A Conservative, a Liberal, a New Democrat and a political agnostic walk into a library.
There’s no punchline. It is an autumn Saturday in Canada’s largest city. The four sit in the upstairs boardroom of a Toronto Public Library branch with 15 strangers. Paperwork, including Elections Canada forms and mandatory pledges of good behaviour for volunteers, is stacked on a foldable table. There’s a whiteboard, blank except for the letters “PPC.”
The people in this room — some here out of curiosity, some out of frustration with the political status quo and some out of burning conviction for Maxime Bernier’s ideas — are the dissident conservative politician’s first disciples in the electoral riding of Toronto-St. Paul’s. As one man jokes, they are here to “make sure there are actually people in the People’s Party.”
There’s Robert Macklem, a 23-year-old news junkie who voted for Thomas Mulcair last time. He is elected president of the riding association, unopposed. There’s Bradley Ransom, who works in auto manufacturing and wants to be “a good Canadian.” Chuck Black, a writer whose vote in 2015 helped make Justin Trudeau prime minister, thinks if nothing else a new party can open Canada’s politics to new ideas. Brendan O’Carroll, meanwhile, is here to support “a genuine politician.”
Running the show is Kevin Cooper, a soft-spoken man who’s trying his hand as Bernier’s regional organizer for Toronto after 10 years volunteering for the Conservative Party. He tells the group, all but three of them men, that he’s already lost friends for the cause. But when others wake up to how rooted “legacy” parties are in the status quo, “we will embrace them with open arms, because we made that mistake too,” he says.
To the people in this room, the story of Bernier and his new People’s Party of Canada is one of a principled politician sick of polling-driven policy decisions, looking to undo the influence of special interest groups on government. It is about supply management, corporate welfare and the Austrian School of economics. It is about smaller government and individual freedom and a willingness to debate controversial ideas.
Some here would agree, to an extent, with another perspective: that this is really a story about disruption and populism, not so much about Bernier or his ideas but about what he represents to a constituency feeling underrepresented in modern Canadian politics. It is about Donald Trump but also about François Legault and Emmanuel Macron. It is about the underdog.
Others outside this building on Mount Pleasant Road are more cynical. Some believe the story of Bernier and his new party is about, well, Maxime Bernier. It’s about how the leadership of the Conservative Party slipped through Bernier’s fingers a year-and-a-half ago, and it is about his ensuing rivalry with the victor, Andrew Scheer. It is about bitterness and an ego that threatens to fracture the conservative movement.
And to those most skeptical of Bernier, it is a story about how, whether out of conviction, opportunism or ignorance, his party is flirting with some of society’s darkest undercurrents.
Whatever proves the truth of the matter, even those eager to write Bernier off as a joke concede it would be a mistake to entirely dismiss his potential impact on Canadian politics, and on the country’s political discourse. His eagerness to colour outside the lines of politically correct rhetoric has made him stand apart from other federal politicians — even if that has sometimes meant standing alone.
“So usually when you build a party, you’re a group of people, you have a convention, you have ideas, you have a platform,” Bernier said. “But for us, we are having the ideas in the beginning, and people are coming because of these ideas.”
It was two days before the midnight Halloween deadline for “founding members” to sign up for his new party without paying a fee, and Bernier, for now technically the independent MP for the eastern Quebec riding of Beauce, was in his office across from Parliament Hill, leaning intently forward in his chair as he spoke. “It’s like building a small business,” he says. “I’m a kind of an entrepreneur.”
On Aug. 23, while the Conservative rank-and-file were gathering in Nova Scotia for a policy convention, Bernier stood alone in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa and announced to reporters he was leaving the “morally and intellectually corrupt” party he had recently sought to lead.
Since narrowly losing the Conservative leadership race in May 2017, Bernier had by all accounts been a thorn in Scheer’s side. Word of his departure put Scheer and his entourage in a visibly good mood for the rest of that weekend.
A 55-year-old father of two teenagers, Bernier worked in law and finance before launching the political career that for a time made him a sort of cult figure among free-market-loving pundits and people who use the phrase “dairy cartel” in everyday life. Tall, charismatic and comfortable in the spotlight — if still a bit smoother in his native French than in English — Bernier checks all the boxes a retail politician must: he feeds off the energy of a crowd, he knows how to navigate a room and to the supporters he glad-hands he comes across as warm and genuine.
Stephen Harper had appointed Bernier to cabinet when he was first elected to the House of Commons in 2006, replacing his father as the MP for Beauce. After handling the industry file for a year and a half Bernier was elevated to the coveted position of foreign minister only to be turfed nine months later after he left a sensitive briefing book at the home of his girlfriend. In 2011 he made it back into cabinet as a more junior minister of state.
But Harper — who just 15 years ago sewed together the conservative movement after the rise of the populist Reform Party split it — has had nothing good to say about Bernier recently. “It is clear that Max never accepted the result of the leadership vote and seeks only to divide Conservatives,” he tweeted after the MP’s defection.
Despite a flurry of accusations he was just a sore loser and the lack of a single high-profile endorsement, Bernier charged ahead, announcing the name of his new party Sept. 14.
“Nobody will cross the floor to come with us. And it’s okay,” Bernier said in that interview weeks later. “We have the support with the people, and that’s more important for me.”
On Nov. 15, Elections Canada decreed the PPC eligible to be an officially registered party, having finished vetting the signatures of 250 founding members. After a short probationary period, once the party runs a candidate in a byelection or general election it will be formally registered and can start issuing tax receipts for donations. That’s expected to happen by early next year when, a Liberal official confirmed, the government will call three February byelections.
Electoral district associations, or EDAs, for each of the country’s 338 ridings are being set up through meetings like the one in St. Paul’s. Bernier’s team wants all 338 up and running by the end of December, so they can recruit a full slate of candidates in the new year.
The initial goal had been to sign up 10,000 members by Nov. 1. In his office a few days before that deadline, Bernier interrupted an interview to retrieve his iPad so he could show the Post some numbers in NationBuilder, sophisticated fundraising software used across the international political spectrum from pro-Brexit campaigners to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. The screen showed 27,896 members. By midnight on Halloween they had tripled their goal, with more than 31,500 members — the biggest representations in Ontario, at 36 per cent of members, Quebec at 21 per cent and Alberta at 16 per cent.
Once the PPC started charging $5 per membership, however, the pace slowed. As of Monday there were 32,696 members, 229 EDAs had been formed, and the party had raised $483,000. (By comparison, 259,010 Conservative Party members voted in last year’s leadership election and the party raised $16.9 million in the first nine months of this year.)
The party’s most important member other than Bernier is Martin Masse, a longtime friend, an employee in his office when Bernier was industry minister, and late of the Montreal Economic Institute, having resigned to join Bernier in his leap into the unknown. The other architects of Bernier’s nearly-successful leadership bid have largely remained in the Conservative camp, casting Masse’s enormous influence on his friend into sharp relief.
Some longtime Bernier observers believe Masse has given shape to Bernier’s ideas and policy positions over the years, and that he is to no small degree the man behind the man. The two talk on the phone every morning, Bernier said, and decide together what issues to prioritize and their positions on the day’s news. Together, they run his Twitter account, Masse usually writing the actual tweets. In an interview with the Post, even when discussing Bernier specifically rather than the party Masse was noticeably less likely to say “he” than “we.”
However, the party in its early days is so decentralized that even Masse isn’t quite clear on how many organizers are doing what where. “We’ll have to do the organigram of all of this at one point to make it clearer,” he said. “We just told people: self-organize on these Facebook pages, and through Twitter and emails and everything, and do it. So they started doing it. It’s kind of going the opposite way that you’re supposed to do that, that parties usually do that with everything being controlled by the centre.”
Clinton Desveaux, who oversees organizing as a national co-ordinator, said he’s never seen a process as grassroots-driven as this one. “People are literally just calling up and saying, ‘Hey, I want to help out, I want to do whatever,’” he said. “We’re attracting from across party lines, and people who are not affiliated. That’s the part I find most exciting, is the number of people who have never been involved in the political process, because they simply never believed in the existing political parties.”
He said he sees “large crowds” coming to meetings across the country. “They try to spin it as a party of one but I look at these photos and I see dozens of people coming out to meetings,” said Desveaux. Asked if he has any theories on why a large majority of attendees are male, per those photos, he said he didn’t know. “I don’t have an answer to it.”
Organizers believe they can reach a constituency of people in Canada — women, too, and less white than some of the early riding association meetings might suggest — who are fed up with how politics is done.
“I think that the main issue of our times right now is that you have a political class that’s pandering systematically to politically correct interests, and that makes them unable to address serious issues that concern people a lot, and they feel they’re disenfranchised,” said Frédérick Têtu, an organizer for the Quebec City area. He pointed out that Quebecers recently handed the province’s two longest-standing parties their worst-ever showings in a provincial election. “People are abandoning, en masse, traditional parties of power to try new parties.”
In Saskatchewan, organizer Ethan Erkiletian said he’s been finding support for the PPC from self-described Western separatists, among others. He said he believes that second-guessing populist movements is a loser’s game. “To not expect dramatic shifts in the political paradigm as a real, realistic expectation is to be short-sighted. I think when it comes to the PPC it is not simply an alternative option, it is a change in the dynamic in terms of how Canadians are being asked to think about politics and this is typical of populist movements around the globe.”
The People’s Party is focused on four values: individual freedom, personal responsibility, fairness and respect. The ideas outlined on the party’s new website are largely those Bernier deployed in his bid to become Conservative leader. Eventually there will be a process for members to provide input into the party’s platform. “Yes, we will have a debate for sure,” he said. “But right now, people liked the platform that I put forward during the leadership race.”
Masse has so far had a heavy hand here, telling the Post he’s been responsible for fleshing out Bernier’s policies. “There are some that we never had time to develop, so that’s what I need to work on so that we can have our full platform in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “Contrary to the Conservatives we’re not polling and doing focus groups to decide what to think.”
The most prominent issues are those with which Bernier has become most identified after more than a decade of policy speeches: ending corporate welfare, dismantling supply management, lowering corporate income tax. He’s keen to eliminate interprovincial trade barriers, simplify gun laws and pull Canada out of the Paris climate accord. But since the leadership race he has also staked out a new policy position — one that for many eclipses all the others — of reducing immigration to 250,000 people per year from current levels of 300,000 and the Liberal government’s target of 350,000 by 2021.
The party relies heavily on social media to promote its policies and reach potential supporters. Without the means to produce ads just yet, it makes frequent use of memes and amplifies fan-made videos. Bernier recently shared one woman’s cover of the song Roxanne with reworked lyrics that literally sang his praises. When the party posted a campy fan-made video on Facebook featuring a train ploughing through the snow to the soundtrack of an April Wine song, some journalists mistook it for an official ad. It was removed after considerable online bemusement. Masse said they had to take it down because of worries the party was infringing copyright by using the song without permission. (April Wine didn’t respond to the Post’s request for comment.)
Mostly, though, they post in Bernier’s voice. “Our strategy is very simple. We look at the news every morning and we tweet or put something on Facebook in relation to the news, but also pushing our ideas,” he told the Post. Masse has access to Bernier’s Twitter account and writes many of the tweets, but Bernier approves everything. Bernier described himself as “proud” of those following him on social media. “I have people on Twitter that they know better my own platform than myself,” he said, laughing.
Social media, though, can be a tricky medium for a party that says it wants to distance itself from people with extreme views while also trumpeting the ideal of free speech — and for a politician who seems to want to attract Canadians fed up with political correctness.
It’s one thing when Bernier’s Twitter account is used during a postal workers’ strike to urge the privatization of Canada Post; but perhaps the bulk of the attention Bernier’s earned from the public in recent months — much of it condemnatory — has been a result of his posts about immigration and the border. Bernier, Masse and their organizers have publicly asserted that bigots aren’t welcome in their party. Their contention is that a tweet from Bernier’s account suggesting people who can afford plane tickets aren’t refugees isn’t a signal to those keen to close the border; that tweets worrying about “extreme multiculturalism” are in no way an invitation to white nationalists; and that a tweet about how “religious fanatics who want to behead you” don’t belong in Canada is in no way an attempt to play on fears about immigration. Even those inclined to give Bernier and Masse the benefit of the doubt would have to concede they are trying to walk a very fine line. Those not so inclined would say they are being reckless at best, and at worst pandering to racists.
The party is trying to contain the issue. To become elected officers in a PPC riding association, people like Macklem and Ransom, on the St. Paul’s executive, must sign a pledge saying they support the values and principles of the party and most of its platform. They have to provide criminal record checks and lists of their social media accounts, and agree to have a specialized firm do a background check on them. “I pledge that I have done or said nothing in the past, and will do or say nothing in the future, that would publicly embarrass the party,” the form says. This appears to go a step farther than the oaths or codes of conduct that other parties require candidates and more-senior party executives to abide by.
Some unofficial PPC-focused groups have emerged on alternative social media platforms, such as the gaming app Discord. Even there, group moderators specifically warn against participants making comments that would fall into the category of “ethno-nationalism, race realism, anti-semitism, alt-right, etc.” — because those comments would, in addition to hurting the group itself, “without doubt damage Maxime Bernier’s entire movement and the image of the party.” In recent weeks some moderators have stepped in to warn and block accounts espousing such views.
Masse has even suggested that Conservative Party members may be trying to sabotage Bernier’s project by posting extreme views on social media pages and forums associated with the PPC. “This is the danger of having a decentralized organization where we rely on grassroots, is that there’s all kinds of people with weird views who are attracted by this and try to hijack us,” he told the Post. A spokesman for Scheer said he had “no comment” on the allegation.
It isn’t clear to what extent Bernier, who sometimes calls journalists on the phone to alert them to tweets, is aware of some of the coded online discussion around him. A minor furor erupted during the Conservative leadership race when one of Bernier’s accounts posted a meme showing himself urging a supporter to “choose the red pill” — a trope from sci-fi franchise The Matrix the far right has adopted to represent their purported embrace of reality over fantasy. Asked about the meme, Bernier, not unbelievably, said he thought it was just a reference to the movie.
Further illustrating the precariousness of the path Bernier is walking is his co-operation with The Rebel, a Canadian media outlet widely criticized last year for its favourable coverage of an alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va. and that is routinely accused of fomenting Islamophobia. Scheer distanced himself from the site after Charlottesville, saying he would no longer do interviews with Rebel personalities. Bernier is not just happy to do interviews with The Rebel, the PPC is paying to promote itself to the website’s supporters, sending advertising to its email list — for example, a recent blast touted his proposal to end all foreign aid. At a Rebel event in Calgary this month at which he was promoted as a featured guest, Bernier gave a speech that recalled some of the rhetoric of his Twitter account.
“We must start pushing back against this politically correct nonsense that’s destroying our society and culture,” he said, according to a speech transcript posted to the PPC website. Later: “Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want.”
Bernier defended the outlet, telling the Post he wouldn’t rule out appearances with The Rebel as Scheer has. “I think for me, it’s an important media. They have a million viewers, and it’s another kind of media, and I think they have an important role in Canada,” he said. “You cannot agree with everything they are saying, but I cannot agree with everything CTV is doing also. … They’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. And they can do some mistakes, like other media.”
At the St. Paul’s riding association meeting, one man noted that Bernier’s affiliation with The Rebel “attracts a certain type of attention.” Another worried about what might result. “Expect to be attacked by the radical left,” he said. “Expect to be demonized by the MSM,” an online acronym for “mainstream media” used by skeptics from both sides of the political spectrum. Upon learning a Post reporter was in the room, a third man wondered aloud at the beginning of the meeting if he was free to speak his mind given the presence of the “thought police.”
The Post asked Bernier whether it bothered him that some are calling him an alt-right sympathizer — and that, whether intentionally or not, he is mobilizing support from the margins. He denied any intention to do so. “If they read all our policies, it’s free-market policies based on freedom and responsibility,” he said. “I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of expression, so journalists can say something. But for me it’s not true.”
He doesn’t care what people think? “Yeah. For me, we are appealing to the intelligence of Canadians. That’s why I said it’s a ‘smart populism’ that we’re doing. Yes. But I don’t try to play with the people’s emotions. I don’t try to do that.”
Bernier shied away even from calling himself “right wing.” He said his Canadian political hero is Wilfrid Laurier, a classical liberal and a Liberal. “You know, Bill Clinton was supposed to be a left-wing politician but he cut the budget and he cut the spending in U.S. more than Bush,” he said. “For me, right, left — I want a smaller government.”
While there has so far been little public polling on awareness of and support for Bernier’s party — and while Bernier himself readily admits that the brand has little name-recognition — the early indications are that gaining support from a general population still significantly enamoured of Trudeau will be an uphill battle.
In its last couple of weekly tracking polls, Nanos Research gives the People’s Party between one and one-and-a-half per cent support. After the week ending Nov. 23, the firm found only 12 per cent of voters would consider supporting the new party, while 28 per cent were unsure and 60 per cent wouldn’t consider it. (The poll, which takes a rolling sample over four weeks, had 1,000 respondents and a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.)
Senior sources inside the Conservative Party, who have no love for their former colleague, told the Post they are less worried about the potential for some kind of populist uprising than they are about Bernier eroding their support — even if it’s only by a couple of points, it could cost them close races in the 2019 election.
One suggested Bernier doesn’t have the discipline for the all-consuming effort required to organize a new political movement.
“He never was particularly known for being a hard worker when he was a minister,” the source said. “The truth of it is, he gets a lot of his views from his buddy there at the Montreal Institute.”
It was that source’s opinion that Bernier lacks senior organizers who know how to get people to the polls to actually cast votes. “I don’t think he’s got boots on the ground, I really don’t. Boots on the ground, field organizers. Social media’s the easy way to create the impression of growth and impact, but that doesn’t translate into votes.”
Another Conservative source was dismissive of the notion Bernier’s policies represent any kind of threat. “On most issues, his party is not that different from ours,” said the source. “It’s perfectly clear that if you vote for the People’s Party, you’re going to end up with Justin Trudeau as prime minister again. But that’s the outcome which seems antithetical to most of the things Maxime Bernier says he believes in.”
If Bernier’s populist rhetoric around immigration is indeed a strategic attempt to win support from the anti-immigrant crowd, it will fail, the source predicted. “I don’t think there’s a lot of anti-immigration activists out there saying ‘250,000 is A-OK,’” the source said, citing Bernier’s desired annual intake. “I don’t know what ‘populist’ issue he can jump on out there that we don’t see coming.”
Rivals are worried enough about Bernier to publicly mark their territory, however. Leaders do not show up in every riding to announce their candidates for the next election. But a few weeks ago Scheer was in Beauce for a rally in support of Richard Lehoux, a former mayor and now the Conservative candidate Scheer hopes will defeat Bernier for his seat in the House. “If you want to change governments in 2019, you have to vote Conservative,” he proclaimed.
Asked whether the party is concerned Bernier will pose a genuine threat in next year’s election, Brock Harrison, a spokesman for Scheer, said: “Mr. Scheer is uniting conservatives across the country and we are confident that Canadians will respond to our vision in 2019.”
Meanwhile, the PPC is expecting tacit support from the Liberals, the thought being that if Bernier succeeds even a little bit, that success will come at the expense of the Conservatives, potentially helping Liberal candidates to victory in some battleground ridings. Even two or three points in the polls could make a difference.
A Liberal official confirmed they planned to call byelections in January for three empty House of Commons seats — York-Simcoe in Ontario, Outremont in Quebec and Burnaby South in British Columbia — with voting to take place in February.
Had the government called those elections during the fall, as Scheer and other opposition leaders wanted them to, that would have “stifle(d) our growth,” Masse explained, because Elections Canada requires that two months elapse between a party filing its paperwork and being able to participate in an election. Now, when the writ drops in January, the PPC will be allowed to issue tax receipts to its donors. That’s good for the Liberals, said Masse. “We can compete with the Conservatives, which I guess is in their interest.”
As to his own strategy, Bernier had difficulty pinning down what he would consider a victory next year. “I really don’t know actually how many ridings we can win,” he said. “I’m campaigning. We have the ideas, and I hope it will help to have a lot of MPs. But, I can’t tell you. I’m aiming for the maximum.”
He emphasized that although he would be delighted to elect a roster of MPs next fall, this is not a short-term project. “We can be a big surprise,” he said. “But I’m here for the long term, also.”
For all their eagerness to dismiss him, the Conservative sources with whom the Post spoke agreed it would be a mistake to underestimate Bernier — and to underestimate his potential long-term impact, with some pessimistically whispering that a “decade of darkness” may be nigh. After all, it had taken Preston Manning several elections to build up the Reform Party after he struck out on his own, and it had taken considerable time and effort to unite conservatives under a single federal banner again. Unity has been Scheer’s catchphrase — but as one Conservative conceded, “I do think that disruption sells these days.”
There’s a sense among people like Cooper that that potential for disruption, and the pockets of early grassroots enthusiasm cropping up in libraries and pubs across the country, are more important than whether the conservative movement gets fractured.
“I would rather have the people we have now, the great people we get out to these, the people who are committed, than the experienced people,” Cooper told the Post, as his new compatriots trickled out of the boardroom. He kept repeating that word: people, people, people.
“There’ll be that point when people who were formerly reserved will come,” he added, in such a way that it is difficult to tell whether he truly believes it, or whether he just really wants to. “There’s going to come a point when people who are on the fence will say, ‘This is real.’”