Early Years and Personal Life
Stephen Harper grew up in the Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside and the suburb of Etobicoke. He is the oldest of three sons of Margaret and Joe Harper, an accountant. Stephen attended Richview Collegiate Institute. He was a member of the school’s Liberal club and competed on Reach for the Top. After graduating in 1978, he enrolled at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. He dropped out after two months and moved to Alberta. He worked as a mailroom clerk and in other positions for Imperial Oil. Three years later, he enrolled at the University of Calgary. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics, in 1985 and 1991 respectively.
Harper is a hockey aficionado and a member of the Society of International Hockey Research. His non-fiction book, A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey (Simon & Schuster, 2013), documents the early decades of professional hockey in North America. He also plays piano in a rock ‘n’ roll band. It has made occasional public appearances, mainly at Conservative Party events.
In 1993, he married Laureen Teskey, an Alberta native (born 1963) with a background in graphic arts and photography. She also has a history of community engagement with humane societies and child-based initiatives. They have two children, Benjamin (born 1996) and Rachel (born 1999).
Although he was initially a Liberal supporter, Harper came to oppose Liberal actions and policies. In 1981, he went to work for Jim Hawkes, a Progressive Conservative (PC) Member of Parliament (MP) from Calgary. After Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s victory in 1984, Harper spent a year working for Hawkes in Ottawa. However, he became disillusioned with the Mulroney Tories and left.
Back in Calgary, Harper was an important figure in the founding of the Reform Party. The Reform Party was a right-wing, populist western political movement intent on breaking the centrist Liberal/Tory lock on power in Ottawa. With his eloquence and grasp of issues, Harper served as the party’s first chief policy officer under Reform leader Preston Manning. Harper drafted the party’s platform and statement of principles. These later formed the basis for the party’s policy bible, known as the “Blue Book.”
In 1988, Harper ran for a seat in the House of Commons against his former boss, Jim Hawkes. However, he lost by a wide margin. He then served as legislative assistant and policy advisor to Deborah Grey, Reform’s first MP. He remained Reform policy chief.
In the 1993 election, Harper defeated Hawkes and became the MP for Calgary West. As the Reform Party’s critic for finance and national unity, he gained attention for his sharp intellect, analytical skills and bilingualism. However, in 1997, during only his fourth year as an MP (short of qualifying for a parliamentary pension), he stepped down from politics. Soon afterward, he became head of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), a conservative think tank and public advocacy group.
National Citizens Coalition (NCC) and Canadian Alliance
One of Harper’s biggest concerns at the NCC was the federal government’s perceived lack of respect for the wealthy, oil-producing province of Alberta. His views were shared, and shaped, by a group of conservative academics from the University of Calgary. They were angry at federal intrusion in areas of provincial responsibility. (See also Distribution of Powers.) Their ideology became known as the “Calgary School.” In 2001, Harper and five members of the group wrote in a National Post article that Alberta should “build firewalls” around the province to protect against “an aggressive and hostile federal government.”
During Harper’s four years at the NCC, the Reform Party became the Official Opposition in Ottawa. It also rebranded itself as the Canadian Alliance. Meanwhile, Harper remained the subject of frequent speculation as to a potential return to politics. In spring of 2002, he was elected leader of the Canadian Alliance, beating incumbent leader Stockwell Day on the first ballot. He returned to the House of Commons in a by-election, becoming MP for Preston Manning’s former riding of Calgary Southwest.
Uniting the Right
Since 1993, the Liberals had won a series of majority governments. This was due in part to the divided political right — the Alliance and the tattered remnants of the Progressive Conservative (PC) Party. As Alliance leader, Harper set out to mend fences. In 2003, he convinced PC leader Peter MacKay to form a united Conservative Party. Harper became leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada. It won 99 seats and reduced the Liberals to a minority government in the 2004 election. They also gained an important foothold in Ontario, an accomplishment that had eluded the Reform and Alliance parties.
As Leader of the Official Opposition, Harper initially faced doubts as to whether he could win over Canadians in sufficient numbers to become prime minister. These concerns focused on the questionable mass appeal of his policy wonk persona and his ability to maintain the unity of the Conservative Party. Many also questioned whether some party policies were too right-wing for many voters. But Harper successfully countered those concerns. He built a coalition inside the party that included western Reformers, traditional “Red Tories,” and most important for electoral purposes, the Conservative flag bearers of Ontario's “common sense revolution.” Its legions of middle-class, suburban voters had propelled Premier Mike Harris into power in 1995.
First Minority Government, 2006–08
With Paul Martin’s Liberal government under siege from the sponsorship scandal, and the unified political right supporting him, Harper won the federal election on 23 January 2006. He became the first westerner to be elected prime minister since Joe Clark in 1979. Harper secured 36.3 per cent of the popular vote and 124 of 308 seats — far short of a majority. But his victory marked the end of 13 years of Liberal rule. He was sworn in as Canada’s 22nd prime minister on 6 February 2006. He immediately pared down the federal Cabinet from 33 to 27 ministers. Many of the most prominent Cabinet members were either Albertans or one-time provincial ministers from the former Ontario regime of Mike Harris.
Harper is a strict adherent of laissez-faire capitalism and a smaller, decentralized federal government. One of his first acts was to reduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST) from seven to five per cent over two years. This deprived the federal government of approximately $13 billion a year. However, the Conservatives argued that individual Canadians were better served by keeping more money in their own pockets than by new government programs.
In foreign policy, Harper took a staunchly pro-Israel position in the Middle East that included aggressive criticism of some of its most vociferous opponents. In 2006, Harper cut Canada’s aid to Palestine to protest the victory of Hamas, the elected and sometimes militantly anti-Israel representative of Palestine.
As opposition leader in 2003, Harper argued in favour of participating in the US invasion of Iraq. He was a staunch advocate of Canada’s new, 2006 combat mission in Afghanistan. His first foreign visit as prime minister was to Afghanistan in March 2006. He became the first sitting prime minister to visit the front lines of a combat operation when he went to Ma’sum Ghar, Afghanistan, in May 2007. His government also extended Canada’s combat role in Afghanistan from February 2009 to December 2011. This was to allow for more reconstruction and training of Afghan troops and police forces.
Combatting crime and terrorism became watchwords of the Harper government. It toughened the Criminal Code, most notably by imposing higher and mandatory minimum sentences on various crimes. Harper also increased funding for the federal prison system, nearly doubling it during his first five years in office.
Second Minority Government, 2008–11
Harper ran two balanced budgets and a small deficit his first three years in office. This helped him establish a reputation as a sound economic manager. After the worldwide financial crisis in 2008 sparked a global recession, he called an early election. This circumvented Parliament’s 2007 law that established fixed election dates. Harper argued that the severity of the crisis and the need for strong economic leadership justified the measure. In the ensuing campaign, his government was returned to power with more seats (143), but still a minority.
In the wake of this victory, Harper tabled an economic update. In keeping with his commitment to limit government spending, the update lacked any economic stimulus measures. However, it included motions to suspend the right of federal civil servants to strike and to end public funding of political parties. The budget update set off a firestorm in Parliament. It drew ferocious opposition from the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois. They announced plans to form a coalition to overturn the government. Harper avoided defeat by persuading Governor General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue — adjourn — Parliament from 4 December 2008 to 26 January 2009. By the time Parliament resumed, the opposition coalition had unravelled amid public disapproval. The Conservative’s hold on power was secure.
Harper’s government then delivered $45 billion in federal stimulus spending between 2009 and 2012. This resulted in the first federal deficits in a decade. But it also helped Canada emerge from the financial crisis in better shape than most other Western countries.
Majority Government, 2011–15
On 25 March 2011, Parliament voted 156 to 145 to express non-confidence in the Harper government and cite it for contempt of Parliament for refusing to disclose information about the cost of its law-and-order agenda, corporate tax cuts and purchase of fighter jets. The contempt charge was the first levied against a federal government. But in the ensuing election on 2 May 2011, Harper and the Conservatives achieved a majority government with 39.6 per cent of the vote and 166 of 308 seats.
The Harper government continued its support of Israel by suspending diplomatic relations with Iran in September 2012 and officially recognizing it as a state sponsor of terrorism. In November 2012, Canada was one of only nine countries to vote against a United Nations resolution giving Palestine “symbolic” statehood. In other foreign policy affairs, Harper was a vocal critic of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. He also committed Canada to a limited air role in military efforts against the Islamic State terrorist group.
On crime and security, Harper’s government vigorously opposed the return of convicted child-terrorist Omar Khadr to Canada from the US prison in Guantamano Bay. It also gave new surveillance and detention powers to police and intelligence agencies under Bill C-51. This followed the shootings at Parliament Hill by an Islamic State supporter on 22 October 2014. Harper used his majority mandate to further shrink government reach and expenditure by eliminating the long-form census and federal allowances to registered political parties. His government also abolished the long gun registry, sold the Canadian Wheat Board and reduced MPs’ pensions, including his own.
After calling a long, 11-week election campaign, Harper immediately issued several tax breaks. He also sought to focus attention on his economic record and experience in government. However, the early weeks of the campaign were filled with news from the ongoing fraud trial of Senator Mike Duffy. It focused on whether Harper knew of a $90,172 cheque written by his chief of staff Nigel Wright to cover Duffy’s falsely-claimed expenses. (See Mike Duffy Case.) Harper’s vow to oppose a woman’s right to wear a niqab in a citizenship ceremony became a major election issue and ate away at support for the front-runner NDP in the vital battleground of Québec. But the move also drew criticism that Harper was appealing to identity politics to win votes.
Unable to overcome a growing national sentiment for change, Harper was defeated by charismatic Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. His party won a majority government of 184 seats on 19 October 2015. The Conservatives won 99 seats, becoming the Official Opposition. Harper resigned as the first and only leader of the party he had largely formed.
On economic issues, Harper and then-finance minister Jim Flaherty won wide praise for their actions to help Canada through the global recession that began in 2008. He expanded free trade with a variety of new partners, including an agreement with South Korea. He also drafted trade deals with the European Union and the Pacific Rim. Domestically, he was a strong advocate of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty and the linchpin in the re-emergence of a strong, viable conservative party.
Harper’s preferred form of assistance to Canadians was offered in the form of targeted tax cuts rather than the creation of new programs. Canada in 2015 faced its lowest federal tax burden in 50 years. From 2006 to 2015, corporate taxes fell from 2.6 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 2 per cent. Income taxes were trimmed from 7.4 per cent of GDP to 6.9 per cent.
Harper avoided the constitutional quagmire that had ensnared several of his predecessors. He instead took a more conciliatory approach to issues of national unity. He officially apologized to Chinese Canadians for Canada’s head tax and the subsequent exclusion of Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923. He also officially recognized the Québécois as a “nation” within Canada and offered an emotional apology to Indigenous people for the federal government’s role in residential schools.
Canada’s resource-based economy recovered following the 2008 crisis. However, it suffered again in late 2014 and 2015 due to a worldwide decline in oil and commodity prices. This resulted in job losses in the West, particularly Alberta, and a severe drop in the Canadian dollar. This led to criticism that Harper’s focus on resource extraction had put all of Canada’s eggs in one basket. He was also criticized for an anemic effort to address climate change and for failing to meet prior targets to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Most notably, he withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol.
Harper was accused throughout his tenure of compiling various, often unrelated legislation in sweeping omnibus bills, of centralizing control in the Prime Minister’s Office to an unprecedented degree, and of lacking transparency and accountability. His second prorogation of Parliament in 2009, for example, was widely perceived as an attempt to avoid an inquiry into Canada’s role in the treatment of Afghan detainees. (See also The Detainee Papers Ruling; Showdown in the House: Afghanistan Detainee Documents.)
Many Indigenous groups were critical of the Harper government for cutting funding to a number of Indigenous organizations and programs, and for refusing to release records related to residential schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anger over the Jobs and Growth Act of 2012 also directly inspired the Idle No More movement. Several of the tough-on-crime laws Harper’s government proposed were dismissed by the Supreme Court as contrary to the Charter of Rights. And many critics questioned the effectiveness of devoting record-high resources to fighting crime and building prisons in the face of a falling national crime rate.
Backbencher and Retirement from Politics
Having won his re-election as MP of Calgary Heritage in the 2015 federal election, Harper stayed on in Parliament as a Conservative Party backbencher.(Rona Ambrose was named the party’s interim leader. Harper kept a low profile in his new role. He attended Parliament only for votes and exited through a back door to avoid the daily media scrums. His first public appearance since conceding the 2015 election was as opening speaker at the Conservative Party’s policy convention in Vancouver on 26 May 2016. “We have a proud record,” he said, “but the past is no place to linger. Now is the time to look forward. Our party’s journey is only beginning.”
The day before the convention, the Globe and Mail reported that Harper would resign as MP before the beginning of Parliament’s fall session. He officially resigned on 26 August 2016, making the announcement in a video clip posted to his social media accounts.
Following his retirement from politics, Harper launched the Calgary-based consultancy firm Harper & Associates Consulting Inc. This was done in partnership with his former chief of staff Ray Novak, long-time aide Jeremy Hunt and former PMO policy director Rachel Curran. Harper had officially incorporated the firm in December 2015.
In September 2016, Harper accepted a “strategic affiliation” with the international law firm Dentons. Working out of Dentons’ Calgary office, his role would be to “provide advice to clients on market access, managing global geopolitical and economic risk, and how to maximize value in global markets.” Harper signed with Worldwide Speakers Group to become a high-profile public speaker. He also accepted positions on the board of directors of real estate company Colliers International and the Conservative Fund, the fundraising arm of the Conservative Party of Canada.
In April 2017, Harper took a position as an advisor with the Silicon Valley tech fund 8VC. It invests in health care, financial and transportation companies. In February 2018, he was unanimously elected chairman of the International Democrat Union, a group of centre-right party leaders from around the world that was co-founded by George H.W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher, among others.
In 2018, Harper began to establish a more prominent presence on the international scene. In February, he told an American audience that “I could have wielded a lot more power. I think I probably could still easily be leader of my party if I wanted to. I mean, I’m de facto the founder of my party.” On 16 October 2018 — three years to the day after the 2015 federal election — McClelland & Stewart published Harper’s book, Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption. It focuses on the state of conservatism in the face of rising international populism.
In January 2019, Harper addressed a group of investors and oil and gas executives in London, England. He argued that investors had lost confidence in Canada’s energy sector and laid out steps to rectify the situation. In June, he announced that he was remaining neutral in the UK Conservative Party’s leadership race, despite rumours that he had been hired as a consultant by Jeremy Hunt’s campaign. In October, Harper spoke out in favour of Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue the British Parliament. He was also highly critical of Britain’s Supreme Court for ruling that Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament was illegal, and for taking steps to prevent such a move in the future. Following Andrew Scheer’s resignation as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in December 2019, many pundits speculated that Harper may run to replace him.
See also: Maclean’s Article: Stephen Harper Profile (9 May 2005); Maclean’s Article: Stephen Harper Interview (19 January 2009); Maclean’s Article: Stephen Harper Here to Stay? (11 May 2009); Maclean’s Article: Stephen Harper Interview (19 October 2009); Maclean’s Article: Stephen Harper the Expert? (16 August 2010).
Honours and Awards
- Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (2006)
- Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year, Time Magazine (2006)
- Woodrow Wilson Award, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution (2006)
- Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism, B’nai B’rith International (2008)
- World Statesman of the Year, Appeal of Conscience Foundation (2012)
- Honorary Degree, Tel Aviv University (2014)
- Order of Liberty, Government of Ukraine (2016)
- Companion, Order of Canada (2019)