The Walrus Magazine , October 2004
The Man Behind Stephen Harper
The new Conservative Party has
tasted success and wants majority rule.
If Tom Flanagan and his Calgary School have their
way, they'll get it without compromising their
by Marci McDonald
Consternation rumbled across the country like an approaching thunderhead. For
aboriginal leaders, one of their worst nightmares appeared about to come true.
Two weeks before last June's federal election, pollsters were suddenly
predicting that Conservative leader Stephen Harper might pull off an upset and
form the next government. What worried many in First Nations' circles was not
Harper himself, but the man poised to become the real power behind his prime
ministerial throne: his national campaign director Tom Flanagan, a U.S.-born
professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
Most voters had never heard of Flanagan, who has managed to elude the media
while helping choreograph Harper's shrewd, three-year consolidation of power.
But among aboriginal activists, his name set off alarms. For the past three
decades, Flanagan has churned out scholarly studies debunking the heroism of
Métis icon Louis Riel, arguing against native land claims, and calling for an
end to aboriginal rights. Those stands had already made him a controversial
figure, but four years ago, his book, First Nations/Second Thoughts, sent
tempers off the charts.
In it, Flanagan dismissed the continent's First Nations as merely its "first
immigrants" who trekked across the Bering Strait from Siberia, preceding the
French, British et al. by a few thousand years – a rewrite which neatly
eliminates any indigenous entitlement. Then, invoking the spectre of a country
decimated by land claims, he argued the only sensible native policy was outright
Aboriginal leaders were apoplectic at the thought Flanagan might have a say in
their fate. Led by Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First
Nations, they released an urgent open letter demanding to know if Harper shared
Flanagan's views. Two months later, Harper still had not replied. For Clément
Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, his silence speaks cautionary
volumes. Martin's minority government could fall any minute, giving Harper a
second chance at the governmental brass ring. "If Flanagan continues to be part
of the Conservative machinery and has the ear of a prime minister," he worries,
"it's our existence as a people that's at stake."
That protest provided a wake-up call about Harper's agenda for others too – not
least among them disenchanted Tories who found themselves shut out of the
election campaign. At a time when Harper remains vague about his agenda and the
Conservatives' first policy convention has been postponed, some have been
stunned to discover that the party's course may have already been set by
Flanagan and a handful of like-minded ideologues from the University of
Calgary's political-science department.
Who are these men – for they are, without exception, men – in Harper's backroom
brain trust, collectively dubbed the "Calgary School" Flanagan won his
conservative spurs targeting the prevailing wisdom on the country's native
people – what he calls the "aboriginal orthodoxy." Others like Rainer Knopff and
Ted Morton – Alberta's long-stymied senator-elect – have built careers, and a
brisk consulting business, taking shots at the Charter of Rights, above all its
implications for the pet peeves of social conservatives: feminism, abortion, and
But what binds the group is not only friendship, it's a chippy outsiders' sense
of mission. In a torrent of academic treatises and no-holds -barred commentaries
in the media, they have given intellectual heft to a rambunctious, Rocky
Mountain brand of libertarianism that has become synonymous with Western
That neo-conservative agenda may read as if it has been lifted straight from the
dusty desk drawers of Ronald Reagan: lower taxes, less federal government, and
free markets unfettered by social programs such as Medicare that keep citizens
from being forced to pull up their own socks. But their arguments echo the local
landscape, where Big Oil sets the tone – usually from a U.S. head office – and
Pierre Trudeau's 1980 National Energy Policy left the conviction that
Confederation was rigged against the West.
They also share one beef not confined to Alberta: exasperation at Ottawa's
perennial hand-wringing over Quebec. In a 1990 essay in the now defunct West
magazine, Barry Cooper, Flanagan's closest departmental pal, advised Quebec
separatists that if they were heading for the federal exit, they'd better get on
with it – or, as he now sums it up, "The sooner those guys are out of here the
better." Cooper and David Bercuson, now director of the university's Centre for
Military and Strategic Studies, promptly followed up with Deconfederation:
Canada without Quebec, a polemic that rocketed to the top of bestseller lists
and sent shockwaves across the country.
Cooper's article was entitled "Thinking the Unthinkable," a headline that might
have been slapped on most of the Calgary School's work. Revelling in their
unrepentant iconoclasm, its members take pride in airing once verboten ideas
that they have helped convert to common currency in the national debate. "If
we've done anything, we've provided legitimacy for what was the Western view of
the country," says Cooper, the group's de facto spokesman. "We've given
intelligibility and coherence to a way of looking at it that's outside the St.
Lawrence Valley mentality."
But what has put the Calgary School on mainstream radar is not merely its
academic rabble-rousing, it's the group's growing influence on Canadian
realpolitik – first through Preston Manning, whose Reform Party tugged the
ruling Liberals inexorably to the right; now through Stephen Harper, who
commands the best parliamentary showing for any combination of conservatives in
a decade – and sits only a vote of confidence away from toppling the government.
In both cases, the linchpin has been Flanagan, once Manning's right-hand man,
who masterminded Harper's campaign and remains his closest confidant.
Little is known about the shadowy, sixty-year-old professor who is staying on
Harper's post-election payroll as a senior advisor from Calgary. Flanagan
declined to be quoted in this story. In Ottawa, where he has refused interviews
for the last three years, some journalists regard him as a modern-day Rasputin
manipulating a leader sixteen years his junior. But in Calgary, one of his
former students, Ezra Levant, publisher of the eight-month-old Western Standard
magazine, cautions against that generational cliché. These days, Levant sees
Flanagan and Harper more as "symbiotic partners." But he does not disagree with
a Globe and Mail report that once referred to Flanagan as the original godfather
of the city's conservative intellectual mafia. "I call him Don Tomaso," Levant
says. "He is the master strategist, the godfather – even of Harper."
The first clue that the University of Calgary political science department is
not quite like any other stares out from Room 748 of the Social Sciences tower –
the book-crammed cubby-hole that serves as Barry Cooper's office. Above a
visitor's chair hangs the mounted head of a black-tailed deer, academic
conference credentials dangling from its antlers. Cooper didn't bag the deer
himself, but that doesn't mean he would have had qualms about doing so. One of
the ties that binds the members of the Calgary School is their macho derring-do
in the wilds.
Cooper's bulletin board is littered with snapshots chronicling their hunting and
fishing trips. Flanagan, who declines to hunt, is an avid hiker and fisherman
who for years led Cooper, Bercuson, and assorted others on an annual angling
expedition to the Northwest Territories, where they flew in by Twin Otter to a
cabin on Hearne Lake. As airfares soared, Flanagan decreed a change of venue.
"Tom said, ‘This year we've got to go for meat fish,'" Cooper recalls. "Then he
cancels out because of the bloody election."
Harper himself has never been part of the Calgary School's rollicking
outdoorsmanship. But their tales provide grist for an image mill meant to set it
apart from the Eastern academic establishment, which Cooper scorns for its
timorous "garrison mentality." As a disgruntled voice of the West in his weekly
Calgary Herald columns, Cooper plays his own role to the hilt. He loves to
recount how his great-grandmother shot an Indian intruder in her Alberta ranch
house and his uncle announced the Calgary Stampede for forty-two years. He is
less quick to admit that, growing up as the son of a wealthy doctor in
Vancouver, he went to Shawinigan Lake School, one of the country's more elite
private boarding schools, north of Victoria.
In fact, Cooper didn't come to U of C until 1981 – the last of the group to
arrive – after ten years teaching at York University, where Jack Layton was one
of his students. His friends from those days can't recall him showing any
interest in politics until he moved west. "Barry's ideas were shaped by
Alberta," says Edward Andrew, a political-science professor at the University of
Toronto, who dismisses his old pal as "a poseur. Partly he just likes to be a
bad boy," Andrew says. "The only influence on Cooper was that he didn't get a
job at U of T, despite my best efforts, so he became a Western chauvinist."
Andrew is not so indulgent about Flanagan, whose flinty reserve and dry wit
often earn him the label "chilly." Unlike Cooper or Bercuson, Flanagan appears
never to have strayed from a conservative path. As he likes to point out to
startled Canadians, that path began in Ottawa – Ottawa, Illinois, a blue-collar
town 130 kilometres southwest of Chicago. What he seldom mentions is Ottawa's
chief claim to fame: on August 21, 1858, ten thousand people gathered in the
town square to hear the state's young senatorial candidate, Abraham Lincoln,
square off against his rival Stephen Douglas in the first of their legendary
debates on slavery.
Flanagan shrugs off the Lincoln-Douglas debates as meaningless in shaping his
political world view – just a plaque in the park. Shirley Hiland, a fellow
student at Marquette High, is not surprised. Hiland recalls that the nuns on the
Roman Catholic school's teaching staff avoided such potentially charged chapters
of history. Instead, they focused on the heroic feats of the French missionary
who gave the school its name: Father Jacques Marquette who teamed up with the
voyageur Louis Jolliet to become the first Europeans to discover and trace the
Mississippi. "The emphasis was on Father Marquette," Hiland says, "and how he
brought Catholicism to the Indians."
In a town where almost everybody worked for Libby Owens Ford, Flanagan's father
had a white-collar job, managing the outlet of an autoparts chain, that put the
family a notch up the local social ladder. The defining influences on the
household were the Roman Catholic Church and the Republican Party, two forces
that did not always mix. Most U.S. Catholics then voted Democrat, but the only
time Flanagan's father made that radical gesture was in 1960 when a fellow Irish
Catholic named John Kennedy ran for president.
Popular and known for taking on any teacher he thought had made a mistake,
Flanagan graduated from Marquette in 1961 as class valedictorian, winning a $500
scholarship from the Retail Clerks of America – more than half his college
tuition – a reward for his after-school labours at the town A & P. His father
wanted him to go to Harvard, but he opted for the Catholic bastion of Indiana's
Notre Dame, where political science meant Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and
On every side, the social glue of America was coming unstuck: Kennedy was
assassinated, Martin Luther King marched on Washington, and protests against the
Vietnam War were breaking out like wildfires. But at Notre Dame, Flanagan found
a haven of tradition and certainty. There he met his first wife and was
captivated by another figure who would shape his career: Eric Voegelin, a
German-born philosopher who had fled Hitler and blamed a flawed utopian
interpretation of Christianity for spawning totalitarian movements like Nazism
and Communism. In Voegelin's complex Weltanschauung, Flanagan found a
philosophical framework that reconciled his Roman Catholic faith with his
family's conservative politics. He confided later that he felt he'd been
drifting leftward. Suddenly, Voegelin pulled him back from that perilous course.
Flanagan went on to pursue his PhD at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina,
where John Hallowell, one of Voegelin's disciples, presided over the political
science department. Among his fellow grad students was an ebullient Canadian
with whom he found himself sharing real estate at the campus library. "I show up
in the carrel I've been assigned," Cooper recalls, "and Flanagan's in it."
They worked out shifts – Flanagan, by then married, got the cubicle by day,
Cooper at night – laying the foundations for a forty-year friendship. In 1996,
at the height of Flanagan's notoriety for Riel-bashing, Cooper thumbed his nose
at his pal's critics by nominating him to the Royal Society of Canada. "I don't
think I disagree with Tom on anything," Cooper says. "Political or
In Durham, a North Carolina radio host named Jesse Helms was constantly
denouncing desegregation on air, cloaking his rage in the mantra of federal
decentralization: states rights. But classmates can't recall Flanagan or his
Duke pals ever debating lunch-counter sit-ins or other Sixties' hot-button
issues when they met for barbecue and hush puppies on Friday nights. "I don't
remember any discussion of the civil-rights movement or the draft," says Elliot
Tepper, a Carleton professor who was Cooper's roommate. "We were not into sex,
drugs, and rock'n'roll. We were into witty exchanges of bons mots."
The closest brush Flanagan had with the hurly burly of live politics was the
friendship he struck up with one of Cooper's professors, Allan Kornberg, Duke's
expert on decoding the statistical mysteries behind voting patterns – a science
then still in its infancy. A native of Manitoba, Kornberg was celebrated on
campus for financing his academic career not only as a lineman for the Winnipeg
Blue Bombers, but as a professional wrestler, the "Kosher Krusher." He was a key
influence on Duke's Canadian studies program, and since 1964 has charted the
political winds in Canada, including those that swept through the last election.
Now, at 73, the self-confessed "registered Republican" applauds Flanagan and
Cooper's increasing clout. "Given the left-of-centre intellectual climate in
Canada," he says, "I'm delighted. It's good for debate."
Kornberg has been periodically seconded to ply his expertise on Canada for the
U.S. government, probing the risk of a destabilizing crack-up on America's
northern flank. Before the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty, he was on loan
to Washington's National Science Foundation, constantly measuring Lucien
Bouchard's péquiste troop strength. Later, he took the pulse of Reform Party
voters. Beneath the yawn-inducing titles of his studies – A Polity on the Edge:
Canada and the Politics of Fragmentation – his work has surveyed the national
psyche through every tremor that might send U.S. bureaucrats scrambling for a
foreign-policy Plan B. Those governmental gigs are listed on Kornberg's
curriculum vitae, along with consulting stints to the U.S. State Department and
the Pentagon. But in a phone interview, he adds one detail: during the Vietnam
War he was "a consultant on psychological operations and counter-insurgency" – a
rare intelligence assignment for a political numbers cruncher.
In 1967, Flanagan's burgeoning friendship with Kornberg spawned his first
scholarly paper: a joint study of the ultra-conservative voters who backed Barry
Goldwater's abortive 1964 bid for the White House. Even then, Kornberg regarded
Flanagan as one of Duke's most conservative students. "He believes many people
want a risk-free society," Kornberg says. "He is sort of like Goldwater: he
believes people have to take care of themselves."
What brought Flanagan to Alberta where that bootstrap ideology would find such
fertile ground? He says only that he needed a job: he and his wife had already
started a family (last year his oldest daughter, Melissa, retired from a
twelve-year communications career with the U.S. Army). At the time, new Canadian
universities were hatching across the country, prompting a hiring spree that
outstripped the national crop of PhDs. But Flanagan didn't apply for the post.
In the spring of 1968, when he was offered an assistant professorship – just as
Pierre Trudeau came to power – he was researching his thesis on an obscure
German novelist in the turbulent compound of the Free University of West Berlin,
a U.S.-funded institution briefly shuttered by anti-American protests. When the
offer arrived in the mail, Flanagan had to go to the library to look up Calgary
on a map.
The invitation came from E. Burke Inlow, another American, and the first head of
U of C's political-science department. An expert on Iran and the Far East who
died last year, Inlow himself had been recruited directly from an assignment
with the Pentagon. There, according to his son, Brand, a Calgary lawyer, he was
engaged in "cultural work – providing intelligence to people we (the U.S.
government) were sending to the Middle East."
For Inlow, Flanagan's conservative inclinations were no coincidence. He and his
successors set out expressly to counter the prevailing leftist currents on the
country's campuses. "Canadian universities were almost the fiefdom of Karl
Marx," says Anthony Parel, a Jesuit-trained expert on Machiavelli, whom Inlow
hired from Radio Vatican in Rome. "We wanted balance." Balance is always in the
eye of the beholder. Soon critics charged that the department had leaned too far
to starboard. "They said we were all right-wing reactionaries," Parel winces.
"Very offensive epithets were used." Radha Jhappan, now an associate professor
at Carleton, remembers concluding it was pointless to apply for a more senior
post in what she now refers to as the "department of redneckology." At U of C,
"I realized they'd rather hire a chimpanzee than me," she says. "I was perceived
as leftist, feminist – everything they can't abide."
Still, it wasn't until the spring of 1996 that Flanagan bounded into the
department brandishing a paper from a scholar at Johns Hopkins' School of
Advanced International Studies in Washington. "He said, ‘Hey guys, guess what?
We're a ‘school!' " Cooper recalls. That twenty-page treatise entitled "The
Calgary School: The New Motor of Canadian Political Thought" reported that a
band of Alberta academics had "given birth to a new form of nationalism, that in
turn is changing the terms of debate in English Canada."
Today, its members can't seem to decide whether to bask in their ongoing
celebrity or shoot down the notion entirely. "It's an external construct,"
scoffs Cooper, rhyming off the group's internal differences, then diving into
his filing cabinet to unearth proof of their shared crusades. But it seems no
accident that the group's first nod of recognition came from an American. Not
only are Flanagan and Morton U.S.-born, but Cooper is a member of the Bohemian
Club, a fraternity of Republican movers and shakers who fork out a $10,000
initiation fee to gather every year in the redwoods outside San Francisco for a
policy version of summer camp. In a crowd that has included Henry Kissinger and
Vice-President Dick Cheney, Cooper gives a regular talk on Canadian politics –
one reason the Calgary School's views may hold more sway in Washington than
For the Calgary School, in turn, intellectual inspiration has always run
north-south, not east-west. Its papers are studded with admiring references to
some of the most controversial figures on the U.S. conservative landscape. In
his argument for aboriginal assimilation, Flanagan repeatedly cites Thomas
Sowell, a black Republican who became the darling of the Reagan-Bush right for
attacking affirmative action. Not surprisingly, most of the group's policy
prescriptions – from an elected senate to parliamentary approval of judges –
would have one effect: they would wipe out the quirky bilateral differences that
are stumbling blocks to seamless integration with the United States.
But Shadia Drury, a member of the U of C department until last year, accuses her
former colleagues of harbouring a more sinister mission. An expert on Leo
Strauss, the philosophical father of the neo-conservative movement, Drury paints
the Calgary School as a homegrown variation on American Straussians like Deputy
Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who share their teacher's deep suspicions of
liberal democracy. Strauss argued that a ruling elite often had to resort to
deception – a noble lie – to protect citizens from themselves. To that end, he
recommended harnessing the simplistic platitudes of populism to galvanize mass
support for measures that would in fact restrict rights. Drury warned the
Globe's John Ibbitson that the members of the Calgary School "want to replace
the rule of law with the populism of the majority," and labelled Stephen Harper
If so, there's no mystery in the appeal of Strauss's theories to Flanagan or
Cooper, who edited Strauss's thirty-year correspondence with Voegelin, Faith and
Political Philosophy. "Strauss believed that good statesmen have powers of
judgment and must rely on an inner circle," the University of Chicago's Robert
Pippin told Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker last year. "The person who whispers
in the ear of the King is more important than the King."
From his summer home outside Washington, Kornberg scoffs at charges that his
protégés are ultra-rightists masquerading as anti-establishment eggheads. "Their
extremism has been greatly exaggerated," he says. "It wouldn't be surprising if
it came from the University of Toronto or McGill. It's the fact that it's a
provincial university out West that people find outrageous – how dare they?!"
At first, Flanagan had no plans to stay in Calgary. His wife was homesick – she
eventually left the country, and the marriage, with their two kids – and he'd
never had the slightest interest in Canadian politics. But once he decided to
apply for citizenship, he volunteered to teach a summer class in the subject to
force himself into a crash course. In the midst of that reading blitz, he
stumbled on Louis Riel, the Metis firebrand hanged by Sir John A. Macdonald's
government in 1885 for treason.
What intrigued Flanagan was not Riel's contentious place in history, but
scattered references to his claims of prophecy. For Flanagan those allusions
were the equivalent of a scholarly smoking gun. Suddenly, he saw Riel's Metis
rebellions as an attempt to found one of those misguided messianic movements
against which Voegelin had warned. In Riel's diaries and the obscure archives of
Roman Catholic orders, he found evidence of his suspicions.
The result was Louis "David" Riel: "Prophet of the New World," his 1979 profile
of a man driven by ecstatic visions to raise a purified North American version
of the Catholic Church with its papal seat in St. Boniface outside Winnipeg.
According to Flanagan, not only did Riel view himself as its chief prophet – an
heir to the Biblical King David – but he went to the gallows convinced that,
Christ-like, he would rise again on the third day. "Riel did not see himself as
a tribal soothsayer," Flanagan writes. "He was the voice of God to a sinful
Historians applauded Flanagan's research, excavating Riel's unsuspected
religiosity, and the University of British Columbia awarded him its biography
prize. But Metis and aboriginal scholars were appalled. Flanagan's Riel wasn't
merely a stressed-out leader who'd had a mental meltdown; he was a delusional
religious crackpot. "He turns nearly every interpretation of Riel into
megalomania," says Regina writer Maggie Siggins whose bestselling biography of
Riel appeared five years later. "To make him that kind of crazy is to say that
aboriginal people who followed him have no claim on land."
It would take Flanagan another four years to get around to the subject of land
claims. Along the way he became a one-man Riel industry, turning out a flood of
books and papers, then constantly updating them with new research that spurred
him to increasingly damning conclusions. In his 1983 preface to Riel and the
Rebellion: 1885 Reconsidered, Flanagan confessed that earlier he'd taken for
granted that the Metis had justified gripes. Now he was recanting. "I concluded
that . . . the Metis grievances were at least partly of their own making," he
wrote. Flanagan admitted he was rushing his revised opinions into print with a
motive: to block lobbying for a posthumous pardon that would exonerate Riel in
time for the 1985 centennial of the Northwest Rebellion. A pardon, he declared,
"now strikes me as quite wrong."
By the 2000 edition, he was even more adamant. Rehabilitating Riel's reputation,
he warned, could cost Ca nadian taxpayers billions in Metis land claims. What
seems most striking about the revised text is its notched-up adversarial tone.
Flanagan's closing argument reads not like a measured scholarly assessment, but
political scare-mongering. In establishing his Metis provisional governments,
Riel had twice issued unilateral declarations of independence from the federal
government, Flanagan pointed out – exactly what Ottawa feared from Quebec.
What had happened to provoke not only Flanagan's hardened line, but his rush to
man the federal barricades? He has said he simply had a chance for more research
– an exercise that turns out to have been financed largely from federal coffers.
Between 1972 and 1994, he received nearly $620,000 in research grants on the
subject from the Canada Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council. That largesse includes a rare scholarly bonanza: $500,000 for a
five-year project with four other academics, co-editing the collected writings
of Louis Riel.
But Flanagan's views wouldn't have raised more than eyebrows if his telephone
hadn't rung on a June afternoon in 1986. The Justice Department offered him a
$103,000 contract as its chief historical consultant on one of the biggest
land-claims cases before the federal courts: a suit by the Manitoba Métis
Federation for 1.4 million acres promised to Riel and his followers in 1870.
Flanagan has gone on to repris that role in a half-dozen other federal
aboriginal disputes, including Victor Buffalo, et al. vs. The Queen – a landmark
claim for more than $1 billion in damages by the Samson Cree Nation at Hobbema,
near Edmonton, over Ottawa's handling of its oil and gas royalties. The Manitoba
and Alberta governments have also hired him for their own battles over treaty
rights. "What he's become is a very convenient tool for the government," says
David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation.
Flanagan's expert-witness stints have not proved unrewarding, but friends insist
he is driven not by money but ideology. "He's concerned the state should not
adopt people as wards," says Allan Kornberg. "It eventually has a corrosive
effect on the entire society." That libertarian loathing of special rights for
any group is the philosophical underpinning of Flanagan's most provocative work,
First Nations? Second Thoughts, which unleashed outrage not only in aboriginal
circles, but in the usually restrained corridors of academe. "These aren't
second thoughts," says Joyce Green, an associate professor at the University of
Regina and a Metis herself. "They're the same old first thoughts that the
colonizers came with from Europe. It's a celebration of the original arguments
that supported the subordination of indigenous peoples."
What ignited the most fury was Flanagan's contention that aboriginals were
simply conquered peoples who'd been bested by Europeans with a higher degree of
"civilization," as he termed it. That argument, peppered with references to
"savagery," hadn't been heard in polite company for decades. "There's a
fundamental racism that underpins his view," says Radha Jhappan. "It's an
amazingly selective reading of history and it's driven by a particular
right-wing agenda that wants to undermine the claims of collectivity."
But Flanagan's fans cheered the book as a brash intellectual ice breaker on a
subject that has bedevilled Ottawa policymakers for years. "What Tom was trying
to do was demythologize a lot of stuff that needed demythologizing," says David
Bercuson. "Political correctness had settled over the issue like a wet blanket."
When First Nations? Second Thoughts won the $25,000 Donner Prize in 2001,
Flanagan's foes weren't surprised. The award is funded by the Donner Canadian
Foundation, which set out to promote a Reaganite agenda in this country. The
foundation, in fact, funded Flanagan's basic research with a $25,000 grant.
But when the Canadian Political Science Association CPSA awarded Flanagan's book
its prestigious Donald Smiley Prize, all hell broke loose. Gurston Dacks, an
expert in aboriginal rights who chaired the three-member jury, quit after
finding himself outvoted. In a tense, closed-door session, the CPSA's board
decided to keep Dacks's walkout under wraps and even today no one will talk
about it. But in political-science circles the decision left lasting bruises.
"It fractured the community," says Joyce Green, "because it implicated us all in
rewarding something that many of us felt was deeply wrong."
Today, Flanagan's work remains an explosive topic, but few of his colleagues are
willing to criticize him – at least on the record. After an introductory
political-science textbook he co-authored was dropped from Ontario's approved
list of high-school texts because of its "racial, religious, and sex bias"
against women and Jews, he became active in the Society for Academic Freedom and
Scholarship, an aggressive lobby of professors fighting political correctness,
on whose board he now sits.
Certainly, by last June there was no lack of opinion that Flanagan's own
writings were controversial, if not right off the mainstream map. As the
Conservatives' campaign director, he seemed perfect fodder for the sort of
Liberal attack ads already depicting Stephen Harper as a scary extremist with a
hidden agenda. The mystery is why Paul Martin's admen didn't jump on that
One reason for their reluctance may well have been case #C181-01-01010. After
twenty years, the Manitoba Metis' land claims are still in federal court and the
stakes for Martin's government are high – vast tracts of prime Manitoba real
estate, including slices of Winnipeg, and cash reparations that could run to
billions of dollars. In that battle, as in at least two others, the Department
of Justice is still pinning much of its defence on Flanagan's expert testimony.
The Liberals' silence not only left him untouchable, but it may have allowed
Harper to sidestep the question posed by aboriginal leaders: does he share
Flanagan's views? Rick Anderson, who has worked with both Harper and Flanagan in
the Reform Party, has no doubts. "I'd be astounded if it were otherwise," he
says. "They're intellectual soulmates, philosophical soulmates."
In a cramped, windowless office at Calgary's Canada West Foundation, Preston
Manning tries to keep his eye on the big picture. Down the hall in a
glass-walled corner suite, the foundation's president, Roger Gibbins, had just
vented his post-election spleen in a Globe opinion piece, blasting Paul Martin's
campaign rhetoric for stoking Western alienation. That tirade hardly seems
unexpected from a think-tank long regarded as an arm of Manning's defunct Reform
Party, but in his own commentaries, Manning, the foundation's star fellow,
strikes a more conciliatory note. He is careful never to betray bitterness
toward the two protégés who helped orchestrate his ouster from the movement he
founded – Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan – both once his closest aides. "These
politicians who keep score," Manning says, "it's just a waste of energy. Now if
you talk to my wife you might get a different story."
For nearly two decades, Manning had dreamed of launching a Western-based
populist movement that took up where his father's Bible-thumping Social Credit
Party had left off. In 1987, with Westerners furious at Brian Mulroney's GST and
mollycoddling of Quebec, he sensed the time was ripe. A policy wonk who'd worked
on systems theory for a U.S. defence contractor during the Vietnam War, Manning
asked Gibbins – then head of U of C's political science department – to pull
together some intellectual wattage to help hammer out a platform.
During those brainstorming sessions in the departmental conference room,
Flanagan and his colleagues not only met Manning, but the grave young grad
student who was already his policy chief. Harper was just finishing his Master's
degree with Robert Mansell, a neo-conservative economics professor who joined
the group, but Gibbins can't remember Harper uttering a word. "He had a quiet,
very serious, imposing presence," recalls Radha Jhappan. "I got the feeling he
was one of the people pulling Manning's strings – definitely playing an
For Manning, the relationship with Harper was "very much an intellectual one.
Stephen was one of the few people who could write speeches for me with very few
changes," he says. Not that Harper had any knack for Manning's trademark folksy
phraseology. "Stephen's preferred method of communication is policy-writer
language," he says. The down-home parables that Manning added came from cocking
a careful ear to the small talk after political meetings – part of the process
he calls "democratic discourse." Harper had no time for it, then or later.
"Stephen worried about the dark side of populism," Manning says. "He'd feel I
went overboard on all this grassroots stuff."
In October, 1987, when Manning launched the party in Winnipeg with the rallying
cry, "The West Wants In," its policy manifesto may have been Harper's handiwork,
but the Calgary School could see its own fingerprints on the pages of that Blue
Book. Still, once Reform got rolling, Manning's ideafests at the university
petered out. "We'd filled a vacuum," Gibbins explains.
No one in the department joined the party. By then, Flanagan had plunged into a
new intellectual passion, the theories of the once scorned Austrian economist
Friedrich Hayek, who lauded free markets as the cornerstone of free societies,
impervious to intrusive government meddling. In the late 1970s when Flanagan
stumbled on his work, Margaret Thatcher had just cut short a Conservative policy
confab in Britain by slapping down Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty on a
desk. "This," she said, "is what we believe."
In the 1988 election on free trade, Flanagan cast his ballot for Mulroney's
Conservatives. He points out that even his second wife, Marianne, a speech
therapist he'd met on a winter trek with the Rocky Mountain Ramblers, voted
Reform before he did. But by 1990, he was furious at Mulroney's mushrooming
deficits – heresy to fiscal conservatives like himself – and he signed up.
Months later, when Manning was looking for a right-hand man, Flanagan leaped at
His university colleagues were stunned he was willing to rub shoulders with the
Reform hoi polloi. "He is not a social animal in any way," Gibbins says. "If
people look on Harper as reserved, Tom is a further evolutionary step behind
that." At Duke, however, Allan Kornberg viewed the move as a logical leap for
the grad student who'd once pored over Goldwater voting patterns. "Tom's always
been interested in building a conservative movement," Kornberg says, "and a
Still, it was the theoretical nuts and bolts of politics that fascinated
Flanagan – the sort of statistical prowess he'd acquired at Duke that now allows
him to parse pollsters' bafflegab. "He'd equipped himself with all this theory,"
recalls Rick Anderson. "But he didn't have much respect for the practical school
of politics. And there's no book learnin' for that."
For Manning, the heart of his populist vision was a constant consultation
process with the party's grassroots. Flanagan didn't hide his distaste for it.
He arrived at constituency meetings armed with studies and stats as if he were
back in the classroom. "Tom would get in all these terrible tussles with folks
who he thought didn't know as much as he did," recalls one former Reform
insider. "Finally one night he just had this outburst: why are you people always
talking and not listening to me? This guy goes up to the microphone and says,
‘Because we pay your salary.'"
In Manning's office, Flanagan set out to create a chain of command in which
everyone, including Harper, reported to him – a foretaste of the tight
Conservative campaign ship he would run last spring. Along the way, he found
himself stickhandling reports that security squads at some party rallies were
members of the neo-Nazi Heritage Front. That scandal was sparked by the
revelation that Heritage Front member Grant Bristow was a Canadian Security
Intelligence Services (CSIS) informer. "Preston used to say, ‘When you turn on a
lightbulb, you get a lot of bugs,'" Cooper says. "Well, one of Tom's jobs was to
swat the bugs."
The party's unruly rank and file wasn't Flanagan's only frustration. Manning was
ignoring his flow charts and increasingly giving his counsel the cold shoulder.
He felt useless, shut out of the inner circle he had tried to command. "Nobody
seemed to want his advice," Cooper says.
Manning's closest collaborator had suddenly become Anderson, a veteran Ottawa
operative who'd run the Washington office of the lobbying giant, Hill &
Knowlton. To Flanagan, Anderson was a hired political gun – a onetime Liberal
with no loyalty to Reform policies – who had slyly insinuated himself into the
leader's confidence. Harper too was miffed that Anderson had usurped his
wunderkind role. As Manning noted later in his memoir Think Big : "Stephen had
difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps,
but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy."
Harper and Flanagan had already hit it off as ardent devotees of Hayek, and
tolerated Manning's populism as a tedious inconvenience. Now they were
galvanized by a common foe. Their friendship was cemented in that summer of
their mutual discontent. "Tom thinks along the same lines as Stephen," Manning
says. "They reinforce each other. But Tom always saw the gloomy side."
Months before his contract ran out in the fall of 1992, Flanagan quit, blaming
Manning's decision to name Anderson manager of the next election campaign. Not
only did Anderson personally disagree with one of Reform's key platform planks –
opposition to the Charlottetown constitutional accords – he had a conflict of
interest: his firm, Hill & Knowlton, was the government's lobbyist for the
referendum on the subject. For Flanagan, Anderson's views were a fireable
offence. "Tom doesn't like the kind of hypocrisy you need in politics," says
John Herd Thompson, former head of Duke's Canadian Studies Program. "Something's
right or wrong: he's pretty unrevised and unrepentant."
So anguished was Harper over whether to follow suit and abandon the Calgary
Reform nomination he'd sewn up that he huddled with Flanagan and his university
colleagues over his future. In the end, he went on to ride the wave that
catapulted Reform from a single seat to fifty-two overnight, shattering the
Conservative party into a two-seat curiosity. But Harper refused to campaign
nationally and nearly a year later, when press leaks revealed an internal party
probe into Manning's expense accounts, some Reformers fingered him as the
source. He promptly went public – a stab Sandra Manning never forgave. In 1997,
Harper decamped to the National Citizens' Coalition, the country's oldest
libertarian lobby, whose motto is "More freedom through less government."
For Harper and Flanagan, Manning's decision to appoint Anderson had symbolized
his willingness to betray a fundamental Reform credo – no special rights for any
group or province – in his quest for more parliamentary seats. But Manning and
Anderson saw it simply as a clash of egos over who had the moxie to make the
party a national force. "They tried to turn it into this whole thing about how
Preston was watering down the wine," Anderson says. "I think they were actually
trying to assert who was alpha male."
That metaphor would soon prove apt. As the long unite-the-right minuet kicked
off, Flanagan and Harper began jostling for position in a dance that might have
been borrowed from a text on Flanagan's newest enthusiasm: bio-politics – a
collection of controversial theories on the biological basis for power that had
become the rage of the American right.
"Tom just fell in love with that literature," Gibbins recalls, "and brought it
into the classroom." Indeed, on Flanagan's reading list was one book that had
sparked a personal epiphany: Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics, which won
raves from Newt Gingrich in The New York Times. A study of the world's largest
captive chimp colony at a Netherlands zoo, it chronicles the scheming, coups,
and ultimate murder of the would-be alpha male, Liut. Ezra Levant, then still a
student, remembers being riveted by Flanagan's lectures on the subject. "It was
the most radical class I ever took," he says. "If a series of young males were
fighting for power, a thoughtful chimpanzee would make alliances with all the
losers and eventually take over the group."
Flanagan pressed copies of Chimpanzee Politics on Cooper and his Calgary School
confreres, who delighted in watching staff meetings for tell-tale signs of
simian rituals – their favourite a trademark show of bluster that de Waal dubbed
"pant-hoot." "We'd look at each other: ‘Yeah, there it is – pant-hoot,' " Cooper
Chimp behaviour convinced Flanagan he'd been too rigid in his first foray into
the political arena. In de Waal's Dutch colony, savvy chimps built coalitions
and bided their time. Over the next years, Flanagan and Harper might not have
been on Reform's main stage, but they were far from inactive. A new intellectual
infrastructure was taking shape on the Canadian right, echoing the web of
conservative foundations and think tanks that paved the way for Reagan's 1980
ascension to the White House. Flanagan became an activist in Civitas, a network
of 300 conservative thinkers spawned by the 1996 Winds of Change conference that
Levant and fellow National Post columnist David Frum had organized in Calgary.
Toronto's C.D. Howe Institute – whose researcher, Ken Boessenkool, would later
become Harper's policy chief – and Vancouver's Fraser Institute, which opened a
Calgary office under Cooper, were routinely proffering policies once considered
too radically right wing for mainstream consumption.
In 1997, Flanagan and Harper made their media debut in the short-lived Next
City, arguing coalitions were the only route to conservatives seizing national
power. One combo they proposed might make compelling bedtime reading now for
Paul Martin: an alliance with the Bloc Québécois, whose core rural Quebec voters
"would not be out of place in Red Deer," they noted. "They are nationalist for
much the same reason that Albertans are populist – they care about their local
identity . . . and they see the federal government as a threat to their way of
Flanagan and Harper's writing collaboration would last four years. Flanagan was
the chief wordmeister, spinning out a snappy first draft at one sitting, then
handing it over to Harper to refine. As Flanagan explained later, his verbal
wizardry allowed Harper to get his thoughts into the media more quickly – and
with more pizzazz.
Meanwhile – perhaps not coincidentally – the drum rolls of disenchantment with
Manning were building. His image might no longer be a problem – Sandra Manning
had shelled out for his laser eye surgery and he'd thrown away the glasses and
Brylcream – but there were mounting questions about his appeal outside the West.
No sooner had Manning tried another kind of makeover, rebranding Reform as the
Canadian Alliance, than Flanagan paint him with the same brush that had once
tarred Riel. Manning was imbued with a quasi-religious "mission" to unite the
right, Flanagan told a Globe reporter, and seemed to be saying, ‘This is the
manifestation of God's will.'"
Two months later, when Manning agreed to what he regarded as a pro forma
leadership race for the new party, Flanagan promptly announced he was putting
his money on another horse: Alberta Treasurer Stockwell Day, who had introduced
a flat tax. Day went on to win, leaving Manning's national dream in shreds. But
Flanagan's infatuation with the new leader proved short-lived. Within a year,
Day had become a national joke, mired in scandal and immortalized in comic
monologues as an evangelical airhead in a wetsuit. "You'd have to be a moron,"
Flanagan told Ted Byfield's Alberta Report magazine, "not to see that the
chances of the Alliance winning soon are not very great."
In fact, Flanagan – a man now known for his aversion to the media – proved
decidedly verbose on the subject of Day's shortcomings. So busy did he seem
leaking news of the tribal revolts within Alliance ranks that Rick Anderson
wondered publicly "what Prof. Flanagan is trying to achieve." In September,
2001, the answer became clear. As Day was forced to call a leadership review, a
website suddenly appeared: www.draftharper.com. Flanagan turned out to be
national co-chair of the movement to woo his co-author back into the political
The first clue to that scheme had surfaced nearly a year earlier. In one of
their last joint literary efforts, Flanagan and Harper co-authored a public
missive to Alberta premier Ralph Klein – co-signed by Boessenkool and two other
members of the Calgary School – calling on him to build a political "firewall"
around Alberta. That firewall letter, as it became known, demanded Klein use the
muscle of Alberta's oil wealth to seize control over health care, opt out of the
Canada Pension Plan, and send the RCMP packing in what would amount to
quasi-secession from the federal bosom.
At the time, Ted Byfield thought he saw a plot: the group was positioning Harper
to take on Klein in the provincial arena. In fact, their aim was more
ideologically ambitious. Alberta was to be a test case in their push to untie
the Big Government bonds that knit Confederation. It was only when Day's
leadership imploded that Harper and Flanagan shifted their attention back to the
national stage and another means to that libertarian end.
In Harper, Flanagan finally had his dream candidate to carry the
neo-conservative torch: an alter ego whose benign boyish good looks belied the
radical agenda they shared. Says Cooper: "Tom understands that Stephen is a guy
who has the capability of changing what the country looks like."
Flanagan took a leave of absence to join the three-year campaign that began with
Harper's takeover of the Canadian Alliance and ended with his annexation of
Peter MacKay's Tories and his ultimate face-off against Martin last June. Some
friends were astonished Flanagan opted for a role as Harper's chief of staff,
not one that would tap the sort of risk-calculating he'd honed in his 1998 text,
Game Theory and Canadian Politics. But in fact Flanagan and Harper had already
spent years together pondering every possible policy and tactic. "Stephen has an
incredible strategic sense," Cooper says. "It's like playing chess: he can
always see five or six moves ahead."
On Sunday, December 7, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer,
went to the office. He almost never worked weekends, but Harper and Progressive
Conservative leader Peter MacKay persuaded Kingsley they couldn't wait to
register their new Conservative Party of Canada, forged from a merger that had
been ratified by MacKay's members in a vote only the night before.
Already, challengers were poised to block their pact. A month earlier, after
they had unveiled their deal, David Orchard, the Saskatchewan farmer whose
support had clinched the Tory leadership for MacKay – and with whom MacKay had
signed a written agreement not to embark on merger talks – had filed a suit to
block the union. Former Tory MP Sinclair Stevens had also threatened to contest
the new party's legality – which he later did in a separate lawsuit. By rushing
to register their offspring on Sunday, Harper and MacKay hoped to circumvent any
process servers who might try to stop the official baptism the next business
MacKay makes no apology for their move. "There wasn't any dark conspiracy," he
says. "We had ratification from our memberships that was over 90 percent."
Orchard denounced the new party as "conceived in betrayal and born in
deception." He was not alone in his feelings of unease. For many, its furtive
beginnings were a bellwether of the secretive climate that promptly descended
over the Conservative election campaign. From the first, the merger was billed
as a marriage of equals, and in star turns for the camera, MacKay, the deputy
leader, was invariably caught in Hallmark moments of unity, applauding wildly
just over Harper's left shoulder. But behind that sunny façade of team spirit, a
different reality has been unfolding. According to well-placed sources, MacKay
was shut out of the party's inner circle and given virtually no role in the
MacKay himself refuses to confirm those leaks from angry former Tories. But
according to associates, he was never included in strategy sessions or
dispatched to help out other former Tory candidates, many of whom later lost.
More than once when he agreed to answer a call for help, Harper's headquarters
vetoed the trip. When MacKay did come to the rescue of friends in ridings across
the country it was at his own initiative. Otherwise, Harper's official Number
Two was left to sit out the race in Nova Scotia. "There were weeks at a time
when Peter didn't talk to Harper," says an associate, "or hear from anybody in
Nor was MacKay the only former Progressive Conservative who found himself
snubbed. Key players in the old Tory election apparatus – including the Ontario
team that propelled Mike Harris to power – never received the expected calls for
Some try to explain away those lapses as the pitfalls of a rough-and-tumble
national race for which Harper's team had little time to prepare. But off the
record, they pin the rap on Flanagan, the supreme cog in his campaign machine.
From a war room that ironically once housed Groupe Action, the ad firm behind
the Liberals' sponsorship scandal, he directed an election effort that stunned
even veteran Parliament Hill reporters with its fortress mentality. "Everything
was very tightly held," says one Tory. "It was circle the wagons completely."
At the centre, the lanky, taciturn wagon master remained a phantom presence,
whose aides scrupulously referred to him as "Dr. Flanagan" but whom only a few
ever glimpsed. Says a miffed Tory MP: "He was just this overlord nobody ever
Now, both former Alliance and Tory loyalists blame Flanagan for a parliamentary
showing that, however strong, fell far short of the campaign's overhyped
eleventh-hour expectations. "He caused us to lose," says an irate MacKay
loyalist. "I don't think he really understands this country." Even some in
Harper's own ranks are equally blunt: "You can't build an organization by
excluding people," says a former Alliance MP. "There's a lot of bitterness out
Veterans of the Reform Party see that snub of the Tories as a rerun of Harper's
treatment of party stalwarts, including his former boss Deborah Grey, who bolted
the Alliance caucus under Stockwell Day. Even after Harper took over, they found
themselves treated as not quite trustworthy and relegated to the back benches.
As official co-chair of the Conservative campaign, Grey refuses to badmouth
Flanagan – at least not in so many words. "He's bright and he's capable – a
university guy – and I wish him well with his classes," she says. "Some guys fit
and some guys don't."
Critics blamed the Conservatives' near miss on their mushy platform, but there
seems no doubt the party's policies were left purposely vague. They were
released on a Saturday, under the media radar, and couched in language that the
University of Lethbridge's Geoffrey Hale calls "a masterful exercise in
Now Harper and Flanagan seem in no rush to convert that cotton wool to concrete.
They have postponed the party's policy convention, originally scheduled for
October, until at least March – delaying a high-risk day of reckoning that many
predict could be bloody. "There will be tremendous pressure to move to the
centre," says David Taras of U of C's Faculty of Communications and Culture.
"When there's actually a policy convention, you'll see real struggle. It'll be a
contest for power."
On one side are MacKay and other former Tories pressing for progressive policies
– an adjective that gives neo-conservatives palpitations. "It has to happen,"
MacKay insists. "This party has to portray a modern, moderate vision with
compassion for people who represent all facets of this country." For him, it's
not a matter of choice. "We're right at the precipice of electing a new
government if we play our cards right," he says. "But we have to lead people to
a new comfort zone. We don't want to remain in opposition forever."
Lined up against him are those true believers who have long made up the Reform
and Alliance faithful – not to mention Flanagan himself. He has never blanched
at owning up to his most contentious beliefs: scrapping medicare in favour of
personal medical savings accounts – a policy adopted by some U.S. corporations –
and whittling aboriginal claims on land and self-determination down to
individual property rights and municipal self-government. Flanagan may, in fact,
not be unlike Louis Riel: a man with a mission, albeit secular. In his last
literary outing with Harper, a June, 2001, column in the National Post, they
warned fellow conservatives to stick to their policy guns and offer a genuine
right-wing alternative – not some pale vote-getting pap. "If all we want is the
exercise of power," they wrote, "we might as well join the Liberals."
The looming power struggle is not only for the soul of the new party. It is also
over Stephen Harper's political future: how much is he willing to water down the
ecumenical wine required to win the PMO? Rick Anderson calls it "the defining
question of his leadership – whether he'll fudge the party's policies or not."
But back in Alberta, Ted Byfield, the unabashed voice of the West since the
Calgary School's professors were pups, sees it another way – in terms Leo
Strauss might have approved. "All these positions which Harper cherishes are
there because of a group of people in Calgary – Flanagan most prominent among
them," Byfield says. "I don't think he knows how to compromise. It's not in his
genes. The issue now is: how do we fool the world into thinking we're moving to
the left when we're not?"
To those who are unnerved by that prospect, Byfield offers no cheer. "Those
people who said they're dangerous – they're right!" he says. "People with ideas
are dangerous. If Harper gets elected, he'll make a helluva change in this
Marci McDonald won a Gold National Magazine Award for her feature "Blind
Trust" on Paul Martin and CSL, in The Walrus, October, 2003.