Canadian Political Leaders, the Campaign Trail, and the “Ordinary Joe”

As another federal election enters high gear, television screens and newspaper pages are filled with images of party leaders trying to show that they connect with ordinary Canadians.  Whether it be Stephen Harper riding an All-Terrain Vehicle or playing hockey with children, or Michael Ignatieff enjoying a hot dog at a popular Winnipeg restaurant, a key element of the campaign trail involves photo-ops of leaders doing things Canadians apparently do all the time.

The recent coverage reminded me of an article on Michael Ignatieff in the November 2009 issue of Toronto Life. “The Man Who Would Be PM” noted the Conservative Party strategy of negatively depicting the Liberal leader with the epithet “cosmopolitan”, a frame that the Conservatives have continued in election ads that imply Ignatieff’s years outside the country signal a lack of pride in Canada.  The article’s author questioned why Ignatieff was “trying to play the ordinary Joe card”, and argued Iggy would be a more successful politician if he underlined his exceptionalism rather than his similarities to Canadians.  The article then asked: when did Canadian politicians begin to depict themselves as ordinary Canadians, not elite members of society? The question made me think of three moments in Canada’s political past.

John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was critical of American-style republican democracy and favoured a political system based on British constitutional principles.  Macdonald’s push during Confederation debates for a Senate – an appointed upper house to serve as a check on the elected House of Commons – also illustrates his skepticism of democracy.  But power required ballots from the limited number of Canadians who possessed the vote, which meant that the Old Chieftan’s popularity had to depend on the support of those from lower economic standings.

“The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader”, 1891, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2834401

“The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader” is an 1891 election campaign poster, often reproduced in history textbooks. The Old Flag refers to Macdonald’s support for Britain and Empire, the Old Policy means the Conservatives’ National Policy of railroad building, western expansion, and high tariffs to support manufacturing, and the Old Leader is, well, Macdonald (the election would be his last).  What jumps out most from the poster, however, is the way in which Macdonald is literally being supported by a farmer and an industrial worker (probably a baker), respectively representing rural and urban interests. Although clothing clearly separates Macdonald’s bourgeois class from that of the two men, both farmer and worker share a physical connection to the Conservative leader.  Macdonald is depicted as an elite, but he is sustained by the common man.

When the term “cosmopolitan” is used to reference past Canadian prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau is probably the leader that comes first to mind.  Harvard educated, fluently bilingual, citizen of the world, Trudeau created a self-image that was rooted in his cosmopolitanism, which he successfully used to promote himself as the leader for a young, modern Canada of the late 1960s.  Yet Trudeau, a master of media, could also show himself to be down to earth.  On the campaign trail in 1968, Trudeau surprised reporters when he performed a backflip into a swimming pool (in fact, Larry Zolf claims he was the first prime minister photographed in a swimming pool).

Of course, moments in which politicians engage in the “ordinary” activities of Canadians can come back to hurt them.  Robert Stanfield, leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives during the late 1960s and 1970s, has been touted as “the greatest prime minister Canada never had.”  In terms of the campaign trail, he is often remembered for a costly spoof during the 1974 election, when he dropped a football pass during a game of catch as his campaign plane refueled in North Bay, Ontario.  The Globe and Mail put the fumble on its front page.  Some pundits claimed it lost Stanfield the election.

The nature of Canadian political campaigning has obviously changed over time, influenced by new media, new voting groups, a growing sense of popular sovereignty, and a number of other factors.  Yet our political leaders have long accented their commonality with ordinary Canadians.  This dynamic mirrors Canadian political culture, grounded partly in elitism and partly in democracy.

One thought on “Canadian Political Leaders, the Campaign Trail, and the “Ordinary Joe”

  1. Bill Young

    Well researched article looking at politics and trying to relate to the general public. I wonder if this election will produce a version of “Joe the plumber” that the American politics promote the last time around.

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