Party for one? Inside Maxime Bernier’s quest to build a new political movement
Marie-Danielle Smith National Post
It has a charismatic leader, a compelling origin story and a populist vision. But can the People’s Party of Canada attract any actual people?
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.
Categorised in: Canadian News