When former prime minister Stephen Harper resigned his Calgary seat last Friday, the common reaction in Atlantic Canada likely was, “what took so long?” His announcement via a sterile message posted to Facebook and Twitter dovetailed with his unusual performance on election night.
As he took to the podium, Canadians expected to hear a gracious concession speech; that he was stepping down as party leader; and resigning his seat immediately. It would follow tradition in other democracies.
They were disappointed. Mr. Harper thanked his supporters and said good night. The announcement that he was stepping down as leader was contained in a statement to the party president and released to the media. Mr. Harper would not say the words on camera.
Then, like an annoying drain drip, he lingered in the back rows of the House of Commons for 10 months.
Mr. Harper was a ruthless campaigner and took negative advertising to a level unknown in Canadian politics. He prorogued Parliaments to avoid defeat and outfoxed his opponents at every turn. But he lost battles in the Supreme Court and on senate reform. His policies were divisive rather than inclusive.
While Mr. Trudeau was generous in his comments last week, few Atlantic Canadians shed tears or felt any sense of loss.
Mr. Harper was never able to shake off his comments about a culture of defeatism that permeated through Atlantic Canada. His government’s changes to unemployment insurance were seen as an attack on the region. Atlantic premiers were united in opposition, arguing we were unfairly penalized because of our heavy reliance on seasonal industries. The federal government appeared to view Atlantic Canada as a labour pool to supply Alberta oilfields and Ontario manufacturing plants.
Mr. Harper’s battles with former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams are legendary. Mr. Williams actively campaigned against him, urging voters to cast a ballot for anyone but a Conservative.
Mr. Harper refused to attend premier’s meetings. Instead, he summoned Robert Ghiz, Darrell Dexter, Sean Graham, David Alward and others to Ottawa for one-on-one audiences. His appointment of Ottawa resident Mike Duffy as a P.E.I. senator signaled his disdain for Atlantic Canada.
He out-maneuvered Peter MacKay to seize control of the Conservative party. Had Mr. MacKay prevailed, the party’s history in this region would be much different.
Mr. Harper’s battles with Amherst’s Bill Casey carried on for years. Mr. Casey opposed budgets which hurt Nova Scotia and today the populist MP is enjoying the last laugh as a Liberal.
It was not all bad news. Mr. Harper was at the helm when Canada weathered the 2008 worldwide recession. He committed to an ambitious naval rebuilding program, he apologized to First Nations for years of neglect and negotiated ambitious trade deals.
But in the end, Atlantic Canada had enough. The region cast its lot with a youthful leader who offered hope and optimism. Canadians wanted a more tolerant country. We wanted a government with a conscience.
Mr. Harper had simply outstayed his welcome.