He finally decided the problem of patriotism wouldn't lend itself to a quick fix. Building a competitive conservative vocabulary of Canadian pride would take time.
Over time, Harper began to promote symbols Canadians could love even if they weren't (yet?) Conservative voters: symbols his opponents had neglected.
Eventually, it would include the monarchy, the War of 1812, the rechristening of public buildings with the names of Conservative politicians and, by 2011, a campaign podium for Harper that would feature the word CANADA across the front, as though man and nation were synonymous.
I find this a fascinating peek into the man that we already know, but whose demons we seem to fundamentally not care about.
Harper decided Canada had a patriotism problem because Canadians weren't conservative enough - i.e., they didn't see the world the way he did. In Harper's mind, the "true" Canada had been hijacked by Liberals who'd snuck their brand into the bedrock (or bedrooms) of the nation.
In pursuit of smaller governance, a truly free Canada and proper patriotism, Harper set out to do to Canada what he felt his opponents had done - remake it in his own image.
"You won't recognize Canada when I get through with it," he said. It's not that he hated Canada, whatever Canada is - it's that he detested what Canada represented, believed in and held dear. But that wasn't what Canadians actually felt, in his mind - it was imposed by outsiders.
Team Harper has set out to shape the agenda, rewrite the past and tightly control the potential directions Canada has available to take in the future. The way to ensure the natural order of organic conservatism, it seems to be their view, is to force it - rechristening Canada, as it were. This is their Third Crusade.
Of course, by becoming what he once fought against, Harper has become the villain he used to stand against. By functionally fixating on the things that make emotional sense to him, due to his life experience - oil, for instance - he has started to build firewalls around Canada's economy, stifling its growth potential.
The sad part is that the things he is trying to brand as "Conservative" are, in truth, non-partisan, part of the rich lineage of what makes Canada great. At the same time as he's remaking Canada's Government into Canada's Harper Government, he's drawing attention to symbols that unite us as different people building on common ground - which is the exact narrative he wants to avoid.
The War of 1812? It was about differing groups coming together to defend something they only truly came to appreciate through the fighting - Canada. Like our involvement in the World Wars, 1812 is indicative of Canada the determined, Canada the collective, Canada the defender.
So too is Peacekeeping, a Canadian initiative that happens to have Liberal ties. Does that really matter? Tories have cribbed Liberal policies in the past (after attacking them) - why does that rule not apply to symbols?
The Constitution could equally be associated with Liberals, making it taboo - but hey, wasn't Canada's first Prime Minister a Conservative? Isn't his face on our currency already? Canada was formed through diplomacy, not through conflict - another defining characteristic of what sets Canada apart that Harper appears uncomfortable with, but is none the less part of who we are.
I love his focus on the Arctic - Inuit, open space, adventure, community in the face of adversity - all things that aren't exactly staples of the Conservative narrative.
Or how about his attempt to stifle data that opposes Conservative ideology and shut down organizations that act in a "Liberal" way? Truth be told, what he wants to see happen is happening - the social services the government once dominated are starting to be delivered/pursued by the Private Sector.
An unintended consequence of making Canada's government more structurally Conservative is that Harper is forcing the Private Sector to liberalize.
In truth, Canada's government has issues that precede Harper and will continue to fester after he's gone. He was right when he said "Canadians don't care" - we've never had to, and that's the problem.
What we need right now are leaders focused on rebuilding community, reminding Canadians that what makes us great isn't any one symbol or partisan brand, but the way we have always found balance between perspectives and opinions, building better solutions for ourselves - and the world.
That has always been our strength:
- not our determination just to pitch our natural resources, all though that's certainly been part of what we do
- not our toughness in combat, for which we are well known
- not our gorgeous, bountiful landscape, though we pride ourselves on the beauty of our home
- not our sports, our coffee or our poutine, though these are things we relish and promote
What has always been at the core of Canada's often-obscured identity is our ability to take the best from everywhere else and make it uniquely our own. We are curious, compassionate, a bit righteous but always politely persistent.
Canada is not defined by what we hold internally, but by what we have to offer.
Anyway you shape the narrative - whether you call it liberal or conservative or green - the moment you start looking for symbols that Canadians of every rank and station can get behind, you're creating community.
It doesn't matter what his motives are - by trying to take back the precious Canada he feels was taken from him by tricksey Liberals, Harper is serving purpose in a bigger picture he doesn't quite see.
Of late, Canada has turned inwards, caring less about our own symbols, our proud role on the global stage and even the health of our own democracy. On that, Harper was right. This isn't a reality he shaped - it's a national atrophy we are already experiencing.
By trying to remake Canada in his own image, Harper has unintentionally loosened a number of small stones that are trickling down the hill, picking up momentum as they go.
While our government becomes stagnant and constricting, new movements are rubbing against this tired skin, seeking to break out. It'll be a messy process, as evolution always is, but it's a necessary one if we're to get out of the tragedy we've fallen into.
Harper is catalyzing a Canada that we won't recognize as the one we're used to today. But what he will consider a win is actually a small part in a much bigger, emerging solution we all need.