Stephen Harper, born in 1959, Canadian politician, 22nd prime minister of Canada and leader of the country’s Conservative Party. In 2003 Harper helped engineer a merger of two right-wing parties in Canada, a move that paved the way for the Conservatives to take control of Parliament in early 2006.
Stephen Joseph Harper was born in Toronto, Ontario. After graduating from high school with top honors, he worked briefly in the oil industry in Alberta before enrolling at the University of Calgary to study economics. During this time Harper became interested in politics and volunteered for the parliamentary campaign of Jim Hawkes, a Calgary-based member of the Progressive Conservative Party.
Harper received his bachelor's degree in the mid-1980s and went to work as an aide to Hawkes, who had won a seat in the Canadian Parliament when the Progressive Conservatives came to power. Harper became disillusioned with national politics after about a year, however, and went back to the University of Calgary for his master's degree in economics. While there he was recruited to work for the Reform Party, a new conservative political party founded with the goal of increasing western Canada's influence on national government. The party's rallying cry was, 'The West wants in.'
Harper quickly became a leading strategist for the party, helping to promote a political philosophy of traditional moral values, reduced spending on social programs, and free-market economic policies. In 1988 he ran for Parliament as the Reform candidate against his former mentor, Hawkes, but lost handily. The following year Harper became the chief adviser to Deborah Grey, the first Reform candidate to win a seat in Parliament.
In 1993 Harper ran for Parliament again, this time defeating Hawkes. Harper became a key Reform politician in the House of Commons, but he eventually clashed with party founder Preston Manning over strategy and direction. Harper decided not to seek reelection in 1997, instead becoming president of the lobbying group National Citizens Coalition, where he worked on right-wing economic issues.
By the time Harper returned to politics in 2002 the Reform Party had merged with several smaller political groups and become the Canadian Alliance. The party lacked unity, however, and Harper saw an opportunity to take control. He ran for and won the leadership of the Canadian Alliance and then won a seat in Parliament. After solidifying his own party's ranks, Harper began pursuing a merger with Canada’s Progressive Conservatives. After months of negotiations, the two parties signed an agreement in December 2003 to merge and form the Conservative Party. Harper became the leader of the new party in March 2004.
Almost immediately, Harper and the Conservative Party were thrust into the spotlight. Plagued by a corruption scandal, Prime Minister Paul Martin called for national elections in June 2004. In a hard-fought race Martin labeled Harper a dangerous conservative who would slash social spending and move Canada’s politics closer to that of the United States and President George W. Bush. The Conservatives lost the election but did well enough to deny Martin and his Liberal Party a parliamentary majority.
Harper and his Conservative allies continued to criticize Martin and the Liberals regarding the widening corruption scandal. The government lost a confidence vote in late 2005 and new elections were held in January 2006. This time the Conservatives triumphed, winning 124 seats compared to 103 for the Liberals, and formed a minority government. As the new prime minister, Harper promised to cut taxes and increase government accountability.