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Canada’s cold new dawn

May 04, 2011

CANADA woke up to an election shock recently. It was a self-inflicted jolt. After three minority governments in seven years, a man of the hard right named Stephen Harper finally has his win.

He triumphed over Michael Ignatieff who had returned to Canada to lead the Liberals, often described as the country’s traditional party of government. Instead, Ignatieff got whacked, and the left-leaning New Democratic party did very well indeed. The Liberals were humiliated, the New Democrats came in a powerful second and a Canadian version of George W.

Bush, minus the warmth and intellect, is now prime minister.

What happens now is the full-scale Americanisation of Canada, hinted at over the past seven years by Harper — he fired people who talked too loudly about this — but not acted upon because Canadians have always valued their distinctiveness from the angry country in decline south of the border.

It doesn’t win votes to say you want to de-Canadianise Canada, long known as a bastion of free healthcare, destination of refugees and immigrants, and a place that worries about climate change. But Harper once sneeringly referred to Canada as a typical northern European ‘welfare state’. He grew up in Calgary, Alberta, a western province that has long felt sneered at, and has spent his political career redressing the balance.

Harper’s Conservatives will pass an omnibus law and order bill within 100 days to make jail sentences mandatory for many offences, and begin building super-jails, copying a system that even its authors, the Americans, have begun to abandon. The huge purchase of fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, which was an election issue, will now go ahead — Harper says it will cost $9bn, government auditors say $39bn — as will massive military shipbuilding.

The Evangelist Christian right is at the heart of Harper’s Conservative party, and after years of being shushed, it will now demand an end to a number of things, including abortion rights. Canada has no law against abortions, and they are available free.

Corporate taxes will be cut almost immediately, Bush-style. Political financing laws will change — parties now get money for each vote — but this will end under the Conservatives, who will have a huge advantage in terms of the amount they can solicit in corporate donations.

Harper himself is a famously strange man. Humourless and awkward in gait, he was once photographed shaking hands with one of his own children. This will be on full display in the summer as William and Kate undertake their first royal tour, of Canada. Harper has picked the dullest bits of the country because they are the parts he doesn’t hate. You will see the royals in places where everyone goes to bed at 6:30. You will see Harper’s wife look glum while William and Kate smile gamely.

And what of Ignatieff’s defeat? Canada comprises cities separated by vast distances. It is a real achievement to lose the cities, and Ignatieff managed it. Again we feel the influence of Bush: the modern excoriation of intellect scared Ignatieff and he began droppin’ his g’s and decrying all that was “partisan” — which is American for believing in something.

The triumph of Harper’s Conservatives is a revolution in Canada. Grumpy old men are happy but modernists, women, young people, immigrants, people fond of evidence-based policy will be much less so. It’s the beginning of a kind of war, conducted in a dull, quietly agonising way. — The Guardian, London