With the federal election looking like a dead heat between the Liberals and Conservatives, this evening’s second of two federal leaders’ debates will certainly play a decisive role in its outcome. But while the five federal leaders with representation in the House of Commons gather at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa, the one who won't be there may end up having the biggest impact. Multiple polls put Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party ahead of the Green Party, and some estimate his support as high as nine per cent. It is officially time to take him seriously and start asking some questions about what his rise means for the other five parties.
The venue for tonight’s debate is fitting, given the history of the Conservative Party of Canada looms large over any conversation about the PPC and Bernier. For nearly a decade, Stephen Harper managed to hold together a national conservative coalition that included free market enthusiasts, small government aficionados, gun rights advocates and western populists.
It won him three elections, including a majority government, and seemed to position the party he had forged from the scrap metal of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance for long-term success. Bernier served as a senior minister in Harper’s government and came within an eyelash of becoming party leader in 2017, winning the first 12 rounds of voting before succumbing to Andrew Scheer’s relentless mediocrity on the 13th. But now, he has refashioned himself as the pied piper of paranoid populism in Canada, and he seems poised to blow that conservative coalition wide apart — and with it, perhaps, Canadian politics as we’ve come to understand them.
His party’s policies, such as they are, seem like they’re drawn from the comment threads of a conservative Facebook group. The PPC would “impose pipelines” on provinces, withdraw from the Paris Agreement, cut immigration by more than 50 per cent, reform equalization and completely eliminate capital gains taxes.
But it’s Bernier’s pro-freedom approach to the pandemic that is driving his poll numbers and popularity, and it’s put Erin O’Toole in an obvious bind. While four in five Canadians support vaccine mandates and other pandemic public safety measures, the 20 per cent who don’t are drawn to Bernier and the PPC — and they happen to be otherwise conservative voters. As an Aug. 31 poll from Abacus Data showed, O’Toole’s Conservatives have 44 per cent of the support among vaccine refusers, which puts them 34 points ahead of the Liberals and 19 points ahead of the PPC.
Bernier isn’t about to back down here. In a Leni Riefenstahl-esque video shot at a Sept. 5 rally in Kelowna, Bernier quoted the words of John F. Kennedy in order to justify his crusade against common sense. “In the long history of the world,” he said, “only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. You are that generation. This is your role. And now is the time.” When Bernier shared the video on Twitter, he raised the rhetorical stakes even higher. “When tyranny becomes law,” he tweeted, “revolution becomes our duty.”
That sort of language is positively tame compared to what some PPCers — including Bernier — have said about Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Bernier referred to him as a “fascist psychopath” just last week, while PPC candidate Marc Emery (the erstwhile “prince of pot”) suggested: “He deserves a much worse fate. I’m thinking Mussolini.”
This is exactly what former clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick warned about back in 2019 when he said he was “deeply concerned about my country right now, its politics, and where it is headed.” It was “only” gravel being thrown at Trudeau and the journalists around him by a PPC supporter, but it’s not hard to imagine it turning into something much more dangerous — or lethal.
Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh can’t do anything to stop Bernier, given how unpopular they are among his supporters. But O’Toole, his former cabinet and caucus colleague, almost certainly can. After all, his “true blue” leadership campaign was clearly aimed at winning the support of far-right conservatives, and his party has been winking at, and flirting with, these sorts of elements within their coalition for years. They have openly traded in the kind of rhetoric and language about Trudeau that Bernier now wields like a weapon, and have empowered groups like the Yellow Vest movement that now flocks to his rallies in droves.
Now, O’Toole and the Conservative Party of Canada face a choice: stand up to the monster they’ve helped create and risk losing a few seats, or cater to its beliefs in the name of political power. We may find out tonight which path they’re going to take.