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STEPHEN HARPER

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EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW AND WERE AFRAID TO ASK ABOUT CANADA’S AUTHENTIC 22nd PRIME MINISTER

Just before Christmas 2013, a motorcade of three black cars stopped in front of a nondescript ranch house in the Varsity Village neighbourhood of Calgary. Plain-clothes RCMP stood guard as a figure emerged from one of the vehicles and knocked on the front door.

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“There was enough warning to get coffee ready,” says Jim Hawkes.

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Nobody would have faulted him for hating the tall, blue-eyed man standing on his front step.

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He’d ditch all the public obligations that come with the job

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As a Progressive Conservative MP for Calgary West, Hawkes had given him his first political job as a chief aide in Ottawa. But the young man soon defected to the upstart Reform Party and mounted a challenge to his old boss’s seat. On election day in 1993, a 34-year-old “Steve” sent his mentor to a humiliating third place.

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That man, of course, was Stephen Harper. And those around Hawkes — including Harper’s then-girlfriend — balked at the apparent betrayal. But 22 years later, there’s not a hint of bitterness in the older politician’s voice.

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Mark Kennedy/Postmedia NewsJim Hawkes, the former Progressive Conservative MP who Harper worked for as a legislative aide in 1985-86. He was defeated in the 1993 election when Harper ran against him in Calgary West as a Reform candidate.

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“He was better than anybody I’ve ever employed,” says Hawkes in a phone interview from the retirement home in Calgary where he now lives. “I’m proud of him.”

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Hawkes’s wife Joanne had died only a few months before that visit. Harper came in, handed his former mentor a copy of his new book, A Great Game, and for an hour they chatted, one on one.

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“A good part of it was talking about life,” says Hawkes, “not political things – family things.”

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This image — the prime minister relaxing with a cup of coffee and talking marriage and parenting with an old man — would be hard for most Canadians to picture. Rarely has a figure as guarded as Stephen Harper ascended to the highest political office of a Group of Seven nation.

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Behind closed doors, Canada’s 22nd prime minister can swear like a “longshoreman,” is known to greet unwelcome news with “volcanic” outbursts of fury and has an uncanny talent for pitch-perfect impersonations. But to most Canadians he is a poker-faced cipher: never angry, rarely laughing, awkward in social settings and most comfortable when talking fiscal policy.

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Paul Chiasson/ The Canadian PressLaureen Harper, left, applauds her husband, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper along with their children Rachel and Ben during a campaign rally in Ajax, Ont., on Monday — this is the most we’ve seen Harper’s kids on the campaign trail in his years as party leader.

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Stephen Harper is a nerd who came from nowhere, corralled an estranged coalition of Canadian conservatives and smashed his way into nearly a decade of power. And he did it without being cuddly, charismatic or particularly quotable.

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Nine years in, that’s probably just the way he wants it.

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“He’d ditch all the public obligations that come with the job tomorrow, if he could,” says Jim Armour, a former director of communications for the Conservative leader.

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Other prime ministers have thrived on galas and state dinners. But aside from the occasional chance to meet hockey greats, Harper would pass up ribbon-cuttings for strategy sessions.

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He lives in a hard-drinking town, but never imbibes outside the occasional photo op. After the Parliament shootings last October, as shocked colleagues thirsted for a stiff drink, Harper called for a tall glass of Diet Coke.

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Gavin Young/Calgary HeraldStephen Harper shakes hands as he leaves the Conservative Party campaign headquarters at the Telus Convention Centre in Calgary following his election win late Monday evening May 2, 2011.

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He’s ruthless at destroying opponents, but — strangely for a career politician — takes no joy in it.

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In 2011, as Conservatives across Canada bubbled with schadenfreude at witnessing the political ruin of the Liberals’ Michael Ignatieff, it is unlikely their leader felt even a twang of guilty pleasure.

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“He’s like a predator; there’s no emotion to it,”

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 says Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Harper at the National Citizens’ Coalition, a conservative think tank. “When a wolf goes after a rabbit, it’s not because it hates rabbits.”

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He “reads everything,” becoming the bane of a privy council that had grown accustomed to prime ministers skimming their reports. He is known to catch the tiniest of spelling errors — and respond with swift reprimands scribbled in the margins. Friends call this “meticulous,” enemies call it “micromanaging.”

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He’s like a predator; there’s no emotion to it.

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He gets angry. But it’s not the out-of-control BlackBerry-throwing tantrum so common to Ottawa, it’s a measured expulsion of rage designed chillingly to drive a point home. One staffer has described it as a “spectacular thing.”

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He comes from a Presbyterian background and has occasionally been spotted at an Ottawa evangelical church, but staffers haven’t heard him say a single religious thing— nor have they found him unwilling to work on a Sunday. Indeed, Harper chose to announce the current election on the Sabbath.

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Perhaps most surprisingly, Canada’s socks-with-sandals prime minister harbours an uncanny talent for comic delivery.

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Stuart Gradon/Calgary HeraldCynthia Williams, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former girlfriend in Calgary, June 20, 2013.

 

Cynthia Williams, who dated Harper in university, says in private situations he has a dry wit akin to the TV character, Frasier Crane. “He was always making me laugh,” she says.

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In policy meetings and hotel rooms, Conservative staffers have got used to his penchant for launching into impromptu impressions.

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“I used to prep him for question period, and he would answer as Jean Chrétien or Brian Mulroney or John Diefenbaker,” says Keith Beardsley, a former senior adviser to Harper.

 

In speeches, he’s been known to mix partisan jabs with self-deprecating riffs.

 

“(My father) is an accountant, as are both my brothers. I decided to become an economist because I didn’t have the personality to be an accountant,” Harper told the 2002 Ottawa Press gallery dinner when he was opposition leader.

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It’s a public side to Harper that has dissolved almost completely since he became prime minister. Since then he has stopped showing up at press gallery dinners and dispensed with anything in question period that wasn’t a staid statement of facts.

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It was at the funeral last year of former finance minister Jim Flaherty — who had fallen out with the prime minister before his sudden death — that attendees saw a brief glimpse of the old Harper.

“Jim, as fiercely partisan as he was, was also genuinely liked and respected by his opponents, liked by his enemies,” said Harper in his remarks, which carried a tinge of remorse.

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“That … something I envy; I can’t even get my friends to like me.”

 

CP PHOTO/Chuck StoodyFrom a young age, Stephen Harper was a walking strategy computer – but he recoiled at the glad-handing and baby-kissing required of a politician.

 

It was only 13 years ago Harper arose out of relative obscurity to head the Canadian Alliance and begin wielding his near-mystical powers to unite the “warring tribes” of Canadian conservatism.

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He was a high school valedictorian who had sailed through university with honours, an obsessive strategist whose only hobby was politics. The only problem was, he didn’t have a hint of personal charisma or warmth.

 

David Lazarowych / Calgary HeraldStephen Harper on Oct. 11, 1988.

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A “behind the scenes” guy Preston Manning had snapped out of graduate school to form the brain of his fledgling Reform Party, the young economist was a walking strategy computer – but he recoiled at the glad-handing and baby-kissing required of a politician.

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He detested small talk. He thrived in political debates at university, but vanished when his opponents tried to take him for beer afterward. Williams was the one “dragging” him to social functions.

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Later, it would be Laureen Teskey doing the dragging, with Harper riding on the back of her motorcycle.

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“He’s not really comfortable in big crowds, never has been, probably never will be,” says Robert Mansell, the University of Calgary professor who first connected Harper with the fledgling Reform Party.

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With Reform drafting its staffers as candidates, Harper had, in fact, chosen the one riding he figured he was guaranteed to lose: Calgary West, where his former boss held more than 70 per cent of the votes.

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“He phoned me up to ask if it would be OK because he didn’t want to interfere with our relationship,” says Hawkes.

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BY Tristin Hopper

Tristin Hopper is an award-winning reporter

working for the National desk of the National Post

08 15 2015

 

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