What’s in a name? Well, in Canada’s general election campaign, which got underway last Sunday, possibly quite a lot. I was at the opening rally of the Conservative campaign in Montréal last Sunday. By the time the party leader, the current prime minister Stephen Harper took to the stage – an hour and half late, I should add – the crowd gathered at a Jewish community centre in the Mount Royal riding was ready to burst.
The prime minister fought his way along the rope line to the small, makeshift stage in the centre of the hall, glad-handing the party faithful who were smiling from ear to ear. Mr Harper, who is seeking a fourth term in office and who has a tight race ahead of him, reeled off the achievements of his government. Then Mr Harper swung his attention to his opponents with whom he is tied at the moment, according to the latest opinion polls, in a three-way split.
“Justin,” the prime minister said, smiling, referring to Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party in Canada. Mr Harper let the name linger for a moment and shook his head a little the way an exacerbated father might refer to an unruly offspring.
“He’s not ready!” a member of the crowd shouted out in response, before Harper went on to allude to the Liberal leader’s inexperience and youth, which, he argued, do not befit a nation facing many challenges.
This has been the Conservative’s key attack on the Liberal leader, who, until late last year, was surging ahead in the opinion polls – by referring to him solely by his first name. (Harper refers to the leader of the New Democratic party by his full name, Thomas Mulcaire, and does so for other political figures too.)
So what does this do? It paints the picture of someone junior, someone who hasn’t quite earned the right to be referred to by his proper name. This suits the Conservatives just fine. Trudeau’s father, the late former prime minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, remains a towering presence in the political psyche here. So any distance the Conservatives can carve, symbolically, between father and son is useful for Harper and his team.
The election in Canada this year looks set to be one of the closest races in recent years. Canada’s military role overseas in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, newly approved government surveillance legislation and the country’s stagnating economy – all of which have unfolded under Stephen Harper’s watch – have split opinion among the electorate here.
And with each of the three main parties polling at around the 30 per cent mark at the moment, everything – even a simple name – will come into play. So if things tighten as expected, the name game may well turn out to be a particularly potent part of the campaign in this year’s race – for Mr Harper, Mr Mulcaire, and for Justin too.
Tomos Lewis is Monocle’s Toronto bureau chief.