While the Canadian election has mostly been talked about in terms of winners and losers, the results are such a mixed bag that each federal party can claim that they won. Aside from the massive strides made by the Bloc Québécois, each of the main parties also lost: the Liberals lost their majority, the Conservatives lost their bid at government, the NDP lost seats in critical parts of Canada and the Greens failed to make significant gains.
There is a general consensus, though, that one party was the clear loser: Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada. The PPC failed to win a seat. Bernier had been elected in the riding of Beauce since 2006 and consistently received overwhelming support. Bernier’s father, Gilles, represented the same riding from 1984 to 1997.
In 2015, 32,911 people voted for Bernier. He won 59 per cent of the votes. But this past election night, he received just 16,772 votes. Conservative candidate Richard Lehoux won.
It would be foolish to see Bernier’s loss as a victory over the far-right. Bernier’s chance at winning his seat was always a long shot, and winning seats was never the goal. Canadians need to understand the PPC not as a partisan political force, but as a movement. Bernier successfully transformed fringe, extreme or otherwise insignificant groups into a cohesive national group that has mainstream expression. And the impact they have already had on political discourse suggests that, despite Bernier’s loss, they aren’t going anywhere soon.
The PPC gave organized racists a vessel through which to reach average Canadians. The PPC attracted social media ranters and ravers who spew Islamophobia, racism, transphobia and sexism. Bernier’s bizarre and ableist attacks on teenaged environmental activist celebrity Greta Thunberg were broadly condemned. PPC billboards that said “End Mass Immigration” triggered the departure of at least one candidate.
One PPC activist, Shaun Walker, had been the head of a neo-Nazi organization until he was arrested for committing a race-based attack in Salt Lake City, Utah. He now lives near St. Catharines, Ontario. As stories emerged of activists and candidates who had far-right connections and sympathies, B.C.-based candidate Brian Misera was ousted because Bernier refused to denounce the far-right.
The far-right in Canada, organized through the Yellow Vests, the Proud Boys, the Soldiers of Odin and others, found their political expression in Bernier’s party. They finally had a party that would lie about illegal immigration on the national airwaves of the public broadcaster. Their man could challenge the other parties in televised leaders debates, even though his party never achieved the five per cent poll rating that the debates commission said a party needed to be given a spot.
And journalists gave him airtime. His interview on CBC Radio’s The House allowed Bernier to argue that housing prices in Toronto and Vancouver are so high due to immigration, a claim that is a total lie. The interviewer didn’t interject or correct him. Bernier was invited to meet with the editorial board of the Toronto Star, placing many racialized journalists into a very difficult situation, as described by Star columnist Shree Paradkar. Indeed, he owed much of his attention and success to mainstream journalists.
And yet, the party wasn’t able to capture more than 2.5 per cent of the vote.
From the start, we were told that the PPC posed a threat to the Conservatives. CBC’s pollster Éric Grenier estimated that the PPC cost the Conservatives perhaps seven seats, which wouldn’t have been enough to change the balance of power. But their power was never in their election performance. Their power was wrapped up in their access to platforms to share their message, seek out donors and supporters and mobilize them to be vocal opponents to immigration, to the UN and to measures to mitigate global warming.
With the PPC experiment over, their network won’t cease to exist, it will be mobilized in another way. Regardless of whether the party continues to organize through a partisan structure, they have riding associations and activists in nearly every riding in Canada.
What seems most likely is that they will do everything they can to influence the debate on immigration and on climate change. We’ve already seen this impact: in stark contrast to 2015, Justin Trudeau’s rhetoric about immigration and refugees focused on border security rather than opening Canada up to welcome asylum seekers. Climate change is still far too often talked about with a nagging doubt about whether it’s actually happening.
Both issues have the power to pull the Conservatives and the Liberals to the right, and there is a mobilized, riding-by-riding network of individuals ready to pressure their local politician.
This is the true legacy of Bernier’s work: he built an effective network that has proven that it can influence politics. Before we celebrate the end of Bernier’s career and the PPC, we need to remember that his goal was never to win as many seats as possible.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. ET on Oct. 30, 2019 to clarify that Misera did not resign, but was ousted from the party.