As the leaders of Canada’s federal political parties took to the stage on Oct. 7 for the first of two official debates, roughly 35 supporters of the People’s Party of Canada gathered at the Kenaston Village clubhouse in Winnipeg to cheer on its leader, Maxime Bernier.
The group occasionally broke out in light applause as Bernier sparred with the other federal party leaders, hitting topics such as tax cuts, balanced budgets and supply management in the process.
But the atmosphere in the room changed ever so slightly when discussion turned to climate change.
"We’re facing a climate emergency," said Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada.
As the words left her lips, some people in the room began to snicker. The laughter continued each time a variation of the term "climate crisis" was uttered.
"There’s been climate change forever, but there’s no reason for this great fear that’s being propagated by the media. It’s being pushed at us by those four other leaders and by the media," said Jane MacDiarmid, the PPC’s candidate for Winnipeg South Centre.
"And where does it originate? It originates in the United Nations. This is their ploy, in a nutshell: they want to present fear. If they can get everybody fearful, then they can get their own platform into sovereign nations."
Since its founding in September 2018, the PPC’s expansion has been rapid, with Bernier seeking to forge a new political party seemingly overnight.
At the outset, Bernier said the party would field candidates in all 338 ridings in the 2019 federal election — a lofty goal for a party that will be little more than a year old when Canadians head to the polls on Oct. 21.
The party has 323 candidates slated to run, according to the PPC website, just 15 shy of their goal.
But such a rapid expansion has not been without hiccups and has led critics to question whether they’ve been too lenient with whom they bring into the fold.
For MacDiarmid — who previously ran federally for the Christian Heritage Party — the PPC was attractive because Bernier was the only leader fighting against what she sees as the erosion of Canadian values and sovereignty.
"The United Nations wants to do a redistribution of wealth from rich countries to poor countries in order to make everybody poor, and then they’ll come in as the saviour of the world with their globalist agenda of one-world government. That’s what’s behind the climate hysteria," MacDiarmid said.
"That is wrong. That is called socialism, and socialism is just one step from communism. People are working for the government in our country and we have to stop that."
The party has been a lightning rod for controversy since its founding, both on a national level and in Winnipeg.
Critics have accused members of harbouring racist and xenophobic sympathies, while supporters have pushed back saying they stand for the values associated with classical liberalism.
In July, the entire Transcona electoral district association resigned, saying the PPC was not doing enough to crack down on the racists and conspiracy theorists in its midst.
Later that month, a PPC official struck back against a local anti-fascist activist who led a campaign to have a Winnipeg art gallery revoke a booking for a party event by posting a photo of the activist online captioned "terrorist" and including what she thought was his personal home address.
Last week, the PPC candidate for Winnipeg North resigned after he said he came to believe the party was fundamentally "racist" and "intolerant."
But for MacDiarmid, such claims amount to little more than childish accusations.
"They’re just calling names. These people, when they don’t have anything positive to say, they just call people names. ‘Oh, you’re a racist, you’re a bigot, you’re a homophobe.’ It’s sandbox politics," she said.
Originally, Bernier wasn’t even supposed to participate in the official English-language leaders debate on Oct. 7; however, the debate commissioner overturned an earlier ruling denying him the right to participate after new polling suggested the PPC had a legitimate chance to win multiple seats in the coming election.
The polling found PPC candidates were serious contenders in at least four ridings, including the riding of Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley. A survey of 508 voters found roughly 25 per cent said it would be "possible, likely or certain" they’d vote for the PPC.
Subsequent polling conducted by Probe Research for the Winnipeg Free Press pegged the PPC’s support at roughly two per cent in the city.
The PPC candidate for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley is Steven Fletcher, a man who is no stranger to politics, both provincially and federally.
Fletcher was a Conservative MP for the area from 2004 to 2015, at times serving in former Prime Minister Steven Harper’s cabinet. After being defeated in the 2015 election, he was elected as a provincial MLA for the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba in 2016. He was kicked out of caucus in June of 2017 for criticizing the party and sat as an independent.
News that polling data suggested he was a serious contender did not come as a surprise to Fletcher, who said he’s been door knocking in the community every night and has received widespread support.
For Fletcher, one measure of success for the PPC in the coming years will be the extent to which they can inject their ideas into governing policy.
"Raising the level of diversity of ideas is perhaps more important than any other kind of diversity. These other leaders, they don’t accept any other ideas except their own, and the PPC brings a lot of empowerment to the average Canadian," Fletcher said.
"The measure of success is exactly what the Conservatives have done to me, and that’s plagiarizing my ideas. It’s more important that these things are done, than not."
On the evening of Oct. 10, Fletcher went door knocking in the Courts of St. James apartment complex, hoping to pick up additional support in the election one voter at a time.
The response he received from most people was warm and inviting. Some even brought him into their homes, offering beverages, discussing politics and life, and posing for photos.
He manoeuvred through the halls accompanied by a volunteer wearing a blue and white Fletcher shirt with a campaign pin on the front. When no one answered the door, campaign materials were slipped through the mail slot.
"There’s a real diversity in age and demographic in this building. It’s the largest building in this part of town," Fletcher said.
"The main issue I’m hearing from people is about affordability."
As if on cue, an older woman stepped out from her apartment, shutting the door behind her and discussing the election at length with Fletcher. She seemed happy to see him and interested in learning about what he planned to do if elected.
"Rent is too high. I’m going to have to start looking for a smaller apartment," she said.
One of Fletcher’s competitors in the election is former city councillor Marty Morantz, who is running for the Conservative Party of Canada. He echoes Fletcher’s comments that most people are worried about the cost of living.
"People are concerned about their discretionary income. We’re finding people are just getting by. Our whole platform is designed to help people get ahead," Morantz said.
Despite the fact the candidates are both focused on affordability, Morantz said he’s not concerned the PPC will split the right-wing vote, thereby paving the way for incumbent Liberal Doug Eyolfson’s re-election.
"I’ve been knocking for almost a year. I almost never hear about the PPC candidate. It just hasn’t come up," Morantz said.
Meanwhile, Eyolfson said that while he recognizes there could be a possibility for a split in the right-wing vote, he isn’t banking on any help. While he feels good about his chances, he said he’ll continue to campaign as if he was trailing.
"I’m feeling confident, but it’s not changing anything I’m doing. I’m campaigning as hard as I can and I’m making no assumptions of any advantage that will help me," Eyolfson said.
While expectations for the PPC vary depending on whom you ask, MacDiarmid said she believes they could pick up as many as 12 seats in the House of Commons. And if that’s to happen, it’ll almost certainly be — in part — thanks to a successful election for Fletcher.
"I’ve heard (Bernier) say he’s thinking 12 seats. If he got 12 seats, he could really, literally, have the balance of power, because I don’t think there’s going to be a majority government," MacDiarmid said.
Whatever happens when Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 21, MacDiarmid is absolutely certain of one thing: Maxime Bernier will one day be prime minister of Canada.
"I have no doubt about it, and it’s because of his common-sense politics," she said.
"We’re attracting common-sense voters from all the other parties, the voters who actually see through this charade that’s going on."
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.