Eamon Mac MahonThe Calgary school has drawn attention from US intellectuals for creating “a new form of nationalism that in turn is changing the terms of debate in English Canada”
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 assimilation.
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 same-sex marriage.
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 alienation.
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 best-seller lists and sent shock-waves 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 Shawnigan Lake School, one of the country’s more elite private boarding schools, north of Victoria.