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Tory strategy seeks to stoke Canadians' true patriot love

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper unveils his party's platform during a campaign event in Mississauga, Ont.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

As the music pulses and jets roar overhead, Stephen Harper speaks with a fervour quite alien to his famously buttoned-down persona.

"It is our purpose that Canada must be great," he calls out in the Conservative advertisement: "By turns a courageous warrior and a compassionate neighbour," a country that is, "in every way that matters, the best country in the world."

This is the side of the Conservative election strategy that receives virtually no attention, that leaves many who do notice smirking or squirming, uncomfortable with a jingoism that Americans breathe but that Canadians avoid. Or used to avoid.

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The essence of the Conservative election strategy is not simply to tear the opposition down - though that is certainly part of it - but to appeal to a new Canadian nationalism rooted in diversity, success and the "Idea of the North."

It is a strategy that exploits the political breathing space that the Conservatives enjoy in this election. While Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe compete to dominate the left of the political spectrum, the Conservatives roam unfettered on the right, owning the economy as an issue, talking up their war on crime, not just defending but celebrating their decision to purchase a new generation of fighter jets and, most of all, waving a militant Canadian flag that the once-expatriate Mr. Ignatieff and the antimilitarist Mr. Layton are unable or unwilling to trump.

To be sure, the meat of the Conservative message is rooted in attack: warning of an "unnecessary election" that could result in a "fragile coalition," of also-ran parties that, to add the latest trope, would threaten national unity by leaving the government in thrall to the separatists. This approach seems to be working. The Conservatives remain well ahead of the Liberals in the polls.

Party strategists recognized, however, that the Tories needed a positive sell as well. The obvious choice was to take ownership of the new nationalism.

If you wonder what that new nationalism is and where to find it, the Conservatives will point you to Canada's belligerent domination of the Vancouver's Winter Olympics; to the new generation of immigrants, most of them from Asia, who have never heard of Louis Riel or the Crow rate, and who will never be made to care; to the intense new pride in the accomplishments of the armed forces from Afghanistan to Haiti. And they'll point to the North.

On Monday, in Yellowknife, Mr. Harper repeated the Conservative pledge to finally complete the final 140 kilometres of the Dempster Highway, which will link Inuvik with Tuktoyaktuk and, as Mr. Harper put it, "finally connect Canadians from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic."

Only the tiniest fraction of Canadians will ever visit the Canadian Arctic, let alone live there, but many will be attracted to the Conservative agenda of economic development, military reinforcement and aggressive assertions of sovereignty.

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The Liberals and NDP will tell you that fighting chronic native poverty, substance abuse, illness and lack of education should be higher priorities. Most Canadians would agree. But they will split their vote among the other parties.

And for those who dream of Canadian jets glinting in Arctic skies, icebreakers plowing across the Northwest Passage and new mines, harbours and rigs bringing wealth, jobs and people into the far North, the Conservative dream is compelling.

Tory strategists believe that their party's identification with the new nationalism will replace in this century the Liberal identification with the flag, public health care and multiculturalism in the last. It's a message for a cosmopolitan generation that Mr. Harper believes will help make the Conservatives the dominant political party in Canada for a generation or more.

He may be wrong. But for now, at least, he has the field to himself.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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