still, we do not regret our decision. But, since he left us, we have often wondered what this book would have been like if we had written it while he was alive. Would we have had access to the wealth of documents that have now been made available to us? And, if so, how would we have reacted to the discoveries that we have now come upon? Would we have had the courage to discuss them with him? And how would he have reacted? We cannot know for sure.