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Maxime Bernier speaks about his new political party during a news conference in Ottawa in September 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

What I learned at a People’s Party of Canada rally

On a brisk November evening at a golf course in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, supporters of Canada’s newest federal political party, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), met for a rally hosted by its leader, Maxime Bernier.

Bernier has been embarking on a cross-country tour to publicize his newly founded right-wing party and to share his political message with voters ahead of the 2019 federal election.

The previous Calgary stop of Bernier’s tour included a speaking engagement at an event hosted by The Rebel Media. In his speech, Bernier outlined his plan to limit the number of immigrants accepted to Canada, reform policies aimed at addressing climate change and eliminate government interventions impinging on free markets.

Bernier’s speech, which included targeted attacks against “radical multiculturalism,” climate change science and foreign aid, prompted political commentators to compare Bernier to Donald Trump.

The Etobicoke rally, held in the heart of what’s known as Ford Nation, represented one of Bernier’s first attempts to sell his brand of right-wing populism in Ontario.

More importantly, the rally provided an opportunity to gather first-hand insight into how Bernier is crafting his populist message to appeal to Canadians and the intersections between the People’s Party and far-right political movements.

Unique ideological blend of populism

Bernier’s self-reinvention into a populist is a recent development for the corporate lawyer-turned-politician from Québec. For the majority of his political career, Bernier has served as one of Canada’s most vocal and prominent libertarians, championing free-market economics and personal responsibility within the ranks of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Bernier signs papers to make his party official in October 2018 in Gatineau, QC. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

This principled commitment to libertarianism is part of his new party’s ideology. During his speech in Etobicoke, Bernier made clear to his supporters that he does not believe in “big fat government” restricting their individual liberty and economic prosperity.

His libertarian ideology is clearly reflected in the People’s Party platform that includes scrapping Canada’s supply management system, ending all corporate subsidies, reducing the overall size of government and liberalizing both international and interprovincial trade.

Read more: In trade war with Trump, Canada should stop defending the indefensible on dairy products

However, the People’s Party is not a purely libertarian party. Blended into Bernier’s rhetoric and the party’s platform are proposals that reflect the ideological tenets of a populist radical right, defined by a commitment to xenophobia.

Bernier has woven xenophobia and nativism into his appeals to Canadians by denouncing “extreme multiculturalism” and stating a desire to institute a “Canada first” foreign policy that would see Canada reduce its commitments to humanitarian organizations and causes.

Courting the support of the far right

Bernier’s blending of his libertarian beliefs with an embrace of radical right-wing populism is aimed at Canada’s far right groups and supporters.

Among those in attendance at Bernier’s rally was controversial media figure and failed Toronto mayoral candidate, Faith Goldy. Goldy is well-known on the far right as an advocate for the conspiracy theory of white genocide and her attacks against Islamic culture and immigrants.

Read more: The ominous third-place finish of a white supremacist in Toronto

Goldy’s attendance should come as no surprise. Bernier has courted the support of the far right as a way to generate initial public support and publicize his party in the lead-up to the 2019 election.

Faith Goldy is seen speaking outside Wilfrid Laurier University in March 2018 after her controversial appearance there was interrupted by a fire alarm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Hannah Yoonblank

Bernier has received glowing coverage from The Rebel Media, appearing at its events and being interviewed by its employees. The Rebel is closely associated with far right leaders and activists like Goldy and Gavin McInnes, leader of the misogynistic, pro-violence Proud Boys.

There’s no doubt Bernier is aware of these associations and is actively seeking to build a base for his party around The Rebel’s subscribers.

Part of a global movement

Bernier’s stance against “extreme multiculturalism” mirrors similar rhetoric used by radical right-wing populist parties in Europe.

These parties have found support by couching their opposition to multiculturalism and immigration within the language of liberalism and civic values. In other words, instead of openly calling for racial or ethnic discrimination, these movements base their appeals to voters on civic values of tolerance, diversity and liberal citizenship as a way to justify excluding supposedly intolerant and reactionary immigrant populations and cultures.

This closely resembles the strategy currently being used by Bernier and his new party. The party explains its opposition to multiculturalism on the grounds that immigrants should be forced to adopt “Canadian values”, including a respect for the equality of men and women, tolerance for diversity and a respect for Canadian law.

Bernier appears to be gathering support around other issues championed by the global far-right political movement. At the rally in Toronto, mentions of mainstream Canadian media outlets and journalists produced spontaneous chants of “fake news” among those in attendance.

The crowd was similarly enthused by condemnations of political correctness in Bernier’s speech.

What does it mean?

Firstly, it shows the far right movement does not stop at political borders and is very much alive and well in Canada.

Second, it appears that subscribers to far right ideas and beliefs may be viewing Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada as a viable pathway to mainstreaming their xenophobic and nationalistic beliefs in Canada.

Crafting a narrative

The final takeaway from Bernier’s rally is that he and his new party are attempting to suggest they represent an organic movement spreading across the country.

While the People’s Party of Canada is not the first Canadian political party to brand itself as a movement, projecting this narrative of grassroots growth will play an important role in certifying the populist credentials of the party and attracting more supporters.

The party appears to be on track to run candidates in all federal ridings in 2019, and says it’s already established riding associations in 101 of 338 electoral districts. It also says it’s recruited more than 30,000 founding members from across the country.

The creation of riding associations shows Bernier is building the electoral infrastructure to run as a mainstream political party in the next federal election.

But no one should conflate the creation of riding associations and well-attended rallies as indicative of growing national support.

Polling data collected by the CBC indicates that the People’s Party currently has the support of 1.7 per cent of Canadians, and that if the election were held today, it could win one seat.

Conservative MP Kellie Leitch’s step to the far right didn’t work out so well for her when she ran for the leadership of the party. She’s announced she’s not running for re-election in 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

These low polling numbers suggest that Bernier may be headed toward the same fate as other recent right-wing politicians, like Kellie Leitch, who have attempted to integrate xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric into their appeals to Canadians.

Bernier will likely have to distance himself from the cultural and racially tinged components of his platform to generate the necessary support to win seats under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Interestingly, unlike his appearance in Calgary, Bernier’s speech in Etobicoke did not include any discussion of “extreme” or “radical” multiculturalism, and the issue of immigration received only passing mention.

Time will tell if this omission is a shift away from xenophobic rhetoric for Bernier. Regardless, the People’s Party of Canada’s dual commitment to libertarianism and radical right-wing populism provides no straightforward path to electoral success.

Perhaps the party will be able to shave off votes from the Conservatives. But if Bernier allows it to be a conduit for xenophobia, nativism and white supremacy, his support will remain confined to the fringes of Canadian society.

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