I meet the future Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Nathan B/W

i realize that I've never really told my Stephen Harper story here so as Canada heads to the polls today to potentially re-elect Harper as our Prime Minister I figured now is as good a time as any.  It was in fact five years ago Thursday that all of this happened, so the timing is pretty appropriate.  We can call this an anniversary retelling of the story.

It was October 16th, 2003.  I was celebrating my twenty-fifth birthday and writing for The Phoenix at what was then Okanagan University College.  Jay-Z and Beyoncé were "Crazy In Love", Outkast was riding "Hey Ya!" for all it was worth [mo].  The American lead invasion and occupation of Iraq was only in it's seventh month, and the big debate in Canadian politics was whether or not we'd follow America into Iraq after standing by them for the invasion of Afghanistan.  The Liberals had stayed out of Iraq, and since the political landscape on the right was fragmented with the breakup of the old Progressive Conservative Party into the Conservatives and the Reform Party it looked like nothing was going to change.

In Kelowna The Phoenix as a news outlet had benefited from the breakup of the right because it had eventually lead us to having Stockwell Day as leader of the Reform Party and his George W. Bush-esque photo-ops and buffoonery were like mana from heaven for snarky student journalists.  The party's switch to Stephen Harper was a sad day for us, since he was a) not local (Day had his riding in Westbank/Summerland) and b) he was not an obviously complete fucking idiot.

There were no more homo-erotic press conferences on the shores of Lake Okanagan in a wetsuit.  There were no more hiring of criminals to spy on the other political parties.  There were no more defections of MPs.  There was no more fun.


Meeting of the minds

Brian Doubt (left) was the Managing Editor of the Phoenix during that time period.  I had tried to withdraw from the paper to a degree, to actually earn my degree, and him and Todd Leskie (right) were running the paper.  I think at that point I was probably the sports editor, but I wrote for other sections and was sort of the go-to-guy when something that nobody else wanted to do needed to be done.  That had more to do with the fact that I owned a car and was easily roped into doing errands than any sort of writing ability.

Thus when Doubt, who was high up in the Reform's youth movement, told us that newly appointed party head Harper was going to be speaking at a fund-raising dinner it seemed to fall on me to do the interview.  Doubt was too ethical to do it himself, and I believe our news editor did not have a car and lived in the dorms at North Campus so could not get down into the city and then back up.

I agreed, but it was not clear whether it would actually happen.  That very day Harper and Conservative leader Peter MacKay had just announced that they had agreed to merge the Reform and Conservative parties, reuniting the right.  Suddenly a fairly standard interview with the head of the Parliamentary Opposition Party became a fairly major interview. 

At one point during that day it was clear that there was no way it would happen, and so I made arrangements to meet Chad and Nathan for dinner at Kelly O'Brian's for my free birthday meal (a promotion that I believe they still run).  As I was leaving campus I found out, the interview was back on.

The timing worked out that I could go to Kelly O's, spend a bit of time with my friends and then head off for the interview which was to happen after Harper had spoken to local Reform boosters who were paying a large per-plate fee to get to see him speak.  Arriving at Kelly O's I found that Chad and Nathan were already there.  It was clear that Chad had wanted to get me absolutely hammered, since he had bought a platter of drinks that consisted of about twelve various shots. 

I protested.  He peer-pressured.  Eventually I relented, planning on having a few shots along with my meal which should not have been much.  After taking a few of the shots from the platter, but before ordering, Doubt called me telling me that the interview time had been moved up.  There would now no longer be time to eat anything, and so after having about six or seven of the shots I had to go interview Harper.

My dear hope was that I'd be able to do the interview before the liquor took effect.  A hope that was dashed when Nathan, who had joined me, and myself were forced to wait for nearly an hour in the waiting room of the Okanagan Grand Hotel.  Outrunning the inebriation was not going to work.  Eventually the doors to the main ballroom, where our high school had held our graduation/prom, opened and out poured the oldest people in Kelowna, all charter members of the Kelowna Reform Party.

Eventually Brian Doubt found us, and told us I'd have to be quick.  Harper was tired, having been up all night hammering out the details of the merger with Peter MacKay and then flying across the country to make the pre-scheduled dinner date.  There had already been a press scrum before the dinner, a fact that I hadn't been told, and so Harper was a bit annoyed that he was having to speak with a journalist at the point of the evening where he should be climbing into a warm bath.

To his credit he was polite, though clearly he was visibly exhausted.  Even when I asked him the question I saved until the end, just in case it instantly ended the interview, about whether or not he felt like a total failure after spending over a decade in a Reform Party that was now being re-absorbed into the Conservatives.  He of course gave a bullshit political response, listing all the things he figured that the Reform Party had accomplished.

What the Reform Party had accomplished was shifting the seat of power in the Conservative Party from the East to the West.  Sure they never ended gay marriage or do any of the other things that they talked about, but Stephen Harper got to become Prime Minister. Thankfully by the time that he did it was clear to even the most pro-American politician that the Iraq War was a total disaster and getting involved in it was madness.

Evenutally the interview ended, and I was quite glad that I had managed to not pass out or vomit on his shoes.  He went up to the penthouse, and I got a ride home so that I could type out the interview for the paper.

Stephen Harper went on to be the Prime Minister of Canada.  I went on to writing for free for a blog.  Clearly we know whose career has been better managed after that meeting.