Full name: Stephen Joseph Harper
Born: April 30, 1959, Toronto, Ontario
Served: February 6, 2006 to Nov. 9, 2015
Party: Conservative Party of Canada
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. He remains Canada’s most dominant political figure in the first two decades of the 21st century.
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 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 such as abortion or gay marriage. On criminal justice matters he took a harder line, increasing mandatory prison terms, and was hawkish on foreign policy, contributing the services of the Canadian air force to American-led airstrikes on ISIS terrorists in Iraq and offering material support to anti-Russian resistance fighters in Ukraine. Though his cautious economic management — including a lot of stimulus spending — helped Canada endure the turmoil of the Great Recession (2008-2009) better than many other nations, his unwavering support for the Canadian oil industry became increasingly controversial at a time when climate change was becoming a leading 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, but was defeated by a revived Liberal Party headed by Justin Trudeau (b. 1971).