Stockwell Day, so-con icon, bows out

From the outset, Day's religious streak bothered other conservatives, including his future boss

News that he isn’t going to run again in the next federal election has me thinking back on my favourite Stockwell Day stories, one of which features a telling one-liner from Gerry Ritz on the sensitive subject of religion in conservative politics.

It was late in the winter of 2002, and Day was running what turned out to be a losing campaign against Stephen Harper for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance.  In a meeting room above a curling rink in suburban Ottawa, Day had just delivered a bravura performance, energizing his supporters by portraying himself as the victim of both the national media elite’s scorn for social conservatives and the machinations of shadowy “backroom” schemers in his own party.

Much of Day’s support was coming from evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, many active in anti-abortion groups. At his own campaign events, I had heard Harper allude darkly to the makeup of his rival’s camp. Harper claimed to have overwhelming backing among mainstream Alliance members, and alleged that Day was “focused entirely on getting the support of outside organizations.”

At the back of the hall at Day’s curling club event, I spotted Ritz, then a reliably quotable backbench Alliance MP from Saskatchewan and a Day enthusiast. I asked him what he thought about Harper’s characterization of his chosen candidate’s supporters. “If Stephen Harper controlled federal infrastructure money,” Ritz said, “he’d be building colosseums and importing lions.”

Of course, Harper soundly defeated Day, went on to merge the Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives, and, in the end, smoothly integrated the so-cons, including Day, now Treasury Board president, and Ritz, now agriculture minister, into his government.  In fact, the Prime Minister’s success in melding faith-based and secular conservatives into a harmonious political force ranks as one of his signal party-building achievements.

Day remains a so-con icon. And his stature in Harper’s cabinet has grown ever more important as the old western Reform stream of the triumphant Conservative party has looked increasingly less potent in government than its Toronto contingent.

With Day’s retirement, any lingering what-might-have-been ruefulness among the faithful about his political trajectory—his rise to the Alliance leadership, his loss in the 2000 election, his ouster as leader, his denouement in cabinet—should be considered with Ritz’s old quip in mind.

As the joke reminds us, other conservatives were unsettled from the outset by the religious streak in Day’s politics. It wasn’t really those scornful media elites who thwarted his ambitions. Back in 2000, when Day was beating Preston Manning in the first Canadian Alliance leadership race, Manning’s operatives, notably his pollster, André Turcotte, warned that Day’s brand social conservatism was too overt to sell in Ontario. In 2002, Harper’s crew, notably Tom Flanagan, then his campaign manager, spoke out sharply against Day’s reliance on “special-interest groups.”

Day was a riveting political figure not so much because his persona exposed rifts in the broader Canadian political world, but because he compelled activists inside the conservative movement to think hard about what face they needed to put forward to succeed in national politics. As it turned out, not his.

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