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The Harper decade: 2006 to 2016

What would Canada look like after 10 years of Conservative control?

Credit: John Webster

The Conservative Party of Canada and its leader, Stephen Harper, have been running Ottawa since 2006. With a Conservative majority in the cards, which could last as long as five years, Xtra looks for clues about what their legacy will be after 10 years in power

A more conservative judiciary
Since becoming prime minister in 2006, Harper has already appointed two Supreme Court of Canada judges and will likely appoint a third in 2013. Perhaps reflecting a new, more- conservative climate, the court under Harper extended police search powers and green-lighted the use of ill-gotten evidence in court trials. And Harper’s power goes well beyond the country’s top court. Take David Brown, for example. Harper appointed him to Ontario Superior Court in 2007, despite — or because of — his history representing anti-gay and anti-abortion views in court. More than 40 party donors, staffers, riding volunteers or political candidates have been named to the bench since 2006.

Marginalizing youth & youth sexuality
During their minority government, the Conservatives fought for and raised the age of consent from 14 to 16. But Conservatives have long sought to raise the age of consent to 18, and some religious groups want the same. Given Harper’s commitment to “incremental” conservativism, 16 may have been a mere pit stop on the way to an even higher age of consent.

Increased police surveillance of the internet
Another piece of crime legislation expected to be rolled into an omnibus crime bill after the election would require internet service providers (ISPs) to rework their networks so police can spy on Canadians in real time. It would also mandate cooperation from ISPs on disclosure, removing judicial oversight. This isn’t the Conservatives’ first crack at authorizing more surveillance online. The most sweeping of the previous attempts was a Conservative private member’s bill four years ago from Manitoba MP Joy Smith. Smith’s bill contained these provisions and others — including a requirement that ISPs filter the internet so offensive material can’t be accessed in Canada. A sign of things to come?

Stacking the deck against gay groups

After Harper was elected, the Black and Blue festival, a gay circuit party weekend in Montreal, stopped qualifying for federal economic spinoff money. The reason? It’s not family friendly. Another example: the Conservatives rejigged magazine subsidies in a way that rewarded larger magazines (read: Maclean’s, which receives a million dollars a year) at the expense of art, alternative and feminist magazines, many of which ceased to qualify. They also tweaked a provision that set different standards for mags serving minority populations, leaving in exemptions for French and aboriginal publications but striking gay pubs from the list.

Gay marriage & social issues

This election, no one is asking Stephen Harper whether he would reopen the same-sex marriage debate, a question that dogged him for most of his time as leader of the Conservative Party. Still, he’s voted against gay marriage every time it’s come up (five times and counting). In the past, he’s contemplated various strategies to roll back the clock on gay marriage: a royal commission on marriage, a defence of religion act and even the use of the notwithstanding clause. Will he be able to resist if he’s handed a majority?

No more harm reduction, compassion in prison

The Conservative election platform includes a promise to make prisons drug free. While perhaps a laudable goal, Harper’s method for doing so leaves a lot to be desired. It starts with mandatory annual drug tests for prisoners and ends with denying parole to anyone who tests positive for dope. Meanwhile, Harper has cut harm-reduction programs in prisons, and not just when it comes to drugs. The Conservatives also killed a safer tattoo program, which was reducing the spread of HIV and hepatitis among the prison population.

The government’s changing role in reproductive health

Having slashed funding to status of women domestically and put new anti-abortion caveats on federal programs abroad, things don’t look good for the old mantra of “My body my choice.” And don’t forget that Harper also filled the board that oversees stem-cell and fertility research in 2006 with anti-abortionists and critics of embryonic-cell harvesting. Perhaps not surprisingly, the board has no fertility experts on it at all.

More rewards for couplehood, stay-at-home moms

Harper’s income-splitting proposal is just the latest, since his tax strategy has long been to reward couples where one partner makes most or all of the income, at the expense of single people and egalitarian income earners. Take the much-vaunted $1,200 childcare benefit introduced in 2007, which wasn’t helpful for moms who work, since where can you find childcare for $25 a week? Social conservative groups, not surprisingly, lined up to approve.

Harper fills parole boards with friends

Parole was designed to help prisoners reintegrate into society — with oversight — before cutting them loose. But Harper’s been chipping away at parole, including plans to eliminate the so-called faint-hope clause for serious offenders and shutting the door on parole for people who test positive for drugs. Even without legislation, Harper is reshaping parole in Canada. Since 2006, he’s made a flurry of parole board appointments, including more than two dozen for Conservative party donors, volunteers, staffers or politicians.

What about the CBC?

Harper and Industry Minister Tony Clement have both mused about selling or shutting down the CBC. A number of factors could converge to spell the end of Canada’s public broadcaster. First, there’s a big hole in the Conservatives’ election platform, which they plan to fix by finding “efficiencies.” Secondly, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty indicated in 2008 that he’s willing to sell off crown assets to balance the books. And the addition of Sun TV could very well change the climate, since it’s vowing to serve some of the news functions traditionally associated with the CBC.

Anti-gay slurs are fine by Harper

Take Tom Lukiwski, a Saskatchewan MP, who was caught in a scandal after a video surfaced of Lukiwski in 1991 making inflammatory comments about gays. “There’s As and there’s Bs. The As are guys like me; the Bs are homosexual faggots with dirt under their fingernails that transmit diseases.” He apologized, and was promoted to a parliamentary secretary role. He’s hardly the only one. Both Harper and Ottawa MP Cheryl Gallant tormented Bill Graham with anti-gay comments — in the House of Commons, no less — until he retired in 2007.

Conservatives stonewall the media

Some reacted with puzzlement at Stephen Harper’s initial refusal to take questions at campaign stops during this election. Now he takes exactly four and refuses additional questions. But don’t forget that in 2006, Harper shut out the parliamentary press gallery after being elected. For a time, he refused to speak to the gallery entirely, claiming they were anti-Conservative. Will we see more of the same in the coming years?

Mandatory minimums for baking pot brownies

The Conservatives introduced a bill, S-10, to make baking “edibles” — foods like pot brownies and cookies — punishable by a mandatory minimum of 18 months in jail. It died with the government, but they vow to bring it back as part of an omnibus crime bill and pass it in their first 100 days. Their opposition to pot is no secret — in 2006, they eliminated funding research on medical marijuana — but the severity of S-10 could be a sign of things to come.

Evangelicals in the prime minister’s inner circle

There are lots of examples, but the most high-profile evangelical in Harper’s inner circle is Darryl Reid. The former president of Focus on the Family Canada (1998–2004), Reid was brought into the Conservatives’ inner circle in 2006. In 2007, he became a political staffer in the PMO, eventually becoming Harper’s director of policy. Reid left in 2010 to become executive director of the Manning Centre — a kind of charm school for so-cons.