October 6, 2015 / 9:04 PM / 2 years ago

Canada wives join electoral fray but lack Michelle Obama's star power

Laureen Harper, wife of Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduces her husband to supporters in Ottawa in this January 25, 2015, file photo.Chris Wattie/Files

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Political wives have popped up on the Canadian campaign trail, adding a personal dimension to a tight race, but none come close to the visibility or influence of spouses like Michelle Obama.

The partners of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and New Democrat leader Thomas Mulcair have helped humanize their political husbands but retain mostly bit parts in the 11-week campaign to the Oct. 19 election.

"Trust me, apart from the kids, your energy just feeds him when he's out on the road so long," said Sophie Gregoire, encouraging thousands of cheering partisans as she introduced Trudeau in Brampton, Ontario, last weekend.

Their children, Hadrien, 1, Xavier, 7, and Ella-Grace, 5, later joined their parents to wave at the crowd.

Five weeks earlier in the same city, the prime minister's wife addressed a smaller gathering at the campaign office of Ninder Thind, candidate for member of parliament, to spur on campaign volunteers.

"Getting somebody elected is about work, work, work, work. It isn't being glamorous on TV. It's about wearing out running shoes, going door to door," said Laureen Harper.

Less prominent has been Mulcair's wife, Catherine P. Mulcair, who attends most of his campaign events but has not addressed the crowds.

"Canadians have never gone in for the 'first family' fascination that we see in U.S. politics, so it isn't that surprising that we see less of this," said Ekos pollster Frank Graves.

While Michelle Obama has had her own campaign schedule and events, U.S. first ladies also have staff and a White House office, noted Christopher Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"Michelle Obama is a Democratic Party star," he said.

Asked on the campaign trail what it is like being the first lady, Laureen Harper quickly said Canada has no first ladies - noting she is "the wife of the prime minister."

Trudeau's wife told the Globe and Mail newspaper the couple has seen a marriage counselor, a reflection of the strains of political life.

And she offered proof the 11-week campaign has taken its toll, referring to a French-language debate last week when her husband called blue-eyed Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe "mon amour" instead of "mon ami" - "my love" instead of "my friend."

"He does have beautiful blue eyes, but when your husband starts calling Gilles Duceppe 'mon amour,' you know it's been too long. Too long," she quipped.

Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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