Canadian identity is an amorphous concept. Many Canadians even wonder at times if there is such a thing. If so, what does it actually mean? They like to think of themselves as the true north, strong and free, an idea that is found in the national anthem. But does that characterization ring true for everyone within Canada’s borders? Is there something that can accurately sum up or capture the way that Canadians feel about themselves when they think about their national identity? The answer is an unequivocal no. Canadian identity has meant different things to different people at different times throughout our history. For an Inuit person on Baffin Island, for example, the conception of Canada is vastly different from that of a new immigrant to the Prairies and is still vastly different to an Acadian family in New Brunswick, yet all are Canadian. So if the country is host to an enormous diversity of background and experience, how can we ever sum up a concept as nebulous as Canadian Identity?1 One avenue to explore is through the rhetoric and speeches of our elected leaders.
The men and women we have elected into our highest office have had over a hundred and fifty years of practice projecting their ideals of Canada to the Canadian people. Each leader adds her/his own flavour to the mix. This essay is an examination of the themes that describe the Canadian identity during the tenure of Canada’s 22nd Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. This analysis is derived from an examination of the Leader’s Day address of 2004 and Speeches from the Throne presented to Parliament from the 39th to the 41st sitting. Those speeches cover many areas of policy but this paper examines especially the themes that focus on the domestic and international realms. As well, this essay pays particular attention to the uniqueness of the 2009 Speech from the Throne, a time in which Canada, as a nation, was struggling to find its way through the Global Financial Crisis. To preface, national identity has made use of the influential concept of ‘imagined communities’ brought to prominence by Benedict Anderson in his 1991 book of the same name. He argues that a nation is ‘imagined’ because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them or ever hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”2 In the categories that comprise this essay, major concepts will be identified as they pertain to the imagined community of Canada and how the government, led by Mr. Harper, envisioned that community.
Canada at Home
The decade that led up Mr. Harper’s election was one that was characterized largely by our relationship to the United States. The North American Free Trade agreement was inked in the mid-1990s and marked a new era of economic cooperation with the United States and the intertwining of our respective economies. This new age of collaboration with the US did not extend to their military activities, however. Although the tragic events of 9/11 led to increased cooperation and coordination between Canada and the United States, especially between the airspaces and redirection of flights to waiting Canadian runways, that cooperation did not extend as far as to whom should be blamed for the events in New York. Canada’s Liberal government refused to commit troops to the burgeoning war in Iraq as the invasion was not sanctioned by the United Nations. Canada’s refusal to join the invasion left the relationship between George W. Bush and Jean Chrétien strained, despite Ottawa committing to support America’s ‘war on terror’ by dispatching Canadian Forces personnel to Afghanistan.3
This existential uneasiness did not dissipate even as Canada worked with the US to increase border security and monitor what is suspected to be terror-related activities. In fact, the feelings of insecurity due to the terrorist threat continued to make life at home a bit more difficult for Canadians. Despite the fact that Canadian troops had played a leading role in Afghanistan for nearly five years by the time Mr. Harper arrived in office, there was a longing for nostalgia and the return of a more stable order domestically and abroad. That push for order came through the words of Governors General, Michaëlle Jean and David Johnston. The government mandate to be “tough on crime” made its way into six of the seven Speeches from the Throne delivered by the Governors General.4
The vision of Prime Minister Harper can be seen from the first Speech from the Throne in 2006. In it, he focused on crime committed with weapons illustrating to Canadians that he aspired to have a Canada where perpetrators of violent crime would be severely punished. That year’s Speech focused mostly on weapons-related violent crime, though much of the proposed legislation did not pass. It was swiftly repackaged into an omnibus bill with additional measures, including mandatory minimum sentences for first-time weapons’ offenders and drug traffickers, and was to be passed in the Senate shortly after the 2007 Speech from the Throne.5 The bill was eventually turned into a confidence vote as the Liberal Opposition had a different view of Canada and how Canadians should be kept safe, but the motion was passed as the Liberals staged a walkout and abstained from the vote.6 Although dealing aggressively with crime remained a high priority for the government, it was not mentioned in the 2009 Speech. However, the thread was picked up again in 2010 in hopes of reminding the electorate before 2011’s upcoming general election.
When the government returned from the second prorogation of the 40th Parliament, they had really sharpened their focus on promoting their record, seemingly very proud of the investments made, especially, into criminal defence infrastructure. Prime Minister Harper reminded Canadians of his government’s willingness to “crack down on crime and ensure the safety and security of neighbourhoods and communities.”7 They punished with one hand and consoled with the other by offering support to victims of crimes through Employment Insurance.8 Convinced that they had made major gains in this matter and had accomplished what they had set out to do, crime was mentioned only in passing in the Speeches from the Throne of the 41st Parliament.
In Harper’s construction of the Canadian identity, law and order clearly mattered. It was an issue that occupied much of the Conservative agenda and in many ways typified more broadly the conservative ideal of justice that criminals deserve severe punishments. However, it was not at all clear whether or not such attention accurately reflected the overall ideals of Canadians. Perhaps to avoid debate on its various components the Tackling Violent Crime Act was an omnibus bill and, despite its size and scope of the issues included, there was limited opportunity for it to be scrutinized by parliamentarians during the debate in the House of Commons. Even though many argued that violent crimes were actually declining in Canada which prompted some to question the necessity of the legislation, the bill was enacted into law largely because of the political tactics adopted by Mr. Harper.9 With its passage – and the rhetoric that Mr. Harper devoted to the issue – it was clear that he wanted his ‘tough on crime’ message and the notion that crime would be punished to be given a prominent role in his construction of Canadian identity.
Not only did Mr. Harper see security for Canadians in a more stringent and punitive criminal justice sphere but he also linked security and national identity to a more stable health system. Canada has long been proud of its universal health care system but that did not mean it was without its faults and challenges. While in opposition, the Conservatives accused Jean Chrétien’s Government of dereliction in their duty towards health care. They had cut out $25 billion from the system in 1995 as a way of dealing with the fiscal crisis of Canada’s deficit.10 When Mr. Harper became prime minister, his goal was to re-establish health care services to the point where they provided not only security for Canadians but also entrenched health security as part of his new national identity for Canada. He frequently pointed out to Canadians that due to the cuts under the previous Liberal administration, citizens had “all too often, [found] themselves waiting too long for critical procedures. That is not good enough,” he said. “It is time Canadians received the health care they have paid for.”11
Yet, the policy innovations in health funding and health care did not reflect Harper’s rhetoric. Despite his initial accusations from the Leader’s Day Speech in 2004 and his first Speech from the Throne, the mention of health care is sparse. Health care was not a priority in either the 2007 nor 2009 Throne Speeches and it was mentioned once in 2008 and then, only insofar as the government was planning to ensure transfer payments to the provinces continued to support the system during the financial crisis. In 2010 Harper heightened his rhetoric on social spending, adamantly stating that “Balancing the books will not come at the expense of pensioners. It will not come by cutting transfer payments for health care and education or by raising taxes on hard-working Canadians. These are simply excuses for a federal government to avoid controlling spending.”12 Despite their attempts to control spending, the government committed to an increase of the Canada Health Transfer in 2011.13
It would seem that despite the attention Mr. Harper put on the importance of health care in his time as Leader of the Opposition, the state of Canada’s health care system played less of a role in his speeches as Prime Minister. In his first Speech from the Throne, Mr. Harper noted that Canadians “were waiting too long for critical procedures.”14 By the end of his term the state of Canada’s health care system and the funding Ottawa provided to support it were only mentioned in passing. In the period from 2011 to 2013, the language devoted to health care was often seen simply as a way to signal to seniors that more funding would be allocated to study dementia.15 It seemed that despite the broken promise to institute a ‘patient wait times guarantee’, health care was more of a way to needle the government from the opposition benches and allow the Conservatives to stake a claim to protect an important aspect of Canada’s national identity .
That Conservative needle while in opposition was sharp on the Liberal handling of health care but there was no point that dug quite as deep as Mr. Harper’s call for government accountability. Prime Minister Chretien and his Liberal government had been plagued with questions of corruption for years and the Conservatives led the charge, proverbial pitchforks at the ready, to restore integrity to Ottawa. Harper had led the attack on Liberal corruption first as leader of the Canadian Alliance. He resigned his seat in the House of Commons as leader of the Canadian Alliance in order to run as leader for the newly minted Conservative Party of Canada and in the wake of the Gomery Commission into the Sponsorship Scandal, Mr. Harper returned to the House of Commons as the duly elected leader of the budding party and the leader of the Official Opposition. He spoke about that purported corruption in the House of Commons:
Mr. Speaker, I have to ask if anything happened while I was away. Two years ago my first questions as Leader of the Opposition were on Liberal waste, mismanagement and corruption. Two years later, we have no answers. Two years later, we have more Liberal waste, mismanagement and corruption. My question is simple and it is for the Prime Minister. How long until Canadians get answers to who is responsible and the truth behind this Liberal sponsorship scandal?16
When he became prime minister, Stephen Harper believed it was critical to restore government integrity as a virtue and reclaim it as an important element of the national identity. In his first Speech from the Throne, Mr. Harper introduced the Federal Accountability Act. It was another omnibus bill that aimed to “change the current system of oversight and management by strengthening the rules and institutions that ensure transparency and accountability…”17 Further measures were taken to convince Canadians that they could trust their elected governments. Corporate and union donations to political parties, as well as large personal donations, were eliminated and a five-year lobbying ban was introduced for political staffers working on Parliament Hill. Such measures were to “ensure that positions of public trust cannot be used as stepping stones to private lobbying.”18
It could be argued that the bans on donations and lobbying of elected officials and senior civil servants were, in essence, to protect and enhance Canada’s democracy and its public institutions. Analogously, Mr. Harper had a burning desire to have both chambers of Parliament fit within that democratic ideal. His dogged pursuit to reform the Senate which many Canadians believed had lost its effectiveness, made an appearance in every Speech from the Throne except for the 2009 Speech. At the outset of his administration, he had declared his intent to “ensure that the Senate better reflects the democratic values of Canadians…” and in what proved to be his final Throne Speech, he pronounced “That Government continues to believe the status quo in the Senate of Canada is unacceptable. The Senate must be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish.”19 Canada was founded as a democratic country and, as such, the ideals of democratic rule permeate the Canadian national identity. Mr. Harper sought to have a consistent democracy through all levels as commensurate with Canadian standards.
In a similar vein to his handling of health care, Mr. Harper seemed far less interested in adequately addressing accountability once he came into government than he had from the opposition benches. In fact, government accountability was only mentioned twice after the first Throne Speech; once in 2008 and again in 2013. Although the government was intent on holding others to account for their actions and missteps, including young offenders accused of serious crimes, food producers, and railway shippers, Harper’s actions on accountability of parliamentarians and public officials was mostly rhetoric.20
Mr. Harper was reluctant to publicly hold his own government to the level of accountability he demanded from the opposition benches. This reluctance was telling. As with most political leaders, Mr. Harper was indignant while Opposition Leader toward what he considered Liberal corruption and abuse of office but when he assumed power he was more content to resort to rhetorical flourishes rather than the implementation of policy to deal with the matter. He may have argued that all requirements were met by his Federal Accountability Act but his actions left more to be desired. Had government accountability really been a priority rather than a talking point, his government would have put much more work into addressing the concerns of civil servants and government scientists rather than having them muzzled under threat of termination.21 Instead, his priorities lay in ‘tax relief’ and ‘cutting red tape.’
Mr. Harper also wanted Canadians to believe that sound fiscal management was essential not only for the operation of the government but also essential to the national identity. Canadians, in Mr. Harper’s estimation, believed in fiscal fidelity. Mr. Harper inherited a stable financial footing from the previous government’s decade of fiscal management and their fiscal restraint. Even then, however, he badgered the government from the opposition benches and demanded “tax cuts across the board on investment, on consumption, on high marginal earners, on everyone.”22 When he gained the Prime Ministership, his government amended the Income Tax Act and reduced the Goods and Services Tax by one percent initially with another one percent reduction made in 2008. They spent the remaining seven years of their mandates reminding Canadians in every subsequent Speech from the Throne, save 2009 after the severe financial crisis, that his government was responsible for their ‘lower tax burden.’ They claimed that taxes were lowered to aid international competition, to spur growth of Canadian businesses and to relieve Canadians of some financial burden.23 A low-tax environment was an essential element of Mr. Harper’s national identity.
The lowering of tax rates was meant to streamline the economy. Mr. Harper’s vision of Canadian national identity included industrious Canadians owning and operating many thriving small businesses. His strategy to achieve that was to reduce the tax burden and increase efficiency by lessening government regulations — cutting red tape. Mr. Harper expressed concern over federal red tape causing “unacceptable delays in getting access to life-saving drugs.”24 In Mr. Harper’s appraisal, good government meant that meeting the needs of citizens and institutions was paramount. He viewed the bureaucratic apparatus as cumbersome and in need of a trimming. A suite of regulations and the civil servants enforcing them were cut in an effort to create efficiencies.25 His attempt to streamline government processes extended to the mining and resource sector by “providing a single window for major project approvals” and to the Public Service where emphasis was placed on it being “lean, competent and committed (emphasis added).”26
In examining Mr. Harper’s words as relayed by the Governor General, one can see that the picture he paints of the Canadian identity is one of a dynamic and competitive country where capable people need a less burdensome government. It is a picture where a Canadian is portrayed as someone who gets what they ask for. Whether they are asking for their government to be accountable, for their health care system to be responsive or a young offender for a stiff mandatory minimum, all you need to do is ask.
As was mentioned above, Prime Minister Harper wanted to reconstruct Canadians’ sense of national identity in international affairs as well as in domestic policy. Canada’s mission in Afghanistan had been underway for nearly five years prior to Mr. Harper taking office. Harper was a strong proponent of Canada’s engagement with its allies in international action. His commitment to aiding the British and American forces in the lead up to the war in Iraq was not shared by the Liberal Government. Canadian popular opinion also favoured a different direction to his but he remained dedicated to working with Canada’s traditional allies.27 Not surprisingly, the encouragement and acknowledgement of Canada’s military played a central role in each Speech from the Throne, except 2009. Mr. Harper promised support for a “stronger military” through a process that would lead to a modernization in its training and equipment. 28 His promise of better procurement of military hardware and eliminating any delay of purchase or delivery fit well with his vision of streamlined government processes.
By 2011, as the military mission in Afghanistan was nearing its end and Harper insisted that Canada had fulfilled the original commitment made to Parliament, his rhetoric shifted from what the military needed to fulfill Canada’s ambitions internationally to what the members of the military had given in sacrifice to protect freedom and liberty around the world (in Harper’s view). Their acknowledged efforts had prevented Kandahar province from being retaken by the Taliban.29 Additionally during this time, Canadian Forces were called upon to give aid to Haiti and assist with reconstruction after the country’s devastating earthquake in early 2010.30
On another front, the state of the relationship between the US and Canada in regards to military cooperation had deteriorated considerably. It was an open secret that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien did not see eye to eye with President George W. Bush in terms of foreign policy and national defence.31 Mr. Harper viewed this an unacceptable state of affairs. The lapse of the international relationship was something which did not fit within his view of Canadian national identity. Harper believed that Canada’s 13-year commitment to Afghanistan had re-established the importance of Canada’s military to its national identity. Moreover, the Afghan mission had made it clear to the world that Canada was determined to play a major role on the international stage not only rhetorically but by engaging in a very real way when military action was required to bring peace to troubled regions. During his final Throne Speech, Mr. Harper had the Right Honourable David Johnson read:
Consider this: we are honourable. People of peace, we use our military power sparingly; but when we do so we do so with full conviction, gathering our forces as men and women who believe that the freedoms we enjoy cannot be taken from us. This clarity focuses our might in terrible times. And wherever and whenever we unleash that might, we raise our grateful voices and our prayers to honour those who have stood in harm’s way for us.32
Harper took great pride in reclaiming an international role for Canada and he liked to point out that during his tenure Canada became a shining example that other countries should look to emulate. “Like the North Star, Canada has been a guide to other nations; through difficult times, Canada has shone as an example of what a people joined in common purpose can achieve.”33
Harper’s embrace of the Armed Forces was not so much one of reverence but of pragmatism. His use of the military was done so prudently to recapture the ideals of peacekeeping first set out by Lester Pearson and the Louis St. Laurent Liberals in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea of Canada using its relative stature in the world not to start armed conflicts but to mediate and provide a calming presence on the international stage is one to which Canadians like to cling and Harper understood that well. It reinforced the national narrative that even though Canada is a middle power, it knows how to use its international reputation to provide a value to the world and a sense of value to Canadians themselves.
2009 Speech from the Throne
Many of the themes present in every other Speech from the Throne were absent during the ‘09 address. This is due to the zeitgeist of the times. Canada was in the middle of weathering the Global Financial Crisis. As such, the singular rhetorical theme is ‘unprecedented economic uncertainty.’34 In a time as grave as that one felt, the Canadian people were looking for a leader who could chart a course through a storm. Mr. Harper’s words called upon citizens to remember their shared history and stand in solidarity with one another while the government adapted to the crisis. He emphasized that the government was consulting with job creators and non-profit sectors as well as municipal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal governments to build cooperation to navigate the impasse.35 The proposed stimulus was to support key industries, stabilize the financial system and protect the vulnerable. It played into the narrative of Canada as a caring society where all should flourish despite the difficult economic circumstances.
During that period of economic upheaval, Mr. Harper wanted to show that the steady and calming hand of a competent leader was something that Canada and Canadians sorely needed. The 2009 Throne Speech used metaphor to call for calm and cooperation — two attributes that fit firmly within the idea of a Canadian national identity. Canadians are not liable to act out of turn and their stereotypical politeness is synonymous with the calm required to weather any storm, physical or financial, and Harper understood that. The spirit of cooperation additionally plays deeply within Harper’s national context as the founding myths of the imagined community revolve around the give-and-take of colonial fur traders to First Nations and the interprovincial collaboration necessary to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Mr. Harper appealed to the collective memory of Canadians to remind them that they had the capacity to work together.
Stephen Harper was a calculating politician. The words that constituted his Speeches from the Throne were carefully chosen to elicit particular responses from the electorate. They signaled leadership to the country in times of uncertainty. They called for unity across the nation to weather the storm and make it through the financial crisis. His words were instrumental in crafting policy that shaped the Canadian identity and how Canadians think of themselves as Canadians. He added to the discourse in terms of the public appetite for government transparency, increased democratic participation, a more favourable environment to do business and a shining example of what other nations could achieve should they choose to live by the same values that make up the Canadian national identity. Harper’s approach to the question of national identity was reflected in his concession speech after the general election of October 2015. Despite being a thorn in the side of the Liberal government during his days as opposition leader and presiding over the his caucus with an authoritarian bend, he remained not only humble in defeat but confident that he had done his part to refurbish a new national identity:
“I wish to address all Canadians. Laureen and I have embraced public life because we believe that Canadians that are working hard should keep more of the money they earn because we believe that government should manage the people’s money the way that they manage their own. Because, because, friends we believe that in a dangerous world, Canada must without apology advance our values and our interests, and stand by our friends…We put everything on the table, we gave everything we have to give, and we have no regrets whatsoever. Friends, how could we? We remain citizens of the best country on Earth.”36
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1991.
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“CTV.Ca | Tories Table Crime Bill Motion, Liberals Walk Out”. Web.Archive.Org, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20080213213015/http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080212/liberal_walkout_080212/20080212?hub=TopStories.
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McFarland, Janet. “FEDERAL BUDGET On The Morning Following The Chrétien Liberals’ 10Th Budget, Janet McFarland Looks Back At A Nine-Year Journey From Deficit To Surplus And From Austerity Back To Activism”, The Globe And Mail, 2003, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/federal-budget-on-the-morning-following-the-chretien-liberals-10th-budget-janet-mcfarland-looks-back-at-a-nine-year-journey-from-deficit-to-surplus-and-from-austerity-back-to-activism/article4127026/.
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