Why is history important to Harper?

Saint-Paul-de-l’Île-aux-Noix, Quebec – In September, 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Fort Lennox, QC to announced that battle honours would be awarded to those regiments that served in the War of 1812. (PMO Handout Photo)

On Tuesday,the Canadian Journal of History published an essay by Yves Frenette, one of Canada’s top historians, which is sharply critical of the way the Harper government has “used” or, so far as the critics go, “abused” Canada’s history. Frenette’s essay is a good summing-up of the kind of critique which has been showing up over the last three or four years whenever academics gather at conferences, at their blogs, and in other fora.

Note to reader: Those links won’t click themselves. I encourage you to check them out.

As a political journalist (and history grad), I’m much more interested in why governments turn to history to help sustain their current political objectives. I wrote about this in a column destined for our papers on Wednesday and I wrote about this last month when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird spoke about the history of Canada’s foreign policy. Mind you, I’m limited to just 625 words for each of these columns so I can’t get into some of the same great detail that Paul Wells touches on his book  The Longer I’m Prime Minister … that helps answer this question about why the Harper gang is interested in Canadian history:

Political parties everywhere wrap themselves in flags. The Liberals, who had built much of the apparatus of a modern Canada, did the same. It helped that they had designed the flag they were wrapping themselves in.
Harper had to take care not to make his contempt for the Liberal legacy read as contempt for Canada. Most opposition parties elsewhere didn’t have to worry about such a thing. “Nobody believes that the Democratic Party in the U.S. is not an American party,” one of his strategists said later. “In Australia, both of the major parties are recognized as legitimate parts of the debate.”
For the longest time, Harper simply had to protest that he did not, in fact, hate his country. Of course it was easy to imagine where somebody might have gotten the idea he did. In what was intended as a lighthearted 1997 Montreal dinner speech to visiting members of a conservative U.S. group, the Council for National Policy, Harper got off this thigh-slapper: “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term.” In a bitter National Post op-ed after the Alliance lost the 2000 election, he wrote: “Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” In 2005, when he began the campaign that would take him to power, the first question he faced from a reporter was whether he hated Canada. “We didn’t have a competing narrative,” the strategist said. “What are the symbols people talk about when they talk about Canada? Health care. The Charter. Peacekeeping. The United Nations. The CBC. Almost every single example was a Liberal achievement or a Liberal policy.
“We had gotten to a point in Canada where the conservative side of politics had been marginalized—where we weren’t even recognized as legitimately Canadian.”
Shortly after he became Canadian Alliance leader, Harper had even briefly considered adopting red and white as the party’s official colours. He finally decided the problem of patriotism wouldn’t lend itself to a quick fix. Building a competitive conservative vocabulary of Canadian pride would take time. “We didn’t have any illusions about displacing the Liberal vision and the Liberal narrative of Canada,” his strategist said. “But we needed to give the conservative side something to rally around.” Over time, Harper began to promote symbols Canadians could love even if they weren’t (yet?) Conservative voters: symbols his opponents had neglected. “It’s the Arctic,” the strategist continued. “It’s the military. It’s the RCMP. It’s the embrace of hockey and lacrosse and curling.” It would become much more than that. Eventually it would include the monarchy, the War of 1812, the rechristening of public buildings with the names of Conservative politicians and, by 2011, a campaign podium for Harper that would feature the word CANADA across the front, as though man and nation were synonymous. Every time critics would say he was going too far, he would tell himself the Liberals went further, for decades, in offering their party as a synonym for Canada. All he was doing, he would tell himself, was righting the balance.”

And, once again, if you love Harper or hate Harper, you’re going to enjoy Wells’ book. Go buy a copy.

2 thoughts on “Why is history important to Harper?”

  1. An additional possible explanation for PM Harper’s emphasis on Canada’s military history: I don’t remember where I read it (William Johnson’s bio Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada?) but apparently the PM’s father was steeped in military history, an interest he shared with his son.

  2. You left out “it’s looking after The Environment”, a Canadian symbol and one that is largely a Liberal legacy; The Environmental Protection Act….that Harper has essentially gutted.

    Now, a Canada, where as a citizen picks up a placard at a peaceful environmental protest, your automatically entered into a government database for ‘Eco-Terrorists’… Plain clothes RCMP Officers appear on your street making ‘inquiries’ about you… WTF ?

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