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calgary

Planes, names and voter appeal: The great debate over Stephen Harper and the Calgary airport

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks to the media at the Calgary International Airport on Dec. 21, 2006.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper talks to the media at the Calgary International Airport on Dec. 21, 2006.

TODD KOROL/REUTERS

It's been two weeks since the federal election ended, but voters are making another tough choice about Stephen Harper's future: whether to name Calgary's airport after him, or vice versa.

It started with an online petition by R. Curtis Mullen, a Canadian now living in the United States, urging the head of the Calgary Airport Authority to name the facility the Stephen J. Harper International Airport. A counter-petition started by Allison Cowan was also addressed to the airport authority. Over the weekend, Corey Hogan, a former staffer with the federal and Alberta Liberal parties who now works for the public-relations firm Hill+Knowlton, started his own petition with a third option: Rename Mr. Harper "Calgary International Airport." That petition is addressed to prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau.

HARPER'S CALGARY CONNECTION

The petition to rename the airport after Mr. Harper cites his record as the longest-serving prime minister from Western Canada. Mr. Harper grew up in Toronto's Leaside neighbourhood, but moved to Calgary in 1978 and has served as a Calgary MP under the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and Conservative Party banners since the 1990s.

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Mr. Harper now represents the Calgary Heritage riding. The airport, meanwhile, lies in Calgary Skyview, which elected Liberal Darshan Kang on Oct. 19 – making it one of only two federal Liberal strongholds in the strongly Conservative city.

THE SOCIAL-MEDIA BACKLASH

The petitions have aroused mockery on social media under the hashtag #HarperAirport.

IS THERE A PRECEDENT?

Of Canada's major airports, four are named after prime ministers: Montreal for Pierre Trudeau; Ottawa for Sir John A. Macdonald (and fellow Father of Confederation George-Étienne Cartier); Toronto for Lester Pearson; and Saskatoon for John Diefenbaker. In all cases, the name was bestowed only after the politician's death – in most cases, decades after.

The shortest wait was for Montreal's, which officially changed its name from Montréal-Dorval International Airport in 2004, four years after Pierre Trudeau's death. That name change was controversial at the time: Pro-separatist demonstrators picketed the 2003 ceremony in Montreal officially announcing the change, where they were dismissed by the late prime minister's son (and our current prime-minister-designate), Justin Trudeau.

The idea of renaming Mr. Harper after the airport also has a precedent of sorts: It's similar to an online petition proposed in 2000 by comedian Rick Mercer, who asked Canadians to support a referendum on changing Canadian Alliance party leader Stockwell Day's first name to "Doris."

HOW SOON IS TOO SOON?

A common rule in toponymy – the art or study of naming places – is to wait until after someone's death before naming a place after that person.

At the federal level, the Geographical Names Board of Canada says commemorative naming should only be considered more than five years after the person's death.

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Provinces follow similar rules. The Ontario Geographic Names Board says people under consideration for place names must be dead for at least five years. Quebec's Commission de toponymie won't consider a proposal until at least a year after death.

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

There can be controversy when naming guidelines aren't followed consistently. In 2010, when Manitoba named five lakes after soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the father of one of the fallen said he was disappointed that the province had also named one lake after a living person, hockey star Jonathan Toews. "Although he may be a super sports star, he is not, in my humble opinion, a hero, at least not in the same category," said Raymond Arnal, father of Corporal James Arnal, who was killed in 2008.

In other cases, places are named after living celebrities whose fame later turned to infamy.

Near Quebec City, the Myriam Bédard national biathlon centre opened two years after Ms. Bédard won two gold medals at the 1994 Winter Olympics. The former Olympian was later found guilty of contempt of court and kidnapping after she fled Canada with her 11-year-old daughter without alerting the girl's father.

In Kingston, Steve Fonyo Drive is named after the man who ran and completed the cross-Canada run started by Terry Fox. Mr. Fonyo was awarded the Order of Canada but was stripped of the honour after several brushes with the law that included pleading guilty to uttering threats, assault with a weapon, fraud and theft.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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