By Michael Harris
For Stephen Harper, the calamitous year of 2013 began in the aftermath of his making war on a middle-aged Indian chief. Her crime? Demanding a meeting with the prime minister over a little matter that is 250 years overdue, arising out of the Royal Proclamation of 1763: treaties.
The story of 2014 could pit the Harper government and First Nations against each other in an epic battle over pipelines, the environment and native rights — a showdown that could be Stephen Harper’s Little Big Horn.
It all started when Theresa Spence, chief of the troubled Attawapiskat reserve, declared that she would camp on Victoria Island, fasting, until the prime minister and the Governor-General agreed to a meeting with all the chiefs that would deliver more than Perrier and promises.
The PMO was so successful at discrediting, ridiculing and marginalizing Chief Spence that most of the media happily joined in. One sensitive media soul was even ready to tell Chief Spence where she could put her wampum. Others sniggered at Spence’s hunger-strike, pointing out that she really didn’t appear to have lost all that much weight. Was she sneaking out for burgers after the cameras left? And how did she get that SUV her boyfriend-employee was driving anyway?
The PM’s former mentor, Tom Flanagan, even got a few racist laughs on CBC trying to see the future in an imaginary bowl of Chief Spence’s fish broth. You get the picture.
Then the PMO rolled out his secret weapon. Just when Chief Spence was getting a little bit too much coverage, the Harper government released a damning audit about financial irregularities at Attawapiskat.
There were just two ways to read the audit: Chief Spence was crooked or grossly incompetent. The intended public hue and cry was raised: no more money for the natives without financial accountability. The audit was done by the government’s go-to firm, Deloitte.
Having crushed Chief Spence and ignored the Idle No More protests that were gaining strength in native communities across the country, Stephen Harper indulged in his favourite pasttime: self-congratulatory confabulation. As he rang in 2013, he boasted in his New Year’s Eve message of “strengthening” the relationship with First Nations.
The PM had come across for First Nations all right. He apologized and promised “change”, but he delivered the paternalistic status quo — and budget cuts to bands from coast to coast. He did his best to destroy Chief Spence in a very public humiliation. He left the reputation of National Chief Sean Atleo in tatters.
Of greater tactical significance, he divided the Assembly of First Nations. Tellingly, Harper’s approval ratings rose as a result of beating up on the poorest demographic in Canada — a sign of where this PM has led Canadian public opinion.
Perhaps that’s what encouraged him in his greatest public relations face-plant of 2013: his decision to personally greet rented Chinese panda bears in Toronto, while giving the cold shoulder to native kids who had walked from Hudson Bay to Ottawa to speak to the nation’s leaders.
After his hollow victory over Chief Spence, Stephen Harper’s annus horribilis began like a slow leak of fuel from an overheated Formula One car set to explode.
It came to light that Human Resources minister Diane Finley had somehow lost the computer records of 538,000 young student loan holders, including their contact information. Despite the apologies, it was disquieting.
A court decision in 2013 found that there had indeed been fraud in the 2011 election that gave Harper his majority. Fraudsters directed voters to the wrong polls using a list the judge in that case said was identical to the one in the Conservative party database. Based on previous Conservative electoral dirty pool, including the in-and-out scandal, it wasn’t strange that people were concerned about Finley’s data loss.
A huge list of what was potentially the most important voter demographic in the next federal election had somehow walked out the door of Finley’s Human Resources department. Whatever was behind the mystery, it was hardly an endorsement of Conservative management skills and it might be a sign of something far darker.
Nor was the government’s reputation for honesty enhanced when it first denied and then, under duress, had to admit that the Conservative party was behind a sneaky push-poll in Saskatchewan criticizing riding boundaries that would prove favourable to opposition parties running in the newly proposed ridings.
The poll was conducted by Matt Meier, whose firm, RackNine, was involved in the robocall affair. This time he used a phantom company called “Chase,” but that wasn’t enough to get by the M&M boys over at the Post. Voice analysis outed the busy Mr. Meier as the person on the telephone messages. Saskatchewan Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski was livid when — after denying his party had done the unethical push-poll — he found out that, in fact, it had.
The MP blamed the deception on Jenni Byrne, the attack-trained zealot in CPC headquarters who can hold more Kool-Aid than a Zeppelin. Stephen Harper has since promoted the queen-of-mean to the post of deputy-chief of staff in the PMO.
And then there was Tom Flanagan, who had mocked Chief Spence on national television. Flanagan opined during an event at the University of Lethbridge that viewing child pornography was merely looking at pictures.
When video of his comments became public, the views expressed by the Conservative professor who had been instrumental in making Stephen Harper’s career were described by the PMO as “repugnant, ignorant and appalling.” The videographer who captured Flanagan’s outrageous remarks was none other than a young member of Idle No More, Arnell Tailfeathers.
As ironic as that was, greater ironies lay ahead. In his report to Parliament in 2013, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson reported that he could not find $3.1 billion from the Public Security and Anti-Terror initiative. The reply from the Harper government came from Treasury Board President Tony Clement: It was okay because no one was saying the money had been misspent. Coming from Gazebo Tony, that was a very great comfort indeed.
(The Harper government now claims to have “found” the money, but the explanation is so tortured that prudence dictates awaiting the opinion of the Auditor-General.)
All the mistakes and scandals in 2013 were amplified by seismic changes on the political landscape, including the fact that the PM’s then-parliamentary secretary Dean Del Mastro was finally charged with election fraud dating back to the 2008 federal election. As Harper’s operation got weaker, his colleagues opposite were gaining strength.
Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair not only maintained his young Quebec caucus as a disciplined and effective group, he fully and finally arrived as Parliament’s Grand Inquisitor.
Mulcair’s rapier-through-the-heart question period style, honed during his years as a lawyer, was directed against a prime minister accustomed to showing his right shoulder to his interrogators in QP. Now, when Harper answered carelessly, derisively or not all, he no longer came across as cool, condescending and in control. Mulcair made him look vapid — even a bit silly.
And then there was Justin Trudeau, the political shooting star of 2013. After years of languishing under failed messiahs and interim leaders, the Liberal party chose the poster-boy of the new politics to take the helm.
Trudeau was young and untried, but idealistic and a hit at the box office. If there is any wisdom in the polls, this was a politician who could raise the Grits from the dead and give Stephen Harper the kind of beating he had laid on Senator Patrick Brazeau in the ring.
Which brings us to the biggest story of 2013: a debacle in the Red Chamber that started as a trip to the woodshed for miscreant senators over expense abuses — and now threatens the prime minister himself over a cover-up in the PMO that has brought the RCMP to Stephen Harper’s office door.
Whatever damage may come later, the wrecking ball of the Mike Duffy affair has already shattered the PM’s reputation for strategic brilliance. As 2013 crawls to an end like a fly questing up a windowpane on a rainy day, the political losses for Harper are mounting.
The PM has lost his chief-of-staff, his legal advisor, several personally-appointed senators, his government House leader in the Senate, the chair of the Senate’s Committee on Internal Economy — and may soon lose the Conservative party’s bagman.
Harper’s biggest loss is his credibility, such as it was coming into 2013. There were simply too many mutually exclusive stories spinning in Duffygate, from the false claim that no one else in the PMO knew about Nigel Wright’s $90,000 gift to Mike Duffy, to the even bigger whopper that there was no paper trail of the sleazy and possibly criminal deal.
Only the PM’s near-relatives believe that Harper is the one person in his own office who didn’t know a thing about the various schemes to get the wolf-pack off Mike Duffy’s back. What poetic justice it was that the wolf-pack answered to the name Deloitte. The same firm Harper unleashed on Chief Spence had swung around to bite the government.
People in the PM’s cabinet and caucus who used to be as silent as mice in a lion’s den were now piping up — proof positive that even the bobble-heads understood their leader was a diminished figure. Though some later backed down, even temporary defiance was remarkable:
James Bezan denounced the Nexen deal;
Mark Wawara tried to end sex-selective abortion;
Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney expressed support for Nigel Wright even as the Boss denounced him;
Stephen Woodworth tried to get abortion-by-another name back on the agenda;
Michael Chong is pushing a private member’s bill to seriously rein in the PM’s powers;
Brent Rathgeber … well, Brent just slipped the PM’s leash and hopped over the fence to independence, rather than remain as just another of Stephen Harper’s whipped dogs.
Now that the PM has been caught making up stuff on Duffygate, his attempt to answer scandal with free-trade deals and tough-on-crime bunk does not get the pulse racing the way it used to. On the economic front, Harper continues to expect applause before people have seen the play.
So far, it would be easier to get the launch codes for the U.S. nuclear arsenal than a fact or two about CETA. The Harper government remains both secretive and self-congratulatory. As 2013 ends, the PM’s word is like an investment tip from Bernie Madoff.
For Stephen Harper, 2014 will be about surviving the legal consequences of Duffygate, driving a wedge between Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, and getting a pipeline or two without starting a Canadian version of the Indian Wars.
Other than that, change is in the wind in 2014. The one thing you can’t sing away with a garage band, or hide with a hockey sweater, is corruption — especially when your stage name used to be Mr. Clean.
Michael Harris is a writer, journalist, and documentary filmmaker. He was awarded a Doctor of Laws for his “unceasing pursuit of justice for the less fortunate among us.” His eight books include Justice Denied, Unholy Orders, Rare ambition, Lament for an Ocean, and Con Game. His work has sparked four commissions of inquiry, and three of his books have been made into movies. He is currently working on a book about the Harper majority government to be published in the autumn of 2014 by Penguin Canada.