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Left to right, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff shake hands prior to the French language federal election debate in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Left to right, New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff shake hands prior to the French language federal election debate in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Where are Canada's 21st-century leaders? Add to ...

Former flash-in-the-pan Tory prime minister Kim Campbell used to amusingly refer to "both founding genders" in her speeches. I thought of that wistfully, watching the leaders' debates this week. It's astonishing to me that in 2011, with all the gains feminism has made, that women cannot see themselves reflected in at least one major national leader.

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The debates underscored our embarrassingly undiverse and retro choices for who will be our next Prime Minister. (One woman called CBC Radio to say her young daughter thought it was like "ancient Greece," with no women in sight.)

Of course, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May should have been there. But it has been partly her own choices that led to her exclusion. In order to be a leader, you need followers, and she's got nearly a million of them. But you also need seats, and in the last go-round she wasn't able to convince voters to elect her or anyone else in her party to the House of Commons.

At least the French-language debate, which was livelier all round, featured a woman as co-moderator.

But up there behind the podiums? Four dark suits, four tasteful ties, four grey heads. Go crazy, Canada. That is what you will get no matter which major party you vote for. I ask you, where are the 21st-century leaders? Where are the political stars, male and female, of varying ethnic backgrounds, who as one professor of communications put it after the first debate, "transcend their party identity and add to the national narrative?"

Instead the story so far is back to the future. And so we had NDP Leader Jack Layton trying to be cool by talking about hash tags and bling (which resulted in a line on Twitter: "looks like his new hip really is hip."). His party is running a record number of female candidates and he did proudly refer to that.

Then there was the Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, a former professor who really does connect with the young and should have seemed more compellingly modern, evoking the Polytechnique massacre when it comes to guns and violence against women. While it was a watershed event, it happened almost 22 years ago, and there are more contemporary ways to frame the discussion. Mr. Ignatieff, though, is starting to sound more authentic, which is one thing voters are in search of.

And the only futuristic thing about Stephen Harper is that in the English debate he spoke so flatly and without emotion he could have been a robot (a Teflon father knows best bot).

"Mr. Harper was definitely a buzz kill, but then again he wanted to be," said Alex Sévigny, an associate professor of communications at McMaster University, who watched the English debate in a student pub. The students "were polite but there was no buzz in the room. They were not engaged."

Dr. Sévigny, who teaches a class in campaigns and elections, told me in a phone interview he thought the first debate seemed "incomplete" and, to use a marketing term, "off code" for the millennials and even other generations hooked into the Internet zeitgeist, the "code" being "diversity, inclusion, collegiality."

I found the male lone gunslinger approach of each leader alienating and old-fashioned (I tried to do this, but you did that, now it's high noon, dude). And, in a huge collegiality no-no, there was palpable loathing onstage between several of the leaders, some of it emanating from Mr. Harper, the man who wants you to give him a majority, he says, so that all this "bickering" will go away.

The one bright spark? The number of people who were moved to tune in and watch at least part of that first debate was a record-shattering four million. It won't be until election day that we discover whether that level of interest marks a reversal in the trend of low voter turnouts.

Before this campaign winds down and the Canadian electorate puts another white middle-aged man in charge of their destinies - because hey, what choice have we got? - maybe one of these guys will unlock our enthusiasm, our sense of a dynamic 21st century that belongs to all of us.

That was what made the U.S. presidential campaign of 2008 so riveting. In the Democratic Party you had a woman, Hillary Clinton, battling Barack Obama, an African-American man, for the prize, and in the Republican Party you had Sarah Palin, who appalled many with her ignorance and self-regard, but who forced us to see women running for high office as diverse, difficult and ideologically driven as men. These women - Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin - were no doubt a big part of what made it interesting for me. The race was impossible to turn away from.

The winner of course was Barack Obama, now mired in his own back-to-the-future political muck. But for a time, that campaign seemed modern and utterly enthralling.

By contrast, in this federal election campaign, the 21st century, already more than a decade old, seems just beyond our grasp.

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