Reinventing Canada: Stephen Harper's Conservative Revolution

By Smith, Jordan Michael | World Affairs, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Canada: Stephen Harper's Conservative Revolution


Smith, Jordan Michael, World Affairs


The thin-haired, middle-aged man delivered a speech to the United Nations that undoubtedly left many in the international body fuming. He criticized Libya, Iran, and North Korea by name: "Just as fascism and communism were the great struggles of previous generations," he said, "terrorism is the great struggle of ours." He cited Winston Churchill and defended Israel. And he criticized the UN on its own turf. "The greatest enemies of the United Nations are those who quietly undermine its principles and, even worse, by those who sit idly, watching its slow decline."

George W. Bush in 2002? Nope. John Bolton in 2006? Wrong. This anti-UN lecture was delivered in September 2011 by the foreign minister of Canada. Yes, Canada.

Since 2006, when Conservative Stephen Harper became Canada's prime minister, America's typically quiet and modest neighbor to the north has been much more assertive in pursuing its foreign policy. It has been forceful in advocating what it sees as both its interests and its values. And it has done so in language unlike that of any other Canadian government that has preceded it. It seems that Canada has become, well, un-Canadian.

Consider for a moment some context. In Canada's parliamentary system, the PM wields enormous power. He can often coerce legislators into supporting his proposals. Unlike the American system, with its separation of powers, the Canadian government almost always allows its leader to ratify his chosen policies. As a result, the PM's words carry especially great weight--they signify the legislative direction the country is likely to take.

Canada's new foreign policy can therefore be said to have begun with Harper's very first address to Parliament as head of government, in April 2006. In that speech, Harper chose to acknowledge first "our head of state, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, whose lifelong dedication to duty and self-sacrifice have been a source of inspiration and encouragement to the many countries that make up the commonwealth and to the people of Canada."

Though Canada is indeed a member of the British Commonwealth, those ties are rarely celebrated as forthrightly as in this statement. Harper has rehung a portrait of the queen on a wall of the prime minister's office, linked the monarchist rhetoric to an appeal to traditional conservatism, and even publicly scolded the governor general for referring to herself, not the queen, as the Canadian head of state. A journalist called Harper "one of the most monarchist" prime ministers since John Diefenbaker, who was in power when General Eisenhower was the US president.

Harper's pro-monarchy stance is only one of his many endeavors to define Canada as part of the Anglosphere. The effort is strikingly in contrast to other recent approaches that situate Canada more "progressively," as part of an amorphous, UN-led "international community."

Harper also consistently stakes out hawkish ground on international matters. In that same first speech, he said: "This was the hard lesson that this country learned in two world wars--we learned it before the United States--and it was driven home to us again with great force on 9/11." He followed with praise for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, who were "standing up for Canadian values abroad." This, too, has been a theme Harper has continually stressed in his time in office--that Canada has a strong role to play in the world, a role primarily defined by building a powerful military and supporting fellow democracies.

Perhaps even more surprising than the rhetorical gestures, Harper has supported his words with deeds. Under his reign, Canada's military spending has reached its highest levels since World War II. The country spent $14.8 billion (Canadian) per year on its military when Harper first took office; that figure now stands at $21.8 billion, sixth highest in NATO. Budget deficits for this fiscal year stand at $37.3 billion, showing that Harper's commitment to beefing up the military has pride of place in a realm of hard choices. …

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