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Bernier paints himself as genuine crusading conservative in leaders debate

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/10/2019 (278 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier responds to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh during the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday October 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier responds to NDP leader Jagmeet Singh during the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday October 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA - Maxime Bernier prides himself on being a man who says what he thinks — and the People's Party leader seized every opportunity to do just that during the federal campaign debate Monday.

From the beginning of the campaign, Bernier has said that his participation in the two official leaders' debates will be pivotal to his upstart party's chances in Oct. 21's vote. With little to lose and much to gain, he threw verbal darts at all of his rivals, advocating his small-government, pro-business, Canada-first agenda.

He declared himself the only real trailblazer among the six leaders on fiscal responsibility, Indigenous issues, the environment and dealing with newcomers to Canada.

Bernier unabashedly touted his party's plan to slash the number of immigrants and refugees Canada accepts each year to between 100,000 and 150,000 from about 350,000.

"I'm the only leader on this stage that wants to have a debate about immigration," he said.

Other leaders seemed fine that, singing the praises of Canadian diversity and brushing Bernier's immigration fixation aside.

Green Leader Elizabeth May denounced as "completely appalling" Bernier's inflammatory tweets about diversity and young environmentalist Greta Thunberg.

Andrew Scheer said Conservatives believe in making Canada stronger by welcoming people.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told Bernier he didn't even deserve a platform. "And I'm happy to challenge you on that, because your ideas are hurtful to Canada."

When confronted, the People's Party leader wrapped himself in the cloak of free speech. "We have the right in this country to debate ideas, and that's what I'm doing."

Bernier was a senior figure in Stephen Harper's Conservative government, serving as minister in the industry and foreign-affairs portfolios.

He left the Conservatives in August last year, saying the party had all but abandoned its core principles. Soon after, the People's Party of Canada was born.

Aside from curbing immigration, the party wants to eliminate the deficit in two years, end federal subsidies to corporations, cut all funding to multiculturalism programs, make it easier to build pipelines, scrap the federal carbon tax and phase out supply management for agricultural products.

Bernier has proven consistently popular in his Quebec riding of Beauce and his fledgling party has mustered enough support to ensure the leader's participation in the official debates.

However, it is unclear whether this will translate into seats for the People's Party in the House of Commons. Facing a strong challenge from a longtime local mayor who has the Conservative nomination in Beauce this year, Bernier has spent a great deal of the campaign in his home riding.

But at the very least, millions heard Bernier's prescription for prosperity Monday.

He painted May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as big-spending socialists who would damage the economy.

"Look at your platform, Elizabeth," Bernier said. "It is not responsible. Our children will have to pay for that."

Bernier also tried to distinguish his policies from those of his old party, chiding Scheer for being soft on balancing the budget, failing to contain the national debt and inflating the cost of agricultural products by refusing to get rid of supply management.

"Andrew, are you a real Conservative?" Bernier asked. "No, I think you are a Liberal. Why are you pretending to be something that you're not?"

Scheer insisted his former colleague is the one with the identity crisis.

"I'm not sure which Maxime Bernier I'm debating tonight. Was it the Maxime Bernier from the 1990s who was a separatist? Was it the Maxime Bernier who was responsible for handing out corporate welfare? Was it the Maxime Bernier who defended supply management when it suited him?"

Then Scheer quickly pivoted to attack his main target, Justin Trudeau's Liberals.

During a discussion of the temperament a leader needs, Trudeau accused Bernier of trying to make Canadians more fearful and uncertain about globalization and the movement of people across borders.

Like Scheer, the Liberal leader, while chastising Bernier, got a dig in at his real rival.

"Mr. Bernier, your role on this stage tonight seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2019.

—Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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