The new face of Canadian populism

With his People's Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier shows there is support for a new conservative party

Maxime Bernier
Maxime Bernier, in August 2018, after announcing his departure from the Conservative Party of Canada.

The bright red caps that they wore with pride showcased this group’s willingness to embrace an off-brand MAGA populism. Their snide comments and open hostility toward news reporters, however, showed that this is more than a passing political trend.

The far-right conservatives attending this political rally were eager to have a conversation with anyone who would talk about their views on immigration, identity, and the failures of Canada’s political leaders.

Yet The Vue convention centre is not in Georgia or Tennessee. It’s in Etobicoke, and the politician the crowd of 900 was coming to support on Nov. 14 was Maxime Bernier, the founder and leader of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC).

“We are the People’s Party because we represent the people.” – Maxime Bernier

Bernier stood confidently on stage to begin his speech, with his most loyal supporters wearing custom, red “Make Canada Great Again” hats. With his suit perfectly pressed, he looked as though he had arrived for a photo shoot on the red carpet. Instead, he was ready to deliver a fiery populist speech to his hardcore supporters.

“We are the People’s Party because we represent the people. For us, there is no political correctness. We must say what we believe in,” Bernier told the cheering audience.

Bernier was showered with applause as he denounced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s leadership, harshly criticized the CBC and promised to slash the corporation’s budget, attacked political correctness, and took a hard-line stance against immigration.

He even convinced some of the people who attended his rally and had been undecided about supporting his cause.

“I walked through the door not really having an opinion,” said one attendee who asked to remain anonymous. “He says he’s a populist, and populism is just democracy taken literally, so I don’t have a problem with that.”

Bernier served as a cabinet minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper and has experience in the business and financial sector. He lost the 2017 Conservative Party of Canada leadership election to Andrew Scheer, who gained 51 per cent of the final vote, compared with 49 per cent for Bernier.

Bernier decided to start his own political party in September 2018. Since then the PPC has accumulated over 32,000 supporters and raised over $1 million, showing that there is support in Canada for a new populist conservative party.

The emergence of a new populist conservative party in Canada is but one instance of a larger political movement, one that has swept through numerous countries across multiple continents.

Far-right nationalist and populist figures such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro all built their platforms around an anti-immigration, anti-elitist agenda and claim they are the true champions for the people.

While Bernier is in favour of pushing conservative and libertarian policies within Canada—he does take a harder stance on immigration than any other Canadian federal leader—he says his party is no home for the far-right.

“I said in the beginning that they (far-right individuals) are not welcome in our party. We want a little bit less immigration, but we’re not anti-immigration and we’re not for mass migration,” Bernier said during an interview. “We want to go back to what we’ve been doing for the last 75 years, with the point system and with more economic migrants.”

Bernier is referring to the immigration system favoured by former prime minister Stephen Harper that valued skilled and educated economic immigrants over refugees and asylum seekers.

Michael Adams, president of the Environics Institute for Survey Research, said that Bernier’s position on immigration is more popular among Canadians than one would think.

He said that around one-third of Canadians have negative attitudes toward illegal border crossers, asylum seekers and refugees, and that Bernier could rally some of those people to his party.

“All that it’s costing us to process asylum seekers is going to make people concerned and say, ‘Why should we have to pay for that?’” Adams said. “When you’ve got a third of people who are concerned about it, there’s something there that can be given political expression.”

Last year set a record for illegal crossings along the Canada-U.S. border. At least 18,149 asylum claims were made to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.

A parliamentary report published Nov. 29 shows that the cost of illegal immigration into Canada was $340 million in 2017-18 and is expected to rise to almost $400 million next year.

Alexandre Meterissian, a political strategist with Montreal’s Hatley Strategy Advisors, said that Bernier will draw support to his party for his stance on the immigration question, particularly in Quebec, where the most illegal border crossings have been occurring.

“Over half the illegal immigrants coming into this country are flowing through Quebec. Bernier is really attuned to this,” Meterissian said. “The federal liberals have had issues with immigration and with handling the crisis that is currently unfolding. So Bernier will benefit from this crisis.”

At a meeting between Prime Minister Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault on Dec. 7, Legault asked the federal government to pay the province $295 million as compensation for the cost of supporting illegal border crossers and asylum seekers.

Meterissian said that Bernier is appealing most of all to Canadians who don’t vote in federal elections. He thinks that Bernier’s charisma and personal brand of populism could lead to him attracting lots of political “outsiders” to his party.

“Keep in mind that well over a third, almost 40 per cent, of Canadians don’t vote in the federal election. So he’s appealing to that huge amount of people that just don’t participate in the election,” Meterissian said. “It’ll be interesting to see if those disenfranchised voters who don’t identify to the Conservative party or the Liberals — and even less the NDP — will rally to his cause.”

To keep the PPC mainstream and legitimate in the eyes of Canadian voters, and to prevent far-right individuals from influencing the party, Bernier has begun instituting background and social-media checks for anyone who wants to be a member of a riding association or sit in an executive position.

“They will have to sign a pledge saying that they believe in the principles of our party and that they want to help us build our party,” Bernier said. “That will be a cost for the party, but it’s too important. It’s our credibility.”

Meterissian said that Bernier is right to institute these background checks, even though it goes against his traditional philosophy.

“He is a libertarian, and libertarians tend to be hostile towards the Big Brother state,” he said. “But he has no choice and I think he is making the right decision to watch the people that are going to be in his party to kick out those that are obviously problematic.”

While Bernier is aware that far-right people will be attracted to his populist platform, he has tried to keep his party legitimate and marketable to other Canadian voters.

“I don’t want to compromise with our principles, and people appreciate that,” Bernier said. “If you like what you are seeing, then you will come, and I hope that you will support us. If not, it’s OK.”

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Posted: Jan 29 2019 1:36 pm
Filed under: Features News Profiles