In my line of work, I get a lot of strange phone calls. But this one was different. The voice on the other end reflected an odd combination of authority and desperation.

I am Canada’s greatest living symbologist, expert in deciphering the hidden connections between seemingly innocent visual cues embedded in art, literature and the stock market tables. My caller was Arthur Price, renowned special projects curator at the National Gallery of Canada. It was 11:15 on a sultry summer night in Ottawa, where I had earlier delivered a lecture on the semiotics of The Trailer Park Boys. Nevertheless, he implored me to come to his office immediately.

Thirty minutes later, he whipped a linen cover from an impressive landscape painting by Tom Thomson, a recent gift to the gallery from the federal government. “Lovely,” I said, “but why am I here?”

“Count the pine trees,” he grimly instructed.

Puzzled, I pored over the landscape. I counted twice, to be sure. “There are precisely 155 pine trees, Mr. Price.”

“You can call me Art,” he replied. “Does that number mean anything to you?”

“The price of gas per litre, in cents?”

“No, not yet. Here, look at this,” he said impatiently, moving to a conference table cluttered with file folders, maps and newspaper clippings. “How much will the one-point GST cut save on the purchase of an imported Korean car?”

I quickly did the math: $155.

“Mere coincidence, you say? I think not.” Silently, I conceded the curator was right. I had studied symbology long enough to know there are no coincidences where symbols are concerned.

He continued: “Stephen Harper met with Jean Charest three times in the first 30 days of his government. At that pace, they would meet 155 times during a normal four-year term of office.”

“Listen, Art,” I interjected. “Aren’t you getting a bit paranoid here? How is this relevant?”

“I may be paranoid, but that doesn’t mean I’m not being followed, does it? Jim, think about it. How many seats are in the House of Commons?”

My mind was reeling. Suddenly, the pieces fell into place — 155 seats allows a winning party to appoint the Speaker, and still have a majority. Now it made sense: All those trips to Quebec. The GST cut, ignoring advice from virtually every economist. Opening the Pandora’s box of fiscal federalism. To the uninitiated, they seemed like random, disparate events. But all were actually motivated by Stephen Harper’s single-minded quest for the Holy Grail of politics: 155 seats.

Art Price watched the comprehension flash across my face.

“It’s not just Stephen Harper. The whole plan was designed by a powerful secret society that has been plotting for years to seize control of the institutions of government.”

“Which one?” I asked. “The Freemasons? The Priory of Sion?”

“No. The C. D. Howe Institute. And it might just work, too. The opposition parties aren’t exactly standing in the way.”

“Do you know how long it’s been since Parliament last passed a budget without a single opposing vote?”

“Don’t tell me — 155 years?”

“At least. But, despite their scheming, the game still isn’t quite going according to plan. Mr. Harper’s cabal is sophisticated and disciplined. But they have a weak spot: They can’t fully shake off decades of religious training in the commandments of neo-conservatism. Every now and then, their allegiance to these ancient beliefs pushes them to speak and act in ways that reveal their ultimate intentions. That scares the voters, and the Grail recedes from reach.”

I knew what he was referring to. The rubber-stamping of U.S. foreign policy, even in cases (such as Lebanon) where Canadian lives were endangered. The pursuit of new free-trade agreements, driven by ideology, not economics. The simultaneous and contradictory sellout of the lumber industry through “managed trade.” The trashing of Kyoto and gun control. These all hurt Mr. Harper’s quest — especially in Quebec (where most scientists believe the Holy Grail is now hidden).

“It’s in the hands of the people,” the curator concluded. “If they can crack the Harper Code and see what he’s ultimately up to, they have the power to stop him. If not, he’ll soon possess the Holy Grail — and, with it, untold power to implement his master plan.”

My vision blurred with a combination of fatigue and apprehension. And as I gazed at the Tom Thomson landscape, I could swear I saw the pine trees moving before my eyes.

Whether there were now more than 155 trees, or less, I couldn’t quite tell.


Jim Stanford

Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work, and divides his time between Vancouver and Sydney. He has a PhD in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York,...