A look into federal leaders’ word choice when discussing Canadian youth
In an election campaign, language is everything. Words are selected, practiced, vetted, and then selected again. A single phrase—such as Thomas Mulcair’s somewhat infamous “Newfie” comment, or Stephen Harper’s recent “old-stock Canadian”—could potentially derail, or revitalize, a campaign.
This is especially true in the federal leaders’ debates. Politicians come armed with their words alone, hoping to sway Canadians before they mark their ballots on Oct. 19. Though the 18-24 age bracket—where the majority of students belong—is far from center-stage, its issues were not. The subjects of unemployment, the cost of education, and the future of the environment all made appearances during both the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s debates.
While the leaders’ stances on these issues differed from party to party, so did the language. The phrases used—both to describe the issues, but especially to describe the Canadians affected by them—varied depending on the speaker.
According to the Maclean’s transcripts of both the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s debates, two words were often employed. Specifically, “young” was the word that dominated Mulcair’s vocabulary, with nine instances across both debates (compared to Justin Trudeau’s four). Trudeau, inversely, preferred the word “kid”, which he used seven times when not explicitly referring to children (compared to once, by Mulcair). Stephen Harper rarely used either, with a single use of the word “kid” in the Globe and Mail debate.
“I suspect [when we use the word “kid”] that we’re talking about young people, in the age specifically between 18 and 24,” said Richard Bisaillon, a professor of political science at Concordia University. He points to the correlation between the 18-24 bracket and high unemployment, both statistically and in the debates, as an example of how the term “kids” is used on those of that age.
As for the semantic choice in language, Bisaillon believes it may have to do with the image the leaders wish to project.
“I think when Trudeau uses ‘kids,’ he makes himself look older,” said Bisaillon. “And when Mulcair uses ‘young Canadians,’ he makes himself look younger. Is it a conscious choice? I don’t know. But even subconsciously, I think that’s what’s operating.” According to Bisaillon, this could be an effort to shed certain assumptions, such as the idea that Trudeau is too young and inexperienced for the job of prime minister.
However, Bisaillon warns that lumping the 18-24 demographic together under a single term can be misleading.
“We sometimes forget that when we speak of students as a block—as ‘kids’ or ‘young Canadians’—that they’re as easily differentiated by their class differences and their educational opportunities as they are by anything else,” Bisaillon explained.
For some students, the word choice reflects a positive shift in federal politics.
“I find that the terms ‘youth’ or ‘young Canadian’ are a bit old-fashioned and too formal,” said Mikelle Männiste, a student at Concordia University. “It’s an endearing term, like how parents or teachers refer to us. They wouldn’t call us ‘youth’ or ‘young Canadians.’”
However, Bisaillon notes that it can be difficult to gauge the attitudes of Canadians in the 18-24 bracket who find themselves outside of the university setting.
“Unfortunately, many [young voters] who are not in school are not particularly well-engaged. They couldn’t give a damn,” said Bisaillon. “I don’t blame them—the parties have nothing to offer them. They’ve written them off as a demographic that doesn’t vote, so why offer them anything. [In their eyes] they aren’t going to vote anyhow.”