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An eight-year-old speech by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper in which he calls Canada a welfare state and says the unemployed are happy to be living off their benefits is being circulated by his critics.

The speech, delivered to a group of Americans in 1997 when Mr. Harper had left politics and was a vice-president of the National Citizen's Coalition, was discovered on the website of the Council for National Policy.

In it, Mr. Harper tries to describe Canada to Americans, as he praises U.S. social policies while deriding bilingualism and the gay-rights policy of the former Progressive Conservative party.

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"Canada is a Northern welfare state in the worst sense of the term," he says.

"In terms of the unemployed, of which we have over a million and a half, don't feel particularly bad for many of these people. They don't feel bad about it themselves, as long as they're receiving generous social assistance and unemployment insurance."

The Council for National Policy's website describes it as an "educational foundation" with more than 600 members drawn from "the fields of government, business, the media, religion and the professions." The site says the group's members believe in "a free-enterprise system, a strong national defence and support for traditional western values."

The speech was sent to several media outlets yesterday by people opposed to Mr. Harper's stand on social policies -- particularly his view that the same-sex marriage issue should be revisited.

It comes at a time when the relationship between Canada and the United States has become an election issue and shortly after Mr. Harper had written to the Washington Star to distance himself from American-style conservatism.

His thoughts on that subject were apparently different in 1997.

"Your conservative movement is a light and an inspiration to the people in this country and across the world," he said in his speech.

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The Conservative Party acknowledged yesterday that the speech was given by Mr. Harper. But they pointed out that it was delivered many years ago and much of it was tongue-in-cheek.

"There is nothing new about that speech. He gave it almost a decade ago," Mr. Harper's spokesman, William Stairs, said in an e-mail.

"It's been on the public record ever since. And it has been raised on various occasions, including the last leadership contest. As you can see from the remarks, it has a Press Gallery Speech flavour to it at the beginning. He is warming up his audience with some tongue-in-cheek remarks, albeit remarks that in some areas I think he would acknowledge would not be appropriate today. But as I say, it was done in a tongue-in-cheek manner."

But the Liberals were not about to accept that it was done in jest.

"This is very serious," said Liberal spokesman Ken Polk. "These are the words and the views of a man who aspires to be prime minister of Canada in 40 days. This is how he describes our country to an American audience."

Bilingualism is largely propaganda, Mr. Harper tells the group. Canada "is basically an English-speaking country," he says.

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In describing Canada's political system, he says the New Democrats are worse than a party of liberal Democrats. "The NDP is kind of proof that the devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men."

And on the Progressive Conservatives -- the party that amalgamated with his Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party -- he points out they were "in favour of gay rights officially, officially for abortion-on-demand."

NDP spokesman Jamey Heath said, "This is the attitude which shows why Stephen Harper is dead wrong for working families."

CORRECTION

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper wrote a letter to the editor of The Washington Times. An incorrect newspaper was named in a story yesterday.

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