OTTAWA - There may have been no "formal directive" to brand Canada's government as the "Harper Government," but that doesn't mean the instructions didn't come from the top, says a spokesman for the Privy Council Office.

The bureaucratic nerve centre of the federal government was left to clear the air Monday amid furious denials from Conservatives that civil servants have been told to replace the words "Government of Canada" with "Harper Government" in some communications.

"The distinction that needs to be made here is the word 'directive' -- a directive, as opposed to, you know, in a particular case departments may have used the words 'Harper Government,"' said Raymond Rivet, a PCO spokesman.

Told there were almost 300 "Harper Government" references on various federal gc.ca web sites in the past month alone, Rivet acknowledged the role of the Prime Minister's Office in co-ordinating messaging.

Civil servants from four departments told The Canadian Press last week they've recently been instructed to use the new terminology.

"If a department has told you they've got direction from 'the Centre' to use a message or certain wording or do something, I mean, that would be normal, would it not?" Rivet said.

"Part of the role of PCO and PMO in the communications sphere is to co-ordinate government communications, so I imagine they get direction on a variety of things. So that's not in opposition to somebody telling you that there's no formal directive."

Rivet's nuanced response stood in contrast to the government's newly adopted line.

"There has been no change of policy or practice," Stockwell Day, the president of the Treasury Board, flatly told the House of Commons.

His words echoed those of Dimitri Soudas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman, who asserted "nothing could be further from the truth" in a letter Monday in the Toronto Star.

Soudas, however, did not deny that instructions were given to use the "Harper Government" when he was first approached about the issue last Thursday. Soudas said then that it was simply a "long-standing practice" employed by the previous "Chretien" and "Martin" Liberal governments.

Day continued that theme Monday in the House of Commons.

"It is not uncommon at all to see governments use various terms," said Day. "As a matter of fact, just a quick search of the various Internet sources show at least 109 references used by the Liberals."

A Google search of the Government of Canada's gc.ca domain name shows "Harper Government" has appeared 297 times in the past month alone and 571 times since Nov. 1, 2010 -- about the time civil service sources say they were instructed to start using the new wording.

Over the past year, the search shows 698 references on gc.ca sites, suggesting a five-fold escalation over the past four months.

Health Canada, for instance, has used the term 16 times to headline news releases since Nov. 29, and not once in the previous 11 months.

Asked Monday about the sudden and dramatic increase, Soudas reiterated in an email that the PMO has "issued no 'directive' of the type referred to" and then directed inquiries to the PCO.

Public reaction to the seemingly arcane issue appears to have caught the government, and government watchers, off guard.

An online petition demanding the "Harper Government" moniker be dropped from government communications had garnered almost 14,000 names by Monday afternoon. News media comment boards appeared heavily weighted against the term.

And all three opposition parties were making hay with the issue.

The Liberals are now referring repeatedly to the "Harper regime" while the NDP is panning the Conservatives' constant comparisons to past Liberal behaviour.

"The only answer John Baird, Jason Kenney, Pierre Poilievre seem to be able to give in the House is: 'Of course, we're crooks, but we're not quite as crooked as the Liberals were!' And that's supposed to somehow make everything come clean," said NDP MP Tom Mulcair.

Even Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois whose raison d'etre is to shed the federal government's yoke, doesn't want the Conservatives messing with the Government of Canada.

"It's a pity looking at the way they're acting here," said Duceppe.

"It is sad when we're looking at a government using the state as if it was its own thing."