Mention the phrase “Stephen Harper’s hidden agenda” and most Canadians are likely to assume you’re referring to his party’s pre-Paleolithic stance on social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage.

But since being elected last year, the reality is Harper has been equally at pains to hide his real views on foreign policy matters. The reason for this subterfuge is not all that mysterious: he knows that there is absolutely no market for a foreign policy that is blatantly pro-American.

Just how captivated is Harper with the rocket’s red glare? In 2003, Harper made a speech to the Montreal Economic Institute in which he called for the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. to have “cabinet rank.” According to Harper, “this will directly link the activities of our government in Ottawa to our activities in Washington.”

The incredible suggestion received little attention at the time, which makes it far easier for the Conservatives to pretend it was never spoken. But even if one accepts the notion that Harper has experienced a genuine change of heart on the proposal, the fact that he thought it was a good idea at the time speaks volumes about the depth of Harper’s willingness to pledge allegiance to Washington.

During the lead-up to the now thoroughly discredited war against Iraq, Harper gave further illustration to the foreign policy he’d really like to put forward. Calling the actions of the Canadian government “gutless,” “cowardly,” and “a serious mistake,” Harper told then Defence Minister John McCallum, “We want you to support the war, you idiot,” in a heckling exchange in the House of Commons.

His other comments at the time indicate a clear willingness to allow American military objectives to determine Canadian policy. At an event in April 2003 dubbed the “Friends of America Rally,” Harpercalled the U.S. “our best friend in the whole wide world.” On Fox News, Harper told Americans that he was speaking “for the silent majority” in Canada endorsing the war.

Some Americans were listening, and they clearly liked what they heard. A Washington Times article published during the last federal election campaign predicted that Harper (who it accurately described as “pro-free trade, pro-Iraq war, anti-Kyoto and socially conservative”) would be “Mr. Bush’s new best friend internationally and the poster boy for his ideal foreign leader.” But even though author Patrick Basham probably thought he was paying Harper a compliment, he was surprised to get angry responses from Canadian Conservatives.

“I had to stop printing them off because there was a pile on the floor. The Conservative Canadian reaction has been overwhelmingly negative,” said Basham. “Conservative Canadians accused me of costing Harper the election.”

Even Harper got in on the act, writing a letter to the editor which listed the alleged differences between his party and the White House.

American Conservatives may have been soiling themselves over the prospect of a Harper government, but they soon understood that saying so was a bad idea. An email circulated in the last week of the campaign by Conservative guru Paul Weyrich indicated that the Conservatives were “within striking distance of electing an outright majority” and encouraged recipients to avoid doing anything to jeopardize their chances.

“Please do not be interviewed until Monday evening (election day) at which point hopefully there will be reason to celebrate.”

Now that Harper is enjoying the spoils of his tenuous minority, both he and his supporters (on both sides of the border) understand the need to maintain a continued distance between Ottawa and Washington. While the Conservatives have provedeager to exploit every possible photo and rhetorical opportunity in Afghanistan, there have been no attempts to fulfill Conservative dreams of a Canadian presence in Iraq, or participation in U.S. missile defence.

Harper even managed to sound somewhat cross with the Bush Administration when it was discovered that torture victim Maher Arar was still on America’s no-fly list.

With all these political considerations in mind, Harper’s desire to fulfil the wishes of his “best friend in the whole wide world” has been relegated to lower profile issues such as the egregiously one-sided softwood lumber agreement that his government signed last year.

While the Conservatives continue to pretend they’re maintaining a respectable distance, Canadians would be well-advised to watch for more signs of the mask slipping. And if Harper is successful in gaining a majority, we can expect the hidden foreign policy agenda to be revealed in its entirety.


Scott Piatkowski

Scott Piatkowski is a former columnist for He wrote a weekly column for 13 years that appeared in the Waterloo Chronicle, the Woolwich Observer and ECHO Weekly. He has also written for Straight...