The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The People’s Party of Canada looks likely to become a permanent part of national politics

People's Party of Canada supporters protest in Gatineau, Quebec, on Sept. 9. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters)

In Canada’s 2019 election, Maxime Bernier and his People’s Party of Canada (PPC) were a movement without a cause. His supporters insisted he was needed, but he struggled to cast his right-wing populist party as a solution to any particularly pressing problem. Bernier’s issue of choice — “Say NO to Mass Immigration,” as an iconic billboard put it — could make claims of public support, but the most serious immigration crisis Canada faced at the time was relatively isolated and failed to break through as a national priority. The PPC won 1.6 percent of the vote.

It is now 2021, however, and Canadians have spent 18 months living under covid lockdowns and restrictions — most recently, vaccine passports, which will soon be in place in most of Canada’s major provinces. Irritation at this unprecedented use of state power has inflamed the passions of those already inclined to fear bossy government as a harbinger of tyranny, and a protest movement has arisen in which thousands of Canadians routinely take to the streets, chanting slogans, picketing hospitals, heckling the prime minister and — critically — waving People’s Party banners.

“Say NO to 1984,” now goes the slogan on fan-made Bernier merchandise.

Though the PPC resents this characterization, it’s obvious the party’s rising fortunes — it’s now polling around 6 percent — are being boosted by not just lockdown critics but also the “anti-vax” set. The party platform is studiously indifferent to vaccines, asserting that “both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated can get infected and transmit the virus, which negates the rationale for segregation and vaccine passports,” as well as promising to “support medical research and development of therapies to treat covid-19 and other viral diseases,” which implies strange things.

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Six percent is not an impressive figure unto itself, and it’s likely the party will not win a single parliamentary seat. Yet the Green Party won zero seats and 4.3 percent of the popular vote in the 2004 general election and was nevertheless swiftly institutionalized by the media. Proclaimed one of Canada’s “major parties,” the Greens were subsequently granted routine inclusion in things such as prime-ministerial candidate debates, media interviews and election graphics — a finger on the scale that undeniably helped the party survive, if not necessarily thrive. If the PPC eclipses the Greens’ 2004 showing (to say nothing of the Green vote in this election), then Canada could be looking at the biggest change to its party system in 17 years — assuming the generosity extended to the Greens is returned in kind.

The modern success of the Greens (such as it is) is almost entirely attributable to the leadership of longtime party chief Elizabeth May, a clever populist in her own right, who was able to corral a small but consistent 4-to-6-percent coalition of voters on the margins of Canadian political life, by winking and nodding at their conspiracy theories and crackpot beliefs. In that sense, it’s not difficult to think of Bernier and his party as a sort of “spiritual successor” to May at her peak, and I doubt the rise of the PPC and the fall of the post-May Greens is a complete coincidence.

The son of a three-term member of Parliament and onetime ambassador to Haiti, Bernier won his father’s seat representing Beauce, Quebec, in the 2006 general election. A former insurance company executive, the “Prince of Beauce” was part of a new wave of Conservative MPs elected alongside Stephen Harper, Canada’s first Conservative prime minister in more than a decade. As one of only 10 Conservative members from Quebec, Bernier was immediately installed in cabinet, where he served until Harper’s defeat to now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015.

Quebec Conservatives are a rare breed, and Bernier was said to be an orthodox libertarian to boot, which made him an intriguing and eccentric character to the media. Jovial but professional, he seemed content with the Harper government’s “incrementalist” agenda of smart but subtle conservative reforms.

“I’m not in cabinet to promote libertarian ideas, but to help live up to our commitments,” Bernier told the Edmonton Journal in 2006. “You have to be pragmatic.”

Today’s Bernier is a considerably darker figure. Freed from the pragmatic obligations of governing, his failed 2017 bid to head the Conservative Party, expulsion from official opposition duties in 2018 and spiteful founding of the PPC a few months later seem to have offered final liberation from pursuing any interests beyond his own. Whether or not this pedigreed insider truly shares the views of the antiestablishment coalition he has come to lead, it remains his most sustainable path to relevance — the one cause he indisputably does care about.

“When tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty,” he now cries.

Barring a sudden collapse in PPC support before voting day, or some manner of coordinated media conspiracy to ignore the Green precedent, this sort of rhetoric seems headed to a permanent spot in Canada’s political conversation.