Stephen Harper was consistently called “too right-wing” for Canada, but savvy political talents and an agenda of careful, “incrementalist” conservative policies won him three back-to-back terms. For a few more years at least, his legacy will continue to define contemporary Canadian politics.
Though born in Ontario, Harper spent much of his formative years in Alberta, where he studied as a conservative economist at the University of Calgary. Always politically active, he was part of a rising movement of right-wing Albertans who opposed the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney (b. 1939) for its perceived centrism and anti-western biases. Working with Preston Manning (b. 1942), in 1987 Harper helped found the Reform Party of Canada, and in 2002, following its retooling into the Canadian Alliance party, was elected to lead it.
Harper’s new party eventually eclipsed the old Progressive Conservatives, but in order to avoid splitting the right-wing vote he negotiated a union of the two in 2003, and became first leader of the new merged party, the Conservative Party of Canada. In 2006, Harper’s Conservatives defeated the scandal-plagued Liberal administration of Paul Martin (b. 1938) and became the first neither PC nor Liberal government to run Canada.
Countering left-wing critics, Harper’s administration governed in a fairly moderate way, focusing largely on tax breaks and fostering economic growth while avoiding contentious social issues like abortion or gay marriage. On criminal justice matters he took a harder line, increasing mandatory prison terms, and was hawkish on foreign policy. Canadian troops were kept in Afghanistan fighting Islamist radicals until 2011, the Canadian air force was used to participate in American-led airstrikes on Islamic State terrorists in Iraq, and material support was offered to anti-Russian resistance fighters in Ukraine. Though Harper’s cautious economic management — including generous stimulus spending that ran counter to conservative economic dogma — helped Canada endure the turmoil of the Great Recession (2008-2009) better than many nations, his unwavering support for the Canadian oil industry became increasingly controversial as climate change emerged as a rising global worry.
Though Harper himself was never personally popular, much of his agenda was, and his Conservative Party won continuously more seats in parliament during the elections of 2008 and 2011. He made the unusual decision to seek a fourth term in 2015, and was defeated by a revived Liberal Party headed by the popular Justin Trudeau (b. 1971).