This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 13, 2007. Partner content is not updated.To a zydeco backbeat, Laureen Harper and John Baird wend their way through the packed lobby of Ottawa's National Gallery. The occasion is the Fur Ball, a fundraiser for the Ottawa Humane Society, of which the Prime Minister's wife is the honorary chair.
Harper, Laureen (Profile)
To a zydeco backbeat, Laureen Harper and John Baird wend their way through the packed lobby of Ottawa's National Gallery. The occasion is the Fur Ball, a fundraiser for the Ottawa Humane Society, of which the Prime Minister's wife is the honorary chair. In keeping with the Mardi Gras North theme, guests on this late March evening in 2007 have been handed Venetian-style masks. Harper, her hair swept up, attired in a long black skirt, embossed jacket and jewellery she boasts was a gift from her husband, is quickly thrust into the centre of a photographers' crush. Yet her radar is attuned to the fact her escort, the recently named minister of the environment, is about to fasten his mask over his face. She takes action. In a deliberate stage whisper, she teases him that being photographed behind a mask isn't the wisest signal for a politician to send.
The quick - and shrewd - rescue is typical of Harper, who since her arrival in the nation's capital five years ago has become one of the nation's most intriguing political spouses. She arrived Laureen Teskey, a folksy, motorcycle-riding Albertan refreshingly unstudied in Ottawa mores. She joked about the "mucky-mucks" and drank beer from the bottle. Post-2006 election, she's been retrofitted. Now she's Laureen Harper. A photographic essay of life at 24 Sussex Drive in the July Chatelaine could be postcards sent from 1956. Harper, who ran a thriving business after having her two children, appears to be channelling Donna Reed as played by Ellen Barkin. She revels in her role as stay-at-home mom to Ben, 11, and Rachel, 8, boasting that there's no nanny, she makes the kids' lunches and that the Harpers are just an "average Canadian family." Her only public cause - fostering homeless cats for the Humane Society - is similarly heartwarming and unassailable, though the recent addition of 11 kittens rescued after a fire at a Cornwall, Ont., animal shelter adds credence to 24 Sussex's new nickname, the Cat Palace.
Laureen Harper doesn't give formal interviews; the PMO quickly shuts down Maclean's request. "The story's about him," she likes to say. Yet the Stephen HARPER story isn't complete without putting a lens on the missus. Rarely have two opposites attracted to such potent political effect. He's IQ; she's EQ. He's the policy wonk; she's the people person. Her ability to put people at ease, her extroverted nature and self-deprecating humour serve as a foil for her policy-obsessed, often-hostile-seeming husband whose social demeanour can mimic balsa wood.
Indeed, the Yamaha-riding former free spirit is an intractable part of Stephen Harper's political imagery. In photographs they are often seen holding hands, a united front. Earlier this year, she shed tears at a military graveyard in Barlin, France, her husband's consoling arm around her shoulder. Within Conservative circles, Laureen Harper is known as the Secret Weapon. Baird calls her "a great person and a great asset to our team." The Harper camp didn't use Teskey on the campaign trail in 2004, a mistake they corrected in 2005, says Harper strategist and University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan. "We'd send her out to local riding headquarters and she'd say, 'My husband couldn't make it, but I'm here.' " Harper alludes to his wife when it serves his needs. When asked in a January 2006 CBC interview if he'd travelled much, Harper responded in the negative, then noted his wife had "made a pilgrimage" through Africa, referring to a six-month trek in the mid-'80s. "I get a much more accurate read on the realities of life in other parts of the world from Laureen," he said. In February, announcing the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he quoted his wife's cheeky praise that Gates was the "sexiest man in the world."
In Canada, the Prime Minister's spouse has no official role; ceremonial duties are carried out by the Governor General. There's no "first lady" per se, though Laureen Harper is referred to by that title informally in the PMO. The women occupying the role have provided an odd and often unorthodox parade - the backroom-operative Olive Diefenbaker, the caustic Maryon Pearson (who once quipped "Behind every successful man is a surprised woman"), the unprepared Margaret Trudeau, the militant Maureen McTeer, the polished Mila Mulroney, the reluctant Sheila Martin. Fairly or not, their identities have been grafted onto their husbands' political legacies. Even in an era of dual-career couples, the political spouse retains the power to glamorize, humanize, mobilize, scandalize, even strategize. As her role model, Laureen Harper has cited Aline Chrétien, one of the most guarded yet effective political spouses Ottawa has known. Low-key, rarely interviewed, Madame Chrétien was said to be her husband's most trusted adviser and the more ambitious of the two. Laureen Harper appears an even more complex creature. An activist in the early days of the REFORM party, she ran a business so successful her husband enjoyed calling himself a "kept man." "The joke was that she subsidized the Reform party in the early days," says Ken Boessenkool, an economist and long-time Harper insider. She doesn't cleave to orthodoxies. Nor does she share her husband's religious convictions. "Stephen has a strong will everyone knows about," says Boessenkool. "But she has a very interesting will of her own. They're two strong wills living under the same roof which creates its own interesting dynamic. But when they go in, they go in as a team."
"She's got the role of political wife nailed," says a long-time Ottawa observer. "She is Mrs. Stephen Harper. She's anxious to demonstrate she's not the power behind the throne. But she's also the human face next to the powerful man. I think they've figured out very carefully how she's going to appeal. She's never going to win the chattering classes, but she is going to make him a human being."
Laureen Ann Teskey, born in 1963, was raised on a family ranch north of Turner Valley, Alta., population 1,000, a tiny town nestled in the Rocky Mountain foothills less than an hour's drive southwest of Calgary. Her father, Dennis, was an electrician, her mother, Barbara, a housewife. Teskey grew up in open space surrounded by animals - cattle, goats, horses, hens and an assortment of dogs and cats. In winter, the family skied and snowmobiled; in summer they raced dirt bikes and camped.
The eldest of three, Teskey was an all-rounder - good student, althetic and well-liked. She was friendly to everyone, recalls fellow student Tracey Walshaw: "I was not one of the popular girls, but she was always nice to me." At Oilfields High School, Teskey made the honour roll, played team sports and was on the yearbook committee. Summers she worked as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. Yet she was never a goody two-shoes, one classmate recalls, noting her enjoyment of typical high-school carousing.
The family voted Progressive Conservative; Ottawa's ills were a subject of heated debate around the dinner table. "The Teskey family has very strong opinion genes," says Sheryl Saville, a cousin. Laureen was never shy about voicing her convictions, she says. "In any given situation she could determine quite quickly what was black and what was white and wanted to do what she could to help a person or improve a situation."
Early on, Teskey showed a defiant streak. In Grade 12 her class met at the Teskeys' property to chop firewood for a fundraiser, Walshaw recalls. The girls were told they couldn't use the chainsaws, an edict Teskey ignored. Saville says that was typical. "Certainly she was not a women's libber, but she's very liberal-minded in terms of equality for women and equal opportunities for women in the workforce. She never shied away from doing anything because it was supposed to be a man's field." The family had roots in the United Church, but Teskey came to reject organized religion after seeing the divisive effect differing religious convictions had on her parents' marriage. (The Teskeys divorced in 1991, after 29 years.) A long-time friend says Teskey never attended church as an adult.
She went to Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary planning to become a journalist. Realizing writing wasn't her forte, she switched to photography, showing a talent for computer-generated graphics. After graduation, she made her African pilgrimage, travelling with a youth group. Her letters home told tales of insects, water rations, even a run-in with guerrilla soldiers. "Laureen was always a very independent person who wasn't afraid to take a risk," says Saville. One leap she made was romantic. On that trip, Teskey became involved with Neil Fenton, a young New Zealander. The couple returned to Canada, married quietly in April 1985, and moved into a small apartment. Teskey found a job as a graphic artist for GTO Printing. Fenton wanted to own a restaurant. Both were focused on their careers, children were not in the plan. Their split in 1988 came as a shock to Teskey. "Laureen thought she had a good marriage," says a relative. "But they had different values."
She became involved in politics. Believing in the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, she volunteered on the 1988 federal campaign of Calgary Progressive Conservative MP Jim Hawkes who was running against his former aide, Stephen Harper, the Reform candidate. Hawkes won handily.
Teskey soon found herself drawn to the fresh energy and excitement of Reform, the grassroots conservative party born out of disillusionment with Mulroney conservatism. She designed communication materials for the party, including a poster for Reform MP Deborah Grey who had taken Stephen Harper to Ottawa as her assistant. Yet Teskey's and Harper's paths didn't cross until a Reform party assembly in Saskatoon in 1990. The couple was more forcefully introduced by Cynthia Williams, Harper's former fiancée, who met Teskey when the two worked at GTO. Thinking they would hit it off, Williams asked Laureen to join her and Harper for lunch. "I like Laureen a lot," she says. Calgary Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy also recalls nudging the two together. "Stephen was sick with bronchitis from being in a basement suite," she says. "I said to Laureen, 'Stephen needs to get out more, why don't you ask him out?' She's just so peppy, she's a tonic for anybody. So she said 'Do you think he would go?' " Not long after, Teskey was helping Harper with graphics for his M.A. thesis. The couple bonded over a shared zeal for smaller government and a love of cats.
Friends were surprised by the coupling - Teskey is gregarious, Harper taciturn; she thrives on outdoor daredevilry while the asthmatic Harper prefers indoor cogitation. "He was so serious and so focused on politics it didn't occur to me he had the time or inclination for a romance," says Ablonczy. "I saw it as a good thing, thinking she'll bring him out of his shell," says Grey. That the rumpled Harper had "project" written all over him is believed to be part of the appeal for the can-do Teskey. Harper owned one suit, his shirts had buttons missing, and he drove a run-down Dodge bought at a police auction. "It was as if she was thinking, 'I can finish this guy off, round him out,' " says a friend. Another friend says Teskey was drawn to Harper's intellect and seriousness. "He's a really steady guy." "Laureen said it was the first time she had met a guy who could keep up with her," says Ablonczy. "She had such a keen interest in things and here was a guy who shared the same interest in current affairs." Harper's kindness to her family also won her heart. Saturday nights Teskey and Harper would often drive to visit her grandmother in Black Diamond where Harper would do all the cooking. By December 1991, the relationship was serious; Teskey filed the legal paperwork to finalize her divorce.
Teskey was more than just a card-carrying member of the Reform party, she was an organizer and an activist, recalls Ezra Levant, publisher of the Western Standard. "If you joined the Reform party it wasn't because you saw this as a quick route to a job in politics or power, it was because you were attracted by the ideas and Laureen was." Levant recalls talking to her about gun control. "If you're somebody living in Toronto or Montreal, gun control is an abstract feel-good idea that is supposed to disarm downtown gangs who don't use shotguns and rifles," he says. "But 15 to 20 years ago, Laureen Teskey talked about what it's like to be a young woman in a small town with a rural population where big city 911 police are not just a phone call away." Levant recalls Teskey's great social instincts. In 1991, he and she hosted "Laureen and Ezra's Christmas & Hanukkah bash," inviting hundreds of up-and-coming conservatives, some of whom they'd never met. Teskey designed the invitations. "It was a graphic with no left turns, right turn ahead, nothing serious or highfalutin," he says. They ended up staging it for three years.
When Stephen Harper took on his old mentor Hawkes again in the 1993 election, Teskey was by his side, designing signs that defied party specs. He was a reluctant candidate, says Hawkes. "There's no doubt in my mind he didn't want to be a politician." Another friend concurs: "He was initially adverse to and quite terrible at retail politics. He hated it; he was uncomfortable in groups and really disliked glad-handing."
In December 1993, a month after his win, the couple, surrounded by a handful of family and friends, were married by a justice of the peace in their house in Calgary's Scenic Acres neighbourhood. Harper found a furnished studio apartment in Ottawa while Teskey stayed in Calgary, building her graphic design and desktop publishing business. Teskey was known for being on the cutting edge of technology. "She was talking about the Internet before anyone knew what it was," says Williams. When Ben was born in 1996, she brought in a part-time babysitter.
In 1997, in a move that surprised many, Harper announced he was resigning from his seat to head the National Citizens Coalition. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, and ruled out any future run for leadership. By the time Rachel was born in 1999, the family was well settled in a house they had built in Calgary's Tuscany area.
Teskey's support - financial and emotional - was crucial in 2002 when, in an about-face, Harper decided to challenge Stockwell DAY's leadership of the CANADIAN ALLIANCE, the offshoot of Reform. After quitting the NCC, Harper didn't have a salary, so Teskey provided for the family. She was instrumental in getting him into gear, Flanagan recalls. "We joke that Stephen is the Hamlet of the CONSERVATIVE party. His tendency is to deliberate over decisions whereas Laureen is far more 'Let's go for it.' " Early on, the campaign required a complete overhaul, says Flanagan. "Harper was concerned too much time had elapsed to pick up momentum, but Laureen pushed him to carry on."
The new leader of the Opposition and his family relocated to Ottawa. The early days were difficult for Teskey. She gave up her business; her sister, Diana, took over remaining contracts. Away from her family and friends, with her husband often absent and preoccupied, it was a lonely time for her, says Flanagan. "It was hard. She was insulated as the leader's wife."
Involvement in her children's school provided a new sense of community. She spearheaded book drives and joined parents building a toboggan ramp and flooding the hockey rink. She found a group of women to play basketball with. Her creative skills were channelled into making posters for school events, putting together CDs for friends, and carving elaborate Halloween jack-o'-lanterns.
Laura Peck, a neighbour when the Harpers lived at Stornoway, speaks of the chilly social reception the Harpers initially encountered. "Ottawa is a Liberal city," she notes. But Teskey disarmed the naysayers. Joking about her small-town roots was an icebreaker. "Once we were talking about cottages and she said, 'We're from Alberta - we don't have cottages, we have trailers,' " says Jayne Watson, the head of communications for the National Arts Centre. She quickly became a social must-have. Watson recruited her to support the NAC's 2005 Alberta Scene festival featuring more than 600 artists. "She was a terrific cheerleader," Watson says. A self-confessed "opera virgin," Teskey was particularly enthusiastic about the Alberta opera Filumena.
"My first impression was, 'Wow, she packs a whole lot of energy in a person,' " says Leah Murray, the wife of government whip Jay Hill, who befriended Teskey in 2002. "I was very impressed with her level of optimism and energy. A lot of people say it's because she's a westerner but I think it's simply her character." She didn't shy away from discussing politics in public. "Laureen's incredibly partisan," says a woman who sat next to her at a dinner before her husband was PM. She recalls how a discussion about summer holidays segued into talk about airline taxes: "The discussion pushed buttons about how impossibly high airport taxes were, which meant nobody could afford to travel anywhere." Peck recalls a lunch filled with professional women where Harper won the crowd over. "She was very forthright. A lot of women ended up agreeing with Laureen on a lot of issues - health care, social issues, daycare - even though they were from different political parties. People were surprised."
The Conservative victory in 2006 signalled the departure of Laureen Teskey and the entrance of Laureen Harper. Canadian Press was immediately advised of the transition. Within the Harper camp, it was presented as a branding exercise, a matter of political convenience: "It was a complication they didn't need," says Flanagan in an allusion to the fallout that hit Joe Clark when Maureen McTeer kept her name. Unlike other prime ministers' wives, Harper chose not to ally herself with any causes except her volunteer work for the Humane Society. (The Harpers have become the feline world's social safety net: the PMO website recently added an adopt-a-cat page.) The decision was made that she would not comment publicly on political issues. "There was the possibility of static," says Flanagan. "She is really gregarious and once she gets going she might say something that's not part of the party discipline and message." She opted out in other ways, too. When Rick Mercer showed up at 24 Sussex last fall to film his sleepover spoof, Laureen Harper was nowhere in sight: after all, the segment was intended to humanize the PM; her presence would only have been a distraction.
She's learned even non-controversial ventures can summon partisan flak. When she participated in the CanWest Raise-a-Reader Day program in 2006, a fundraiser for literacy, she was pelted with questions about the government's recent announcement to slash $17.7 million from adult-literacy programs. When she gave her name - and time - as honorary chair of the National Arts Centre's fall 2006 gala, which raised $2 million, there was some grumbling within the arts community about the Conservatives' disinterest in cultural funding, says NDP MP Olivia Chow, who nevertheless notes the cleverness of the PM's wife allying herself with the arts. "Having her play that role is smart," says Chow. The NAC's Watson says other prime ministers' wives have taken on the gala chair role, but none has been so hands-on. For the event, Harper designed the crystal chandelier that hung over the foyer, spending three days stringing it together, wielding a blowtorch when spot welding was required.
The learning curve has been considerable, says one Harper confidant. "She never would have put on a formal dinner party, her style is more potluck," says Flanagan. "The idea of dealing with wait staff and cooks and wine lists is all new to her. It's a measure of her success that she has made it seem so natural." There have been bumps. In March 2006, former Stornoway chef Henrik Lundsgaard launched a $250,000 lawsuit against the Harpers, alleging he was promised he'd move with them to 24 Sussex and was fired without cause. He claimed his duties included babysitting, picking up dry cleaning, cleaning the pool, even burying one of the Harpers' cats. The suit was settled out of court in December with the standard gag-order proviso.
Part of Laureen Harper's repackaging included upping the glamour quotient. The PM's wife is expected to be stylish, though never distractingly so. During the 2004 election, Teskey would joke that female friends emailed her with snide comments about her outfits. The Ottawa press corps made similar sniggering remarks when Teskey showed up at a barbecue with transparent bra straps. Trips were made to Rinaldo, the Ottawa hair salon made famous by Mila Mulroney, for a sleeker cut and lessons on makeup application. Winners was replaced by Earlene's House of Fashion, a by-appointment designer-label shop in Ottawa. A more stylish, body-conscious wardrobe emerged: a slinky teal Sunny Choi gown worn to the NAC gala, the silver silk and Austrian lace evening suit worn in Hanoi in November, the sleek black suit with the lace hemline worn to the G8 summit in Germany in June - all won approving fashionista nods. Harper came to rely on Michelle Muntean, the Prime Minister's stylist, or "tour coordinator," as the PMO calls her. Muntean, with whom Harper is chummy, often coordinates what the Harpers wear to big events and has been known to even pick out the children's clothing for public occasions.
Laureen Harper's most public unofficial role, however, is as her husband's social front man. At a press gallery garden party at Stornoway, she chided her husband gently for his anti-social ways when he arrived late and said he wanted to go inside and change into something more casual. "Stephen," she joked, "you know if you go inside you'll never come out again." Laureen has become the Harper to have at social events. "He dominates when they're together," says an Ottawa journalist. "He rigids her up. Not the reverse." Often she's in the company of the single Baird, who has seen his star rise in the Harper regime. "We're going to be like Tie and Belinda," Baird playfully told the media at the NAC fall gala, a reference to then-swirling rumours of an affair between Tie Domi and Belinda Stronach. Harper's greatest mileage comes as a solo operative. Edmonton Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer recalls her showing up alone at a Conservative party at Ottawa's Hard Rock Café last January. "She was a real hit," he says. "A lot of people were really indulging, but she loved it. Everyone wanted pictures."
The Prime Minister's wife has also proven adept at stickhandling a media stonewalled by her husband's government. (Though she didn't speak for this story, she gave the go-ahead to friends and family to do so.) "She's very media savvy," says an Ottawa insider. "She's by nature a chatty woman, but whenever she sees reporters around she never says a thing or is very careful." When Chatelaine went to photograph the family, the PMO instructed all questions be directed at the Prime Minister. Even so, Laureen Harper spoke candidly off the record. She cultivates prominent members of the Ottawa press corps, communicating by email. One reporter recalls a perceptible chill after critical coverage of her husband's government. She's on top of the coverage. At a press gallery dinner she admonished a television reporter who had remarked on air "Stephen Harper's dead," referring to Harper's political career. "You have to be careful what you say because I was in the kitchen with the kids having supper and they heard 'Stephen is dead' and my kids said 'What does he mean Daddy's dead?' "
Ezra Levant notes Harper's new role is at odds with her natural effusiveness. Saville agrees: "That would be one of her biggest struggles: to converse with people while being on guard." Privately she's known for her irreverence: she's said, for instance, to send text messages to one of her gay male friends about the cute male air stewards she encounters while travelling. "She'll sound off if she knows it's not a public occasion," says Flanagan. "She's passionate about the mandate her husband's been given and she takes it very seriously," says Leah Murray, of the private Laureen Harper. "But she's no shrinking violet. She's not just echoing the party line."
To what extent the PM's wife contributes to the party line is unknown. She reads widely and is up on who's who. "He listens to her," Deborah Grey says. "I've sat at the dinner table with them where they've had a good exchange of ideas and he respects that." Within the PMO, the joke is whether the power nexus lies with Harper, his chief of staff Ian Brodie, Laureen and Kevin Lynch, clerk of the Privy Council or with Harper, Laureen and Brodie. An Ottawa insider scoffs: "He takes orders from no one."
Still, Laureen Harper is a regular presence at informal caucus-related dinners and committee meetings, says Jaffer. "She's very active in the conversations. And her input is very welcome. She's plugged into almost everything. If you ask any caucus member, they're excited to hear her passion and her thoughts because she's such a policy animal but very thoughtful in these areas." Her concern over the care and feeding of caucus is said to have extended to administering to the emotionally bruised Peter MacKay after his breakup with Belinda Stronach.
Laureen Harper's mantra has become how average and ordinary the Harper family is, how only 10 per cent of their lives has changed since moving to the prime minister's residence - as if saying it enough makes it true. Yet so much of her new life is not ordinary. The constant RCMP detail is a burden, says a friend. "Laureen would like to just jump on her motorbike and say 'Away we go.' " The effects on her children is a worry, says her cousin: "When we were kids we'd go tubing down the river and who knows where we'd end up? I think she'd like that experience for her own children, but at this time it's not a reality." Her own escapes include nights out with friends, like one to see Halifax singer Matt Mays of Cocaine Cowgirl fame at a local club, and kick-boxing lessons with the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, with whom her husband is not nearly so close.
One Ottawa observer sees Harper as an anomaly among Canadian prime ministers' wives: "She's an odd mixture of canny and incautious, savvy and bored gormless with the plodding, ponderous, unchanging character of political life in Ottawa. How does she stand it - and him - is the question you keep hearing." That the Harper marriage has come under scrutiny is unsurprising given the partisan nature of the city. Yet a long-time friend insists the Harpers are thriving in their new roles: "They love to tell stories about Vladimir Putin's dog and how Jacques Chirac speaks at about five words a minute. To hear them, you'd think they'd been scheming their way to 24 Sussex for the last 15 years. Yet there's no indication that's the case." Like every marriage, the Harpers' union will remain a mystery, though every indication suggests that, contrary to Maryon Pearson's adage, the woman behind the successful man is not surprised one bit.
Maclean's August 13, 2007