OTTAWA — Stephen Harper came to office almost a decade ago with the goal of making Canada more conservative and dispelling the notion of the Liberals as the natural governing party.
He steadily began chipping away at socially minded programs and institutions, introduced wave upon wave of hard-nosed criminal justice legislation and touted symbols that evoked a time when government played less of a role in daily life.
Harper has suffered a crushing electoral loss to Justin Trudeau — the son of a Liberal prime minister who fostered and embodied much of what the Conservative leader loathed in Canada’s public life.
Will the conservative footprint Harper leaves be visible many years from now, or will it be washed away by the tide of change the younger Trudeau has promised?
A definitive answer may take years. But there’s an early sense that even a prime minister as strong-willed and disciplined as Harper cannot impose his agenda if most Canadians are unwilling to accept it.
“In my mind, nothing is ever irreversible,” said Melanie Adrian, an assistant professor in the department of law and legal studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. “And I think that’s the joy of living in a strong democracy.”
Harper “mucked around” with institutions but “all of that can be rebuilt,” said Michael Behiels, who teaches history at the University of Ottawa.
Harper’s only enduring legacy will be the successful unification of the political right under the Conservative banner — an effort that has secured a consistent base of about 30-per-cent support, said Behiels.
As for what he did with that power, critics long attacked Harper for deliberately working to undermine, muzzle or outright scrap institutions that irked party faithful who saw them as unduly intrusive or otherwise contrary to conservative values.
It meant funding cuts to the CBC and legal funding for women and minorities, the scrapping of the think-tank Rights and Democracy and the end of the long-form census.
The Conservatives passed laws with mandatory minimum sentences and new restrictions — legislation that sometimes ran smack into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ushered in by the late Pierre Trudeau.
Several Harper policies will be remembered for the lack of evidence-based decision-making underpinning them, said Adrian.
During his tenure, Harper also promoted time-honoured symbols that resonated with his fabled base of core supporters.
The word “Royal” was restored to military branches, a portrait of the Queen was installed in the lobby of the Foreign Affairs building and the monarch’s diamond jubilee was marked with special awards.
Millions of dollars were spent commemorating Canada’s role in the War of 1812, a sound-and-light show presented to tourists on Parliament Hill emphasized the country’s combat history and Canada’s military effort in Libya was celebrated with an elaborate ceremony.
Harper also seized opportunities to honour Conservative forbears John Diefenbaker and Sir John A. Macdonald and his government backed a privately sponsored effort to build a monument to the victims of Communism in the shadow of the Supreme Court building.
At the same time, Harper failed to deliver the Senate reforms many supporters craved.
None of his prime ministerial initiatives come close to equalling the fundamental change the senior Trudeau effected through patriation of the Constitution and introduction of the charter, said Behiels.
“Nothing,” he said. “Absolutely nothing.”
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Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press