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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 ...

At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, this month, Latin American leaders pushed hard for a resolution supporting Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands. Stephen Harper pushed back.

In a private session with leaders, according to people who know, the Prime Minister fiercely supported the right of the islanders to determine their fate, and they had chosen to remain British. For Canada, this was a matter of deep principle, Mr. Harper insisted.

The United States has always been neutral on the Falklands, but when Canada took the lead, President Barack Obama made it clear he backed Mr. Harper. The resolution failed.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was furious. “This is pointless. Why did I even come here?” the Argentinean president was overheard saying as she stormed out of the conference.

Mr. Harper's willingness to confront an entire hemisphere's worth of Latin American leaders, was born of the same deep conviction that has driven the law-and-order omnibus bill, that has made cutting sales and corporate taxes a top priority, that has given Canada the reputation of having Israel's back like no other nation, that imposed spending cuts and job cuts on the public service in the last budget.

One year after winning his first majority government, a milestone he marks on Wednesday, and more than six years after becoming prime minister, Stephen Harper bestrides Canadian politics, a principled economic and social conservative who is reshaping the nation.

And yet, after all this time, his notorious personal reserve incites suspicion and the big questions remain. Is this Prime Minister determined to dismantle the progressive state, built up over decades by previous governments? Or is his truly a moderate, centrist regime that has abandoned its radical roots and betrayed its conservative base?

As a party, the Conservatives are now in a tie with the New Democrats among decided voters, according to a Nanos Research poll released Friday.

Even more worrisome for Mr. Harper are the clouds gathering over his government, clouds that have many Canadians who thought highly of him only two months ago, the poll suggests, questioning his competence, trustworthiness and vision for the country.

But has Canada changed much at all under Mr. Harper? Are shifts in foreign and domestic policy incremental and sensible, or the first steps toward a “night watchman” state that polices the border and the streets, and does little else?

Has the government reined in environmental extremists or put our land and water at risk? Has it given Quebec the political space to pursue a separate destiny within a united Canada, or left French Canada dangerously estranged?

When we look at our country today, what do we see?

As for the man himself, who is this enigma? What lies behind that impassive mask? Do we know him any better now, after a year with a free political hand, than when he appeared on the national scene almost 20 ago?

It may well be that his angriest critics and most passionate advocates are both right. This Prime Minister's steady shifts in policy are not overly radical on their own but taken together are reshaping the nation's sense of itself. He has established what could be called a new “Brand Canada” – a land of low taxes, law and order and a strong military, infused with a robust nationalism, rooted in the West and powered by Ontario's affluent, aspirational suburbs.

This new Canada has eclipsed some once-potent political forces – the Liberal Party, Quebec, even Ottawa itself. There are dangers in their decline, as regions drift apart and factions grow more strident.

And as the Conservatives accelerate their efforts, resistance accelerates, as shown by the polls. The dramatic decline in the PM's personal cachet occurred as his government was being accused of suppressing the opposition vote during the last election, hiding billions in the cost of new fighter jets and breaking parliamentary ethics rules.

But this will pass, claims John Reynolds, the former B.C. MP and Harper confidant. “He'll get rid of the tough things in the first year or so, and then he's going to be in power for a long time.”

How long? “I think one of the achievements he'd like to have is to be the longest-serving Conservative prime minister – if not the longest serving prime minister” of all.

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