MONTREAL - When Maxime Bernier was arrested for violating Manitoba's public health orders after attending a rally against COVID measures in June, the leader of the People's Party of Canada was asked if he was carrying any weapons.
"Only my words," he responded.
If words are weapons, Bernier likes to keep his sharp. Moments into his speech at a recent rally in Saint John, N.B., Bernier had already accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of "acting like a dictator" and described COVID-19 mask mandates, lockdowns and vaccine passports as "medical tyranny."
He goes even further on social media, branding Trudeau as a "dangerous psychopath," and accusing NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh of being a "fan of terrorist sympathizers and communist mass murderers," for tweets praising former Cuban leader Fidel Castro after his death. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has been labelled "Red Erin" and a Liberal in disguise.
In an interview, the 58-year-old Bernier said he has no intention of changing his platform or his tone, despite winning no seats and garnering less than two per cent of the vote in the last election.
"I won't pander to your vote, and we are the only political party that is not doing political correctness," he said in a phone interview from Alberta. "I said, 'It’s the end of that. There's no taboo subject for us and we're going to say what we have to say."
Since its inception, Bernier's party has challenged traditional Canadian orthodoxy with proposals that include drastically cutting immigration, forging ahead with pipeline projects, pulling out of the Paris climate accord and abandoning what his party calls "unrealistic greenhouse gas emission reduction targets."
If elected this time, he said he would phase out all COVID-19 spending programs and balance the budget within four years by ending corporate welfare, cutting spending on foreign aid and the United Nations and defunding the CBC.
But this campaign, his attention has shifted to fighting COVID-19 measures such as mask mandates, lockdowns, and vaccine passports, the latter of which he describes as unconstitutional and divisive.
"We believe in freedom and we believe in freedom of choice," he said.
"Everyone has the right to decide whether they wear the mask, whether they'll get the vaccine."
However, he said he is neither anti-mask, nor anti-vaccine. While he's chosen not be vaccinated against COVID-19, believing his risk of dying from the disease to be low, he said he encouraged his father, who is 87 years old, to get both shots.
The man now calling for a revolution, albeit one he describes as "common sense,” had a relatively conventional beginning in politics.
He was first elected to the Canadian House of Commons as a Conservative in 2006 in the same riding south of Quebec City that his father, Gilles, had represented for years, and went on to hold several cabinet positions in Stephen Harper's government.
Bernier came a close second to Andrew Scheer in the 2017 Conservative leadership race before declaring the party "too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed" and leaving to form his own right-wing, libertarian-leaning party.
The People's party was shut out in the 2019 federal election, and Bernier lost his own seat in the Beauce region.
Two years later, the man who has long embraced the nickname "Mad Max" doesn't hide his anger toward the political establishment and media he feels are trying to shut his party out.
In recent days, he's gone from New Brunswick to Alberta to hold rallies, his voice rising to an energetic crescendo as he rails against his rivals.
Bernier was not issued an invitation to participate in the TVA debate that took Thursday night, or next week's leaders' debates. The Leaders' Debates Commission said to be invited to participate, a political party must meet at least one of three requirements, including having an MP in the House of Commons by someone initially elected under the party banner.
The others are that a party's candidates had to receive at least four per cent of the number of valid votes cast in the 2019 election (the PPC received 1.6 per cent), or have public opinion polls show it has at least four per cent of national support five days after the election date is called.
Bernier says it's because others are afraid of his ideas.
"You know what I'm saying is powerful, and you don't want us to be powerful," he said. "But we will be."
In some ways, anger is having a moment on this campaign trail. Bernier has refused to condemn the angry crowds who have heckled and cursed Trudeau at his campaign stops, prompting the Liberal leader to cancel at least one event over security concerns.
"We are in a free country and people have the right to express their point of view peacefully," he said of the protests.
"People are mad and they have a reason to be mad. Our freedoms are under attack."
How deep that anger runs, and whether it will translate into more votes for Bernier's party on Sept. 20, remains to be seen. While the party's polling results have fluctuated somewhat, some have shown a slight bump in support. A Leger poll released Tuesday showed support for the PPC at three per cent among decided voters, which was one point higher than the Greens.
The online poll of 2,005 Canadians, conducted Aug. 27 to 30 in collaboration with The Canadian Press, cannot be assigned a margin of error because internet-based polls are not considered random samples.
Still, returning to the House of Commons remains an uphill battle, and for now, Bernier is tempering expectations. He thinks his party can surpass the Greens, and says he'll do his best to be re-elected in Beauce and bring others with him to Ottawa.
But he says that whatever happens on Sept. 20, he'll be there for the next election, and the one after that, and he'll be preaching the same message.
"I'm 58 years old, I'm in shape, and I'll be there for the next 10 years," he said.
"We're going to win that battle. We can stop an army of soldiers, but you can't stop an idea when the timing is there."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 4, 2021.