Why you should care
Because Maxime Bernier could swing Canada’s elections.
“For decades now, there has only been one acceptable position among political intellectual elites: more and more and more immigration,” said Maxime Bernier at a rally in support of Canada’s newest political party in late July.
The 56-year-old Bernier was dressed in typically formal yet fashionable wear: a pink shirt and matching pocket square with a dark gray suit the same color as his hair.
“There is a taboo about this topic,” he continued, speaking to a packed ballroom in front of a blue-and-white backdrop dotted with the official logo of the recently formed People’s Party of Canada. “As soon as you raise a concern about the level of immigration, someone will accuse you of harboring anti-immigration views or being xenophobic.”
As the world pushes toward more populist movements, Canada has largely remained immune. Bernier is challenging that perception. And while he’s a spoiler at best ahead of October’s elections, he could be a harbinger of a populist shift.
We’re the only real, principled alternative right now.
A little over a year ago, Bernier was a prominent member of the Conservative Party, which had ruled over Canada for nearly a decade prior to Justin Trudeau’s victory in 2015. A little over two years ago, in May 2017, Bernier narrowly lost a leadership election that would have made him Trudeau’s biggest rival in the upcoming federal election.
Bernier was defeated by the party’s current leader, Andrew Scheer, who claimed 51 percent of the votes to Bernier’s 49 percent — Bernier proceeded to raise questions about the legitimacy of the vote. “They are intellectually and morally corrupt,” says Bernier of his former party, under whom he served as ministers of industry, foreign affairs and state for small business and tourism since becoming a member of Parliament in 2006. A couple of years later, he resigned as foreign affairs minister after it was revealed that he had left classified documents at a girlfriend’s apartment. It didn’t help that the girlfriend had ties to the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
His next resignation came in August 2018, almost 15 months after losing the bid to become the party’s leader. Just a few weeks later, Bernier unveiled the People’s Party of Canada as a more conservative alternative to his former Conservative Party, while installing himself as its first leader. “We’re the only real, principled alternative right now,” he argues.
A key theme through all of Bernier’s proposals is the refusal to pander to anyone, be it corporate interests, the international community, special interest groups or minority communities. The People’s Party has proposed to reduce immigration, impose a “societal norms” test for potential newcomers, pull out of the Paris climate agreement, and abolish all foreign development aid, corporate subsidies and supply management systems that keep the price of dairy, poultry and eggs artificially high. “The People’s Party is really a balanced mix of libertarian economics, mainstream conservative values and a populist perspective, which is similar to that of other populist parties that have been popping up in Western countries in recent years,” says Martin Masse, Bernier’s top policy adviser.
Immigration is a powerful part of Bernier’s message, and while he’s never referred to immigrants as “criminals” or “rapists,” it has drawn the biggest backlash. After a huge public outcry against signs showing Bernier’s face with the slogan “Say NO to mass immigration,” the company that owned the billboards took them down.
Growing up in rural Quebec, just outside of Quebec City, Bernier never imagined a career in politics; instead, he wanted to be an entrepreneur. While minorities are underrepresented in his hometown of Beauce — with barely more than 1 percent identifying as such — self-starting manufacturers are overrepresented, thanks in large part to its proximity to the United States.
With the encouragement of his father, Gilles — himself an entrepreneur who founded a radio station and later moved into politics — Bernier pursued a bachelor’s of commerce and, later, a law degree.
Bernier’s first foray into politics wasn’t until a 2005 meeting with then Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, who was looking to attract French Canadian voters. Bernier, who was vice president of a free market think tank, recalls advising the future prime minister to focus on deregulation and lowering taxes.
Harper delivered a speech emphasizing those values in October 2005 and won the election a few months later, thanks in large part to success in Quebec. Before the federal election, however, he asked Bernier to run as a member of Parliament in Beauce; Bernier won with one of the largest majorities in the party’s history. Since then, he’s served the party in one form or another until his resignation last summer.
For a startup political party that has yet to reach its first birthday, with a full-time staff of just six, the People’s Party has already seen relative success, despite a range of controversies. The party signed up roughly 40,000 members and put 310 candidates in place out of a total of 338 electoral districts, though it recently lost five members over accusations of racism. “It’s probably easier to get 300-and-some-odd candidates if your bar for candidacy is pretty low,” says Colin MacDonald, the principal for Navigator, a Toronto-based public affairs firm.
MacDonald says he’s unsure whether the People’s Party should be considered a serious political contender or just Bernier’s “vanity project.” Though he believes it would be naive to assume Canada is immune from the populist wave, MacDonald doesn’t think the country’s conservative base is large enough to carry two parties. A recent poll found that 9 percent of voters would consider voting for the People’s Party, 62 percent would not and 27 percent are unsure.
But if the People’s Party does have even moderate success — with even a few percentage points potentially decisive in Trudeau’s tight reelection fight — it could cause the Conservative Party to move further to the right.
Whatever happens, Bernier is proud of how far he and his new party have come in such a short period. “I think we started a new conversation in Canada, a conversation that is important and that people want to have,” he says. We’ll find out on Oct. 21 how much of Canada wants to keep the discussion going.