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Opinion Maxime Bernier’s rebellion comes from the right to upend Canadian politics

Conservative politician Maxime Bernier in 2007. He quit his party on Thursday to mount a challenge from the right. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
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Maxime Bernier, an outspoken Conservative MP who has been systematically isolated from his party’s leadership, decided Thursday to express his spite by throwing a wrench into Canada’s political system. Should all go according to plan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will now face two center-right parties in next year’s federal election — one headed by Bernier, the other by his former Conservative boss, whose party he now scorns as “morally and intellectually corrupt.”

Once best known as an eccentric libertarian obsessed with dairy policy, Bernier has reinvented himself in recent weeks as Canada’s leading critic of what he calls the “extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity” championed by Trudeau and others. Through a barrage of tweets, Bernier became a one-man mission to break a taboo that Canadian politicians, journalists, celebrities and academics have spent much of the Trump era declaring heroically invincible.

Already exhausted with Bernier’s headline-grabbing antics, which are hardly without precedent, Conservative partisans of a certain type quickly fretted about the political consequences of his new crusade against an immigration system that he said was attempting to “forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada.” Under heavy pressure to discipline Bernier, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer insisted that the freewheeling MP “doesn’t speak for the party.”

Scheer’s nervousness was in tune with Ottawa’s received wisdom. Canada’s Tories have long been on the receiving end of a flattering narrative crediting their 2006-2015 electoral success — and their 2011 majority victory, in particular — on the strength of purported support among nonwhite immigrant voters. Though this storyline compliments the Tories, it also enjoys bipartisan appeal for satiating traditional notions of Canadian moral superiority, particularly over the United States. As Obama-era Republicans were cast as descending into a mire of racism and xenophobia, Canadian progressives found patriotic comfort in believing that at least their conservatives were better than American ones.

But it’s really quite difficult to make empirically solid arguments about ethnic voting patterns in Canada one way or another, for the simple reason that no one seems to bother collecting that sort of information. Looking at what we do have, which are the voting patterns of Canada’s ethnically diverse, immigrant-rich ridings, suggests that what actually helped secure Conservative victories in some of these districts during the last decade was little more than vote splitting on the left.

It does not go without saying, in other words, that Bernier’s comments are at odds with what Conservative voters want to hear — to say nothing of Canadian voters generally. On Tuesday morning, Bernier tweeted a link to a recent Angus Reid poll showing that the overwhelming majority of Canadians believe their country’s immigration levels should either be lowered or capped, with an unprecedented 49 percent favoring immigration cuts. As the pollsters noted with understatement, since 1975 “the number saying immigration levels should be decreased has fluctuated within the 40 to 50 per cent range, suggesting the issue has been a source of division for more than 40 years.”

Yet this decades-long “source of division” is simply not part of the comforting story that Canadians in privileged positions have been telling themselves about their country, a place where cosmopolitanism is supposedly as uncontroversial as the maple leaf. Horrified elite reaction to Bernier’s tweets — and the popularity thereof — throbs with the pain of cognitive dissonance.

In quitting the Conservatives on Thursday, Bernier accused Scheer’s circle of being “so afraid of criticism by the Left and the media that they prefer to let down millions of supporters across the country who would like us to tackle this issue.” He now assumes a role among other dissident right-wing leaders across the Western world who have used public dissatisfaction with immigration as a justification for upending their nation’s staid party system.

However, Bernier is a uniquely flawed vehicle for this message. As a Quebecker, he is an ambassador of a province whose French chauvinism represents the most striking refusal of any Canadian community to conform to the norms of the country’s English majority. A thickly accented French Canadian who complains about “people who refuse to integrate into our society and want to live apart in their ghetto” inevitably opens himself to charges of hypocrisy, as the Beaverton summarized with the satirical headline “Francophone politician slams Canada’s diversity for not assimilating his culture.”

Such hypocrisy may nevertheless forge a fresh coalition in right-wing Canadian politics. The strategy of Bernier’s new party will presumably take the form of uniting immigration skeptics and other center-right ideologues in the English provinces with French Canadian nationalists in the east, a plan that will look increasingly viable if Quebec voters give the nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec party a victory in the October provincial election, as is widely expected.

There have been a lot of false starts in the search for Canadian populism, and a lot of premature diagnoses of immunity. Bernier’s shameless eagerness to unravel the conventional wisdom that has traditionally tamed much of Canada’s political establishment makes him its most viable vehicle to date.

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