A boy named Steve goes home to an adoring throng

The West and its discontents formed the prime minister's vision of Canada

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The Gazette, Friday, July 14, 2006

For a better understanding of Stephen Harper, and his idea of the country, it helps to come to his adopted home town of Calgary as the prime minister did for five days during the Calgary Stampede. This is his town. He is their guy.

Harper flew in directly from his White House visit last Thursday, where a guy named George called him Steve, and flew out Wednesday for tea with the queen, who would never dream of calling him anything other than prime minister.

On Tuesday night at Harper's annual Stampede barbecue, nearly 1,000 people crowded into a lawn tent that had more the air of a victory party in which a favourite had come home a prime minister. Calgary minister Jim Prentice presented Harper with a Stampede belt engraved "Stephen J. Harper, Prime Minister of Canada."

"You see that, Mother? It says Stephen, not Steve," Harper said.

Then: "If the guy wants to buy 85 per cent of our exports and call me Steve, that's OK with me."

The hometown crowd roared with approving laughter.

What a difference, as Prentice and others noted, a year makes.

Only a year ago at the Stampede, Harper's handlers dressed him in a ridiculous black cowboy outfit that made him look like the bad guy in an old Hopalong Cassidy movie. Worst of all, he had his hat on backward.

Last year, his riding association had a hard time selling 300 tickets; this year, 950 tickets were sold out weeks ago. Last year, he was in a foul mood after narrowly failing to defeat the Liberal government because of Belinda Stronach's defection to the Liberals. In retrospect, Stronach did Harper a favour, giving him another six months to lose the angry-man image.

This year, a new prime minister made a home swing between visits to the president of the United States and the queen, on his way to the G8 in Russia.

Harper's five-day sojourn to Calgary has probably quelled a rising chorus of complaints that he has been neglecting his base while pursuing his charm offensive in Quebec.

It has not gone unnoticed in Alberta, any more than in Quebec, that Harper reads all his opening statements entirely in French first. Fine, but three minutes at the White House?

Asked about this in an appearance with popular talk-radio host Dave Rutherford, Harper replied that speaking French helped him organize his thoughts, that French Canadians were one of Canada's two founding language communities, and it was his way of acknowledging that as an English-speaking westerner. Or as he often put it during the campaign, in both official languages: "Quebec is the heart of Canada."

Harper might have been born and raised in suburban Toronto, but his sense of the country, and his idea of the federation, were clearly influenced by events, mentors and friends in the West. Bill Johnson, in his excellent 2005 book, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, writes with strong insights into this formative period in Harper's life.

When he first moved to Calgary in 1984, the Alberta economy was devastated by the Trudeau government's confiscatory National Energy Program. A quarter-century later, the NEP remains the hated symbol of federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction, in this case ownership and management of natural resources.

Harper's idea of federalism, and his idea of the federation, would have been influenced by that. Thus, open federalism, and his pledge in his Quebec City campaign speech to respect the division of powers in the constitution, and his promise not to use the federal spending power for new programs in provincial jurisdiction without the support of a majority of provinces.

If he can keep these two promises, he might buy a generation of constitutional peace, simply by vowing to respect the constitution. He may also create a new Quebec-Alberta alliance such as hasn't been seen since the Mulroney years.

Harper has come to office at a time when economic as well as political power is moving West, away from Quebec and Ontario, to Alberta and British Columbia. Consider: Of the 216,000 new jobs created in the first half of the year, 69,000 were in Alberta. Stated another way, one- third of the new jobs in the country were in a province that has only one-10th of the population.

The West is more than in; the West is where it's at.

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