Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a man who does not reveal much about himself. Very rarely do we get a glimpse behind the planned photo ops and mind-numbing lack of charisma to see if there's a human being underneath all the strict talking points. Unlike other politicians, Harper does not slip up or goof around. He controls his message and image and very rarely gives Canadians any info to chew on other than policy. His appeal is meant to be professional, not personal—I think he'd rather us think of him as abstract tax-reform generator than as a person.
One of the few personal things he's revealed about himself is that his favorite show is CBC's crusty mystery series Murdoch Mysteries. He watches it regularly with his daughter, which is a pretty cute image for a man who resembles clay. I am a firm believer that our artistic and cultural choices reveal who exactly we are and what we value. With that in mind, I decided to give the show a try in hopes of finding out more about who our prime minister is and where he's taking us.
I had never seen the show before, nor did I want to. Every image or ad I saw from it had that familiar stank of embarrassing Canadian television. The fact that it's Stephen Harper's favorite show also certainly wasn't working in its favor. But I love my country and have a strong desire to understand the psychopath in charge, so I cranked up the old Netflix and dove right in.
Murdoch Mysteries, as the name implies, is an old-fashioned whodunnit. Taking place in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century, each episode follows smartest-guy-in-the-room Detective William Murdoch as he attempts to solve history-inflected mysteries with his smarts and anachronistic gadgets. Rounding out the cast are his clownish sidekick, Crabtree; his gruff superior, Brackenreid; and two female medical examiners, Julia Ogden and Emily Grace.
I jumped around the series, watching whichever episodes both caught my eye and seemed like they'd appeal to old knob-nose Harper himself.
Confession time: About halfway through my second episode, after chuckling again at a bumbling Crabtree, I had a troubling thought: Oh my god, do I like this show? After finishing the third, it was confirmed. Goddammit, I'm into this show! Crabtree is hilarious, and Murdoch is like a nice Sherlock Holmes. It's a charming show, and I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit it. Watching it is like realizing your grandparents have actually been interesting people this whole time.
I am a history guy, can't get enough. Whenever I see a historical plaque on a building or in a park, I have to read it then tell my friends about it: "Hey, guys, don't you think it's cool that there used to be a bread factory here? Hello? Guys?" Murdoch Mysteries is the television equivalent of these signs, a quaint, painless way to absorb old Toronto trivia. References abound to old Toronto landmarks that are no longer with us, like McMaster University, which was founded on Bloor Street before moving to Hamilton, and a Cabbagetown filled with factories and industry. While the show would fail many an accuracy test, it's still a blast for a nerd like me to watch the detectives hang out with Emma Goldman and discuss who was responsible for the Haymarket massacre.
Harper is a fellow history geek. No wonder this show grabbed his interest. This is, after all, the man whose government spent one futile summer and millions of futile dollars attempting to get us to care about the War of 1812. They spent years and millions finding a lost ship in the Arctic, and when they did, hyped it like they'd found a pre-Room for Improvement Drake mixtape in the Arctic. This government hasn't missed a chance to ignore historical milestones and figures associated with the Liberals while attempting to create milestones and idols out of Conservative events and figures.
Harper understands the power of history. If you can control the way people think they got here, it's easier to control where they're going (shout out to George Orwell). These moves are tactical. They are meant to reduce the influence of his hated Liberals, to change our view of ourselves from peacekeepers to cold warriors, to let Russia know we'll be the ones solving Arctic mysteries, thank you very much. But I also think there is an aspect of the personal in his obsession with history. Harper is a history nerd, he takes joy from it. Just look at the nerdy excitement on his face below, like he's a ten-year-old being visited by Robert Downey, Jr. dressed as Iron Man. The guy wrote a book in his spare time about the roots of professional hockey in Canada, which inspired an episode of Murdoch. (It was pretty good; I learned a ton about the Stanley Cup.) This is a man who loves the past, who is potentially more comfortable in it than in the present.
Stephen Harper did a cameo on the show in episode seven of the fourth season. He appears as an extra and is awful—calling his acting "wooden" would be an insult to any tree that's appeared on film. There's backstage footage, though, where he is happy and alive in a way I had never seen. There is genuine glee in his eyes, as opposed to the usual moldy doom. Certainly, he was excited to be on the set of his fave show with his daughter, but perhaps he's so excited because for a moment he gets to exist in the Canada of 1899. This is a Canada where he would be happy, especially as portrayed in the show. This is a Canada that is still firmly and proudly part of the British empire. A character in the show is praised for going off to the Boer war and fighting for the Queen. We saw ourselves as part of that noble family of the Commonwealth, and England's goals were our own, the Union Jack still our flag. Canada was on the front lines of the civilizing force for the world, and Harper would love for the country to resume that stance.
This is a simpler Canada. It's orderly, with strong rule. People obey and listen to their superiors. The word "sir" is said about 50 times an episode, literally. It's crazy, but every utterance must send a shiver of pleasure down Harper's spine: If only I can make more people call me sir, he thinks.
This is a white Canada. There were barely any people of color in any of the episodes I watched. Multiculturalism is a long way off. There are no Muslims in this Canada. (There is one Persian, but he is Zoroastrian.) In this Canada, there is nary a hijab or niqab to be seen anywhere, never mind during a citizenship ceremony. A white man commits a murder to cover up his terrible secret: He's married to and has fathered two children with an Indigenous woman.
The show does not criticize this moral order. There are no episodes devoted to the people who are crushed beneath its weight, nary a mention of residential schools. Not that I'm expecting a gritty reevaluation of the racist structures of this country—this is television comfort-food, after all. The comforting aspect is a judgment, though. The nostalgia the show traffics in, while not explicitly condoning inequality, does leave the audience with a feeling of, "Weren't these days so nice." The show reflects the values Harper espouses, this idea that the main story of our country is economic progress, stability, and normalcy (whiteness). If you fall outside the comforting narrative, then you are worth ignoring or, worse, a threat.
The threats on many of these shows are straight out of Joe Oliver's nightmares. There are radicals and anarchists protesting for a fair wage with bombs. Bombs are also used by the New Agrarians, environmentalists opposed to progress. There is a sinister secret society of female academics that engages in bizarre rituals and murder most foul, which is what I imagine Harper thinks happens at the end of any Women's Studies seminar. The show paints these movements with the same brush the Conservatives do. They are either dangerous radicals, committed to destroying a Canadian way of life, or they are useless intellectuals, blathering hot air instead of getting a job and contributing. This is how Harper treats arguments from the left: They are either dangerous or childish and laughable.
The main characters of the show are not the capitalists or elites that would most object to these radicals. The Toronto cultured elites are often portrayed as obnoxious, judgmental bores and obstacles. The main characters are outsiders: Crabtree is lower class, while Murdoch is a Roman Catholic. Harper must relate to this as that's the way he has always presented himself—as an outsider, as someone who was never accepted by the entrenched powers in Ottawa. Just because his policies often help Bay Street and the elites, I'm not sure Harper is doing it to be part of the club. He, like deceased finance minister Jim Flaherty, sees himself as serving the average man. Harper is not part of a club or following any lead. He must see himself like Murdoch, a man who is smarter than everyone in the room and is ahead of his time.
Watching the show has changed my opinion of Stephen Harper. Before, I basically thought Harper was full of shit. I thought he was a cynical liar, a drone man forged in a tank in a Koch Brothers laboratory, programmed to remove any obstacle to cheap labour and selling natural resources. I thought he despised Canada, thinking we were lazy socialists and that he took power here more out of spite and hatred than anything else. This is not what he is, though. I was wrong. For one thing, if you don't like Canada, there is no way you would like this show. This show is as Canadian as watching the Guess Who learn how to curl.
That's the scariest thing I walk away with after this viewing montage: that Harper isn't the liar that I thought he was. Much like Murdoch, he isn't working for anybody (The Elites, The Americans) other than his own sense of right and wrong. The pursuits of Harper's government are not meant to turn us into America lite, they are meant to turn back the clock. To take Canada back to what Harper sees as our golden (gilded) age. When Canada was a mostly white, Protestant place with faith in the Queen, the Empire, and the market. The scariest thing about Harper is that he is far too human, and everything he's done to this country was not out of hate but love, because sometimes we hurt the ones we love the most.
Now I'm going to go watch six more episodes—just to make sure that I'm right.