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Opinion In Maxime Bernier, Canada’s far-right finds a mouthpiece

Maxime Bernier in Toronto in 2017. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

Nora Loreto is a Canadian freelance writer and author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.”

On the evening of Oct. 3, 2016, Maxime Bernier posted a classic black and white photo from the 1979 movie “Mad Max.” Bernier’s head was photoshopped over Mel Gibson’s. “Some people like to call me Mad Max …” wrote Bernier, in French. “They may think that it’s an insult. But let me tell you something: it’s true. I’m furious.”

He was well into his leadership bid for Canada’s Conservative Party, and the Mad Max moniker stuck. It has been resurrected in the past few days, as Bernier announced his resignation from the Conservative Party to found a new, far-right political party.

The reaction to his decision from his fellow caucus members was unanimously negative. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel told Canada’s national public affairs channel CPAC: “Well, if he works as hard as he has in the Conservative Party, we don’t have a lot to worry about.” Erin O’Toole, also an MP, who came in third in the Conservative leadership race, told CBC Radio’s the Current, Bernier is “consistent in being inconsistent.”

It’s unlikely that Bernier’s new party will have much electoral success, outside of reelecting Bernier. But Bernier isn’t seeking electoral success alone.

Bernier was the runner-up in the Conservative Party leadership race in 2017, and his second-place finish was decided by a handful of points. His new obsession with so-called identity politics was not a hallmark of his campaign then. Instead, he ran on his deep libertarian ideals, such as eliminating taxes and Canada’s milk management system.

Bernier’s beliefs are extreme, even for the Conservative Party. With not many supporters and few plans, it looks as if his party’s primary goal will be to create a team to support his libertarian economic views. Immigration scaremongering is the populist cover for his overall program.

On Twitter, he has called immigration a burden. He declared that the era of “political correctness” was over, a tweet that was written in both English and French (a gesture that is arguably the most politically correct way in which to engage in politics in Canada). He has picked fights with Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, at one point saying, “You think the world revolves around your skin colour.” Caesar-Chavannes is one of Canada’s few black lawmakers.

It was perhaps easy to miss Bernier’s anti-immigrant rhetoric during the 2017 Conservative Leadership race. The sixth-place finisher, Kellie Leitch, made her campaign almost entirely about demonizing immigrants. But Bernier’s recent Twitter rants are identical to the policy platform that he issued during the race.

Bernier’s gamble is whether anti-immigrant sentiment will be enough to woo people to his new party and then support his other priorities. He is walking a path that has been laid by Canadian far-right groups for years now. Since the Liberal Party victory in 2015, there has been a surge of anti-immigrant, white supremacist organization and activity across Canada. These groups have successfully been able to torque numbers and confuse facts about refugees, migrants and immigration.

There are few politicians better situated than Bernier to shamelessly seize on this rhetoric. Bernier wins elections with consistently high margins. Like Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Bernier has leveraged the popularity of his father, a longtime politician from the same riding he has represented since 2006. The riding of Beauce is extremely monocultural: Only 1.45 percent of residents are immigrants, and of the 107,180 residents captured in the latest census, only 70 people reported that their mother tongue is not English or French (and only 785 reported it was English).

All members of the Beauce Conservative riding association except one resigned in support of Bernier. “They say that they vote for Maxime in the same way they voted for his father,” reported CBC News’s Catou MacKinnon from Beauce. With an airtight lock on his seat, Bernier is free to do what he thinks will make the biggest impact on the Conservative Party.

Even though he has been in office for 12 years, most English-speaking Canadians know Bernier as the guy who left sensitive government documents at his then-girlfriend’s apartment in 2008. She had been formerly involved with organized crime. Most French Canadians know Bernier as the son of his father. In both languages, Bernier isn’t famous for being a capable and sophisticated operator.

There’s no compelling proof that his prowess as a politician will get his new far-right party off the ground. But in an age when the far right is becoming more and more mainstream, it would take very little for Bernier’s plan influence and shift rhetoric even further to the right. An untethered mouthpiece who is using the rhetoric of the far right to score political points is bad news, if you care about the quality of Canada’s national political debates.