Thanks for the memories, Stephen Harper
As former PM Stephen Harper quits parliament, his legacy is more of a gift to Conservatives than to Canadians.
There’s no question that Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, will be leaving a legacy when he quits parliament this summer.
A political mastermind, he united the country’s fractious right in 2003 when his Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) was born. In 2006, he led it to the first of its three successive electoral victories. Canada was his for nine years – at least until Justin Trudeau’s Liberals trounced his government last October.
The party is still holding together seven months after he stepped down from the party leadership. Canadians are united as well – in celebrating his departure.
So Harper’s legacy is more of a gift to Conservatives than to Canadians.
Memories of Harper years
Which is probably why, last Thursday, as Harper exited stage right at the Conservative convention in Vancouver, delegates were galvanised by the “look forward” theme that night.
But then, looking back would only dredge up memories of the Harper years: promoting pipelines for his beloved tarsands (but failing to get them built), attacking constitutional rights, running roughshod over parliament…
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These are years best left buried.
Harper's legacy is more of a gift to Conservatives than to Canadians.
All the same, the 3,000 convention-goers cheered Harper’s brief and remarkably empty farewell speech extolling “the future of this party”. They watched the obligatory tribute video.
And because it’s the social media age, many took to their smartphones to broadcast the party-generated hashtag: #ThankYouStephenHarper.
But, as one prescient pundit immediately tweeted, “An official #ThankYouStephenHarper hashtag? This won’t end well… #cpc16 #cdnpoli”
Within minutes, the hashtag was trending, continuing for days. But not how party strategists had hoped. Conservatives hoping to erase the Harper record instead had it flashing on the nation’s screens.
The jokes kept coming.
Tweeters thanked Harper for inspiring Muslims, First Nations peoples and youth to vote in unexpected numbers – just to cast him out.
Canadians expressed gratitude for the reminder that, well after high school, science matters. That’s because Harper had muzzled government scientists so they couldn’t bog down his environmental devastation.
He also abolished the data-rich longform census that allowed policymakers to make decisions based on evidence, not ideology. What’s more, he shut down Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries, resulting in the trashing of priceless environmental data.
Freedom of dissent
Tweeters thanked the Harper government for renewing their appreciation for freedom of dissent.
During the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, for example, about 1,000 citizens – mostly innocent bystanders – were locked into makeshift cages. It was the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history.
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Hardly surprising, then, that Harper also passed unconstitutional laws that would later be overturned by the Supreme Court.
He even tried to pervert elections with his Orwellian-named Fair Elections Act.
Internationally, Harper’s legacy to Canada was to change it from peacemaker to bit player in Ukraine, Libya and against ISIL (also known as ISIS).
In 2010, for the first time in six decades, Canada lost its bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.
Then there was Israel. Canada went from “honest broker” between Israelis and Palestinians to, in Benjamin Netanyahu’s words, “a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people”.
reputation as a brilliant financial steward was not deserved.”]
To show what a great friend Canada was, Ottawa cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). It killed Rights and Democracy, a Canadian NGO that it deemed to be anti-Israel. It defunded the social justice organisation KAIROS, denouncing it as anti-Semitic.
As for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), it was repurposed. Instead of providing foreign aid to developing countries, it became a marketing arm of Canada’s notorious mining companies which are often charged with trampling on human rights in the Global South.
Even Harper’s pet project, his “Saving Every Woman, Every Child” international maternal health programme, pandered to his social conservative and evangelical Christian base.
None of the billions of dollars he pledged to “reduce the preventable deaths of women and children in developing countries” would go to family planning.
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That despite the fact that countless women all over the world can’t care for a fifth, sixth or seventh child, or are brutally raped in conflicts or are too young or too frail to survive pregnancy.
Under constant attack
But women’s rights were under constant attack. The long-gun registry, which helped prevent women being shot by their partners, was gleefully killed. As for the hundreds of murdered and missing aboriginal women, Harper said an inquiry was “not really high on our radar“.
His reputation as a brilliant financial steward was not deserved. He bumped up the national debt by $150bn, bequeathed a deficit to the Liberals, and hitched the Canadian dollar to the price of oil. Now the still-raging fires around Fort McMurray, Alberta’s tarsands central, are expected to lower the GDP.
To the very end, and throughout the bitter election campaign, the Harper Conservatives sowed ethnic division and Islamaphobia. Harper distinguished between ethnic citizens and “old-stock Canadians“.
Harper distinguished between ethnic citizens and 'old stock Canadians'.
His ministers promised a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline so that “Canadian values” could be preserved.
And when a woman from Pakistan fought to be naturalised as a Canadian citizen while in niqab, Harper took her to court again and again – only to lose. She swore her citizenship oath in niqab, just in time to vote Harper out.
So now he’s reportedly off to form his own foreign policy think-tank with former political aides, and to disappear into the corporate boardroom woodwork.
As retired Conservative senator Marjory LeBreton told a Canadian news magazine, “You’ll never see him hanging around Ottawa worrying about his legacy.”
Oh, but he sure did leave one.
Just not the kind that most Canadians accept with real #thanks.
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star and the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.