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True Believers Witness a Stephen Harper Denouement in Calgary

"We love you, Stephen Harper!" one woman cried several times. And then it was over. Harper shook some hands and walked off the stage, as his reign as prime minister of Canada came to an end.
October 20, 2015, 7:10am
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

When CTV first declared a Liberal victory, there wasn't a change in the mood at the Conservative Party's election night bash in downtown Calgary. There was no collective sigh, no tears, no disappointed muttering. Those things require a crowd, and the doors to allow them in had only been open for 60 seconds when their worst fears came true.

They continued filing in, slowly, eyes on the giant television screens. These were true believers — only a certain type of person waits patiently in line for access to a partisan event on the most partisan of nights — but they must have known from the ominous polls that there was a chance their hopes would be dashed.

Still, it was never meant to be like this, so fast and furious a victory for their mortal enemies, the Red Liberal Beast their party had been amalgamated to destroy.

And they had. For nearly 10 glorious years, their man had held the throne, working diligently to undo a century of Liberal craftwork and remake the idea of Canada to his own liking. The Liberals had been magnificently crushed, never to return.

This was meant to be more of the same. The Conservative campaign strategy included the election itself, engineered through the Fair Elections Act to allow them to double their spending by doubling the duration. The party pushed through the scandal around embattled senator Mike Duffy and trial, never ceasing to move its feet like an inelegant football lineman.

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As the NDP rose and the Liberals fell, a three-way tie emerged, and the Conservatives doubled down. When their rivals began to pull ahead by claiming the center and center-left of the spectrum, the incumbents didn't just pull hard right, they made a point of squealing their tires as they did.

The controversy around the niqab, and whether women should be able to wear a face-covering veil at a citizenship ceremony, was an empty bonbon, so irresistibly delicious to some yet devoid of much substance. Harper tossed it out and the country went wild, clamoring over it, fighting, arguing — all the while distracted from things which, should attention be paid, could cost the Conservatives.

The niqab cornered the NDP in Quebec, and the Liberals inherited their votes, breaking away late in the game. In desperation, Rob Ford, he of crack-smoking fame, and his bombastic brother Doug were inexplicably called in, two gentlemen whose appeal is limited to those who weren't ever considering voting anything but Conservative.

All of this led to a nine-point lead for the Liberals on election day. When Justin Trudeau's father, the former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, died in 2000, Harper wrote that he had been "a distant leader who neither understood, nor cared to understand, a group of people over whom his actions had immense impact." So many things, then, were coming full circle on Monday night.

When the newscasts were shut off and a booming voice invited the crowd to stand for O Canada, there was a buzz in the room. It was the first moment of excitement. The young lady performing the anthem sang it with deep and dramatic emotion, like a lament for the defeated heroes of an epic battle.

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Then a video montage, with AC/DC blasting over fast-cut shots of Harper on the phone, Harper talking with people, and even a slow-motion shot of the prime minister scoring a road hockey goal on what looked like a teenaged goalie.

When the man himself walked out, the place erupted with all the pent-up emotion they had brought with hopeful expectations. Harper stood before a podium emblazoned with CANADA and in front of screens with the same, no prominent party logos.

The speech was fairly rote, leading off with a declaration that he and his wife had entered public service with the belief that "hardworking Canadians should keep more of the money they earn." The old political warrior was going down, but he would do it swinging.

The crowd stood throughout and cheered enthusiastically at his partisan points, and clapped politely as he congratulated his opponents. "We love you, Stephen Harper!" one woman cried several times.

And then it was over. He shook some hands and walked off the stage, and the crowd moved for the exits. Their mood had changed. Some of them clapped along with the music. Many of them laughed together. They had come to celebrate Harper's victory. But, stung with brutal defeat, they had instead found consolation in the mere reassuring presence of the man himself. It was all they had tonight and, somehow, it was enough.

Follow Taylor Lambert on Twitter: @TS_Lambert