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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, seen in this Reuters photo. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Globe Focus

Harper unbound: An analysis of his first year as majority PM Add to ...

Rise of the West

However crucial Pacific Ontario may be to the Conservative coalition, this is the most West-centric government ever. Westerners are to Ottawa today what Quebeckers were in the Trudeau years. They chair half of the 26 parliamentary committees, and the governor of the Bank of Canada, the clerk of the Privy Council and the chief justice of the Supreme Court are all Westerners, as is almost half of the governing caucus.

Truly two solitudes

The Tories' great good fortune is that the West and suburban Ontario, where they are strongest, are also the dynamic growth centres of the country. But Conservative success there leaves Atlantic Canada declining politically as well as economically and in terms of population. And, more dangerously, it isolates Quebec.

In its minority years, the Harper government actively wooed Quebec voters: giving the province a seat at UNESCO; recognizing the Quebec nation within Canada; rebalancing the notorious “fiscal disequilibrium;” promising compensation for a harmonized sales tax and funding for a new Montreal bridge.

But last May, the Conservatives defied conventional wisdom by winning a majority without substantial support from Quebec. And since that victory, their policies and announcements, if not calculated to offend Quebeckers, appear indifferent to such offence. Stripping equalization components out of programs, as the Tories have begun to do, does not favour the province that is the largest recipient of equalization. Putting the “royal” back in navy and air force is like a red flag to a province with little affection for the monarchy. Cutting funding to the CBC is a hostile move in a province where Radio Canada is a valued cultural voice.

Scrapping the gun registry and refusing to let Quebec keep its own records, toughening sentencing even though Quebec emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, abandoning the Kyoto Accord and pulling back on environmental assessments even though Quebec prides itself on its low-carbon footprint – none of this has gone down well.

Yet the most profound impact may be indifference – a willingness to let Quebec go its own way without asserting the role and importance of the federal government within the province. It is one thing to win without Quebec and another to govern without it.

“For the average Quebecker under 35, the federal government is totally irrelevant,” says André Turcotte, a pollster who teaches political communication at Carleton University. He describes Mr. Harper's unwillingness to engage the province as “separatism by default ... quiet detachment ... a marriage with separate bedrooms.”

And that's with a Liberal government in Quebec City. No one knows what would happen if the Parti Québécois ever came back to power.

“The situation is very volatile,” adds John Parisella, former chief of staff to premiers Robert Bourassa and Daniel Johnson and, until recently, Quebec's representative in New York.

“The Harper government has to be aware that Quebeckers are sensitive,” he warns. “There is an emerging discourse coming especially from the PQ that the Harper government is trying to create a Canada without Quebec.”

That said, he remains confident that Quebec and Canada have both evolved away from endless fits and fights. In fact, Mr. Harper's strongest suit in confronting a separatist Quebec premier may be his record, despite the affronts of the past year, of simply leaving Quebec alone.

Yet another transformation the Harper's Conservatives have effected is intangible, and yet perhaps more pivotal than any other.

Mr. Muttart argues that Mr. Harper has created nothing less than a new national narrative. “He has carved out a space that is unique, that is authentic.”

This narrative, which Mr. Muttart has long existed but been dormant, features a robust military, a strong defence of the Arctic, the ties to the British monarchy, the celebration of Canadian excellence in sports. It celebrates individual freedom ostensibly liberated by a government retreating from the excesses of the welfare state. It celebrates families with children as the bedrock of a well-ordered society.

This is, emphatically, Stephen Harper's Canada, instilled in him while growing up in Toronto's Leaside and Etobicoke, nurtured during his years at the University of Calgary. But though it is his narrative, it resonates with millions of others.

It competes with the long-entrenched Liberal narrative that celebrates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, peacekeeping, multiculturalism and variegated sexualities, a Canada the world should want more of.

Although the Liberal idea of Canada remains robust, in Canada today Mr. Harper's new Brand Canada seems to be on the rise: aggressively patriotic, conservative in fiscal policy and on the law-and-order front, relatively unconcerned about the environment, at least at the federal level, proud of its military and willing to spend money on it, led by a man who runs his government with a cool head and a committed conservative heart.

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