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Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: Inside the mind of Stephen Harper

In honour of the 2015 Shaughnessy Cohen
Prize, OpenCanada is running excerpts from all five finalists.
Today, John Ibbitson’s biography of Stephen Harper. 

By: /
11 April, 2016
Stephen Harper biography

Update: John Ibbitson was awarded the prize April 20 in Ottawa for this book.

One of five finalists for this year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, here we present the biography of Stephen Harper, the 22nd prime minister of Canada, by Globe and Mail writer and former CIGI senior fellow John Ibbitson.

With impressive access and meticulous research, John Ibbitson writes a remarkable biography that puts us inside Harper’s head during some of the most critical moments of his life, providing the definitive picture to date of one of the most significant Prime Ministers in Canadian history,” the jury writes. 

“From his decision to drop out of university to his tumultuous relationship with Reform Leader Preston Manning, from his first date with Laureen to his majority win, Harper is captured magnificently in this gripping read for all Canadians.”

The following passage is excerpted from Stephen Harper: Copyright © 2015 John Ibbitson. Published by Signal/McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

A first encounter with the Upper Canadian elite

If, as essayist and editor B.K. Sandwell claimed, “Toronto has no social classes / only the Masseys and the masses,” the Massseys and their friends went to “Trins.” Bishop John Strachan founded the college in 1851 in bitter opposition to the Upper Canadian government, which had decided that King’s College, which Strachan had also founded, should be secular rather than Anglican. From that day onward, Trinity has fostered a reputation for exclusivity and exclusion. Small, cloistered, its architecture and mores a self-conscious imitation of Oxford or Cambridge, the college educated the sons and daughters of the elite, many of whom had already submitted their children to the academic excellence and social terrors of private boarding schools.

“We are the salt of the earth, so give ear to us,” the men and women of college loved to proclaim in their fake Oxbridge accents:

No new ideas shall ever come near to us!
Orthodox! Catholic!
Crammed with divinity!
Damn the dissenters,
Hurrah for old Trinity!

Students wore black academic gowns. At the men’s residence, jacket and tie were required for dinner. The food was appalling, but you could leave your coffee cup pretty much anywhere you liked, and someone would silently pick it up and return it to Strachan Hall.

The rituals of the college were bizarre, but proudly held. They included “pouring out,” in which second-year students would forcibly eject from the dining hall any man of college who annoyed his neighbours at the table; “deportations,” in which second-year students would kidnap first-year students and leave them stranded, sometimes naked, in a park, at Centre Island or even in another town; and Episkopon, in which the ghost of Bishop Strachan visited the men and women of the college to chastise them for their erring ways, through skits and songs composed by a committee that sought to push the boundaries of sexual – especially homophobic – humour.

Initiation was hell. Days of drinking and hazing culminated in the Cake Fight, in which the students of first year would seek to push through a phalanx of second-year students guarding the gate at Henderson Tower. Though the tower protected the sophomores, the freshmen were drenched in an indescribably foul concoction from the roof above that dedicated students had been preparing all summer. It typically included beer, urine, scraps from the kitchen, yeast, and anything else that could be found and then left to ferment in the heat. Only after surviving this misery were freshmen and -women entitled to don their gowns.

Trinity also offered an excellent education, and the camaraderie of a small college filled with exceptional students. Rather than eating college style, the students were served dinner, which brought the entire college together each night (the men at Trinity; the women at their own residence, St. Hilda’s), and the discussions and debates this fostered could be the best part of a student’s education. But a shy freshman arriving from a suburban, middle-class background, educated at public schools, already suspicious of the Tory descendants of the Family Compact with their snobbish disdain for anyone Not Like Us, could be traumatized by such an environment. Steve Harper lasted two weeks.

Or maybe three. No one can remember exactly; this isn’t a part of his life that Harper prefers to talk about. But he was clearly not happy at Trinity. He was put off by the huge, impersonal classes of the University of Toronto. He didn’t like the professors who warned the students that the person sitting beside them would be gone by Christmas. He didn’t like any of it.

Robert Harper does not believe that his brother’s decision to quit university was sudden; in fact, he believes it was something that had been brewing for more than a year, that Steve didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life and wasn’t prepared to commit to university until he had answered that question.

But whatever was going through his mind in the months leading up to his decision to quit, the fact remains that in his first encounter with the Upper Canadian elite – the young men and women who would go on to run the businesses, lead the political parties, manage the bureaucracies, and shape the arts and academies of English Central Canada – Stephen Harper decided he wanted none of it, or them. He could have tried to fit in to this new world, which was closed but less impermeable than in the past, but instead he fled from it. His decision to reject that world, and his sense of exclusion from it, would shape his life and his politics. It marked him.

It also produced a deep ambivalence toward academia that would shape the next decade of his life. It would be three years before he returned to university – an eternity for someone that young and that intelligent – and he would drop in and out of school repeatedly during his years as a graduate student. All his life, Stephen Harper has resisted taking orders from other people. Starting with professors.

Or maybe starting with his dad. The news that he was quitting university did not go down well with Joe and Margaret. They couldn’t believe their ears. Their eldest son had always worked so hard and done so well. How could he have decided to quit, and so quickly.

Joe had insisted that the boys pay their own university tuition, to instill the notion that a degree was a means to an end, and the end was a good job. In high school, Steve had worked as an office boy in a provincial government office, and as a summer clerk at the local LCBO to help pay for his tuition and books. If he wasn’t going to go to university, then he was going to have to earn a living. But doing what? He was nineteen and had only a high school education, but he didn’t care. The one thing that both Steve and his father agreed on was that he needed to get a job.

Gordon Shaw, a family friend, was overseeing offices for Imperial Oil in both Edmonton and Calgary. He got a call from Joe Harper, who confesses he had a problem with his son. “We can’t get along with him at home,” Shaw recalls his friend saying. Was there a job for Steve out there? There was – for an office clerk, in the Edmonton office. Shaw extended the offer. Steve took it immediately. At that point in their relationship, it appears, both Joe and Steve needed to put a couple of time zones between them.

At certain crucial times in his life, Stephen Harper has displayed a tendency to prefer flight over fight. If a situation becomes untenable, he simply abandons the situation, rather than trying to change it to his advantage. Over the years, Harper learned to curb this tendency, but he hadn’t yet when he was nineteen. The same week he quit school, he flew west to a new city, a new life, and a new job – though not much of one.

Steve Harper was on his own. 

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