Opinion

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This article was published 27/11/2018 (735 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Engage him in a conversation, and it becomes abundantly clear "irrepressible" isn't a strong enough adjective to describe Maxime Bernier.

The former Quebec Tory is on a national tour to promote the People's Party of Canada, an entity born of his well-publicized disillusionment with Ottawa's big-tent approach to politics.

The PPC is, in its current state, a volatile grab-bag of ideas that, depending on your perspective, is either the birth of the first genuinely small-c conservative party in the country's history, or a dangerous stew of extreme ideas tempered with a healthy dose of Canadian understatement.

On the eve of a visit to Winnipeg, Bernier giddily claims, in just a few months of existence, the new party has recruited 30,000 founding members, raised nearly a half-million dollars (without benefit of a tax credit) and set up 229 of the 338 riding associations needed to run a candidate in every federal constituency.

Maxime Bernier says his new party has recruited 30,000 members, raised nearly a half-million dollars and set up 229 of the 338 riding associations needed to run a candidate in every federal constituency. (Patrick Doyle / The Canadian Press files)

CP

Maxime Bernier says his new party has recruited 30,000 members, raised nearly a half-million dollars and set up 229 of the 338 riding associations needed to run a candidate in every federal constituency. (Patrick Doyle / The Canadian Press files)

Political party memberships are notoriously difficult to confirm, and Canadians will likely not know whether those 229 riding associations (including 13 of 14 in Manitoba) are viable until the 2019 federal election. Still, Bernier admits the support he has received as PPC leader to date has exceeded even his expectations.

"I think we are making history by building a party so fast," Bernier said Tuesday, in an interview from his Parliament Hill office. "But it's actually easy to build a party when you believe in something."

What the Quebec MP (Beauce) believes, and how came to believe it, is a topic of much speculation and analysis.

Bernier, 55, is a solid constituency politician, having earned pluralities that are among the biggest in the House of Commons. He is also indefatigable character, a man who seemingly cannot be insulted.

He has lustily embraced the moniker "Mad Max," as a key element in his personal brand. Join the PPC, and you gain membership in what the party's website describes as the "Mad Max Club."

Bernier continues to deny he is anti-immigrant, despite calling for massive reductions in annual immigration quotas and calling for more of an emphasis on newcomers who will accept and practice Canadian values.

Maxime Bernier would like to end all Canadian foreign aid and eliminate government regulation, including supply-side management in the agricultural sector. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Maxime Bernier would like to end all Canadian foreign aid and eliminate government regulation, including supply-side management in the agricultural sector. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

"People who don't believe in immigration don't have a place in our party," he said. "But I've also said that people who believe in mass immigration are not welcome in our party."

Bernier would like to end all Canadian foreign aid, and spend the money on domestic needs. On climate change, he said he accepts humans may be warming the Earth, but does not believe government has a role to play in curbing carbon emissions.

The new party wants to eliminate government regulation — including supply-side management in the agricultural sector — and allow the free market to grow the country's economy.

Past experience would suggest this is not a winning combination of policies.

Undeterred, Bernier talks about the huge constituency of Canadians that no longer vote in federal elections. In his world, people want a different option at the ballot box, and if the PPC can be that option, the sky is the limit.

Listening to Bernier, the sheer improbability of the challenge he faces trying to establish a new national party is mitigated by one very important factor: he is the politician who does not know how to say die.

Consider he was, for a very long time, the black sheep of former prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet. In 2008, Bernier had to resign his coveted post as foreign affairs minister after it was discovered he left classified government reports at the home of his girlfriend, a woman who had associated with organized-crime figures.

Maxime Bernier is a politician who does not know how to say die, even when the odds are stacked against him. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

Maxime Bernier is a politician who does not know how to say die, even when the odds are stacked against him. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press files)

That's a humiliation that would break most politicians.

In defiance of his cabinet setback, there he was in 2017, a front-runner in the leadership race to succeed Harper. Despite his past humiliations, his unorthodox platform and lack of currency with the party establishment, Bernier finished a close second to Andrew Scheer.

The sting of that near-victory seemed only to stoke the fire. This summer, Bernier (who had held Beauce for the Tories since 2006) finally admitted what many had suspected for a long time: he was setting out on his own to create a true conservative option for voters.

Despite the flood of memberships to the Mad Max Club, there are naysayers. Entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary, who supported Bernier in the Tory leadership race, has publicly called upon him to abandon his PPC aspirations. And to date, his most strident supporters include some extreme people with extreme views of life in Canada.

Bernier dismisses concerns about some of the company he keeps. "I speak to everybody, because I want to be sure that all people know who we are and what we believe."

Bernier cannot help but think of his political future in bold, aspirational terms; he sees nothing but an upward trajectory. However, common sense and basic political calculus suggest the PPC's impact may be limited to hampering Scheer's Conservatives, and handing re-election to the Liberals.

Then again, this is a politician who has defied the odds, and forged a career that has lasted much longer than anyone could have imagined.

Bernier has already danced on the graves of many of the people who tried to bury him in past skirmishes. A politician with that kind of survival instinct may not necessarily be worthy of fear, but he should never be underestimated.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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