The bewildering Mr. Harper

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There’s a moment in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln in which Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, asks his flustered staff, “Hasn’t he [Abraham Lincoln] surprised you?” In many ways, Prime Minister Stephen Harper exhibits a similar quiet unpredictability. For better or worse, he evades easy definition, even at his most heavy-handed. I imagine this is partly why Canadians have such a difficult time giving him credit where credit is due.

Obviously, Harper is not Abraham Lincoln, neither in his overall disposition nor political sympathies. However, Harper has unequivocally confounded both those who oppose and support him in a manner that is unusual in Canadian politics. Even by Canadian standards, he’s an uninspiring and impersonal politician. Yet, in an age of celebrity and inflated social spheres, there is something intriguing about a public figure we know very little about. Perhaps his self-imposed inaccessibility is partly why he rouses such profound feelings of distaste, in addition to his more controversial actions.

It should be clear that many Canadians seem to harbour a collective dislike and distrust for the PM. Part of this stems from his steely persona, his decidedly undemocratic way of handing complicated issues, and his tacit insistence that the facts are superior—and that he has facts. He doesn’t bother explaining himself, even when his ideas and actions are completely sensible. This is confusing behaviour unto itself, especially because his reasons are often not self-evident.

Harper has muzzled publicly funded scientists, cut scientific and military funding, compromised journalistic integrity and the independence of Statistics Canada, and has threatened judicial freedom with mandatory minimum sentencing. Moreover, he seems to misunderstand the importance of sound environmental policy, seriously underestimating the average Canadian’s commitment to the environment.

Nonetheless, Harper does have a series of achievements to his name that should be acknowledged. His formal apology and compensation schedule for residential school survivors was remarkable and unprecedented. Some suggested that this was solely a political maneuver. However, that speculation is extraordinarily cynical. Moreover, it serves only to reinforce prejudices about Harper at the expense of the apology’s immense symbolism. The Kainai Nation seemed to think that Harper’s apology was heartfelt, making him an honourary chief in 2011.

Harper’s strident demand that provinces innovate in relation to healthcare should be praised. It’s a smart move that’s paid off. In 2013, the premiers of Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island jointly devised a way to save $100 000 000, through some clever large-scale purchases of generic drugs. This sink-or-swim approach has effectively allowed provinces to take ownership of their healthcare systems, replacing a system that was effective but, by all accounts, unsustainable.

Furthermore, he seems more than willing to assert Canadian interests on the global stage, even if those interests may not be fully representative of the country. At the very least, this outspoken approach is unique. It imparts a new degree of credibility, which is important as the country seeks to free itself from economic dependence on the United States.

None of this is to say that Harper’s accomplishments eclipse his faults—but history will be the final arbiter. The point is that we benefit more by being even-handed in our assessments. For example, the media seems fond of portraying Justin Trudeau primarily as a head of hair and a famous name. However, he has sound ideas on foreign direct investment and free trade, a much needed carbon tax, and getting Canadian resources to the global market.

As educated citizens in a representative democracy, it’s crucial that all forms of government are held accountable; it’s equally important to challenge popular perceptions and public narratives. In general, individuals tend to seek out information and other people who confirm personal biases, irrespective of political preferences. Ignoring other dimensions because they don’t conform to our notion of how someone or something should look paints a distorted picture. Rarely is any individual a paragon of virtue or evil. People, even people in positions of power, operate in shades of grey, caught up between ethical imperatives and personal intuition.

Having the intellectual honesty and courage to acknowledge the achievements of people we disagree with is liberating. Labelling Harper as “the enemy of Canada” is hyperbolic and, frankly, not useful.

Thaddeus Stevens deserves the final word: “Retain, even in opposition, your capacity for astonishment.”

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