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This article was published 28/11/2018 (350 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was standing-room only at the first People’s Party of Canada rally in Winnipeg Wednesday night, with hundreds coming out to listen to Maxime Bernier lay out the political platform he hopes to ride to a strong showing in the 2019 federal election.
When Bernier strode into the room — wearing a blue suit matching the colour of the party logo emblazoned at the back of the stage — loud applause broke out and the roughly 250 people in attendance rose to their feet.
"We are a real national party," Bernier said, outlining how 239 riding associations have been established since he announced his intention to found a new federal political party at the end of August.
"For us, we know what we believe in and we are ready to fight for that... We are a principled party. We have convictions and we know the freedom ideas are the best ideas for our country. We will speak about it and we won’t do any compromise with our ideas."
The turnout for the rally was a pleasant surprise for Bernier, 55, the former leadership candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada and member of Parliament for Beauce, Que. Earlier in the day, he told the Free Press he was expecting roughly 100 people to turn up.
The rally was held in a conference room at the Holiday Inn near the airport, where Bernier rehashed many of the talking points that have come to be associated with his brand of small-C conservatism with a libertarian bent.
He also mixed in a healthy dose of populist rhetoric, hitting topics ranging from the economy, immigration, corporate welfare and politicians who cater to "special interest groups."
"I’m a free market politician. A politician who believes in free markets, individual freedom and personal responsibility... We want smaller government in Ottawa, a respectful government, with lower taxes and open borders for trade," Bernier told the Free Press.
"I think our policies are fair for every Canadian... Our platform, I think, will resonate here (in Manitoba)."
While Bernier has been busy getting his party’s national office established and doing a media tour, he’s had a man behind the scenes in Manitoba working to get local riding associations off the ground.
Bill Eva, 54, is a veteran political organizer who has spent more than 30 years involved with the Progressive Conservative party and Conservative Party of Canada. In August, when Bernier announced he was resigning from the party and striking out on his own, it didn’t take him long to decide he was going to follow suit.
"He was about halfway through his speech and I decided I was with him," said Eva, whose official title is Manitoba organizer.
In October, Eva began thinking about building party infrastructure in the province. He said things have fallen into place much quicker than expected.
So far, the party says it has established associations for 13 of the province’s 14 ridings, with roughly 1,100 Manitobans signed up for party membership. The final riding association will be established soon, Eva said, and they’ll begin looking at possible candidates in January.
"This wasn’t me phoning people and saying, ‘Hey, will you please come out to a meeting?’ This was people phoning me and saying, ‘I’ve got a group of people and we want to have a meeting. Can you fit us into your schedule?’" Eva said.
That led to meetings held in libraries, restaurants and pubs, with people coming out to sign up, get involved and fill leadership positions in the riding executives.
"There’s just more excitement than I was expecting. I knew I was excited, but I didn’t realize there were so many other people excited by these same political things," Eva said.
Part of the legwork has involved making sure people with extreme views, who may be attracted to the organization, don’t get involved and work their way into leadership positions. This is similar to efforts that had to be undertaken by the Reform Party of Canada when it was founded in 1987.
While Eva didn’t want to provide details about what measures organizers are taking to make sure that doesn’t happen, he said it is an issue they are taking seriously.
"It’s difficult and it’s time-consuming, but nevertheless you have to do it," Eva said.
Bernier has been adamant that those with racist or extremist views are not welcome in the party, even as he’s flirted with language critics claim verges on dog-whistle politics.
On Wednesday, Bernier said his party stands in the tradition of the Reform party, but that he’s hopeful they’ll be able to accomplish things the latter party was unable to and ruled out any possibility of a future merger with the Tories.
He closed out the night by delivering a promise to those who braved the snow to come out and hear him speak.
"My promise to you is Maxime Bernier won’t change," he said. "I’m here for the long run."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Wednesday, November 28, 2018 at 11:31 PM CST: Adds photo and video
11:43 PM: Adds photo