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People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier waits to speak during a rally held in Vegreville, Alta., on Sept. 12.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Election campaigns are bruising, generally thankless affairs, in which the mood of the candidates is inextricably linked to the proximity of the finish line.

That is, unless you have nothing to lose, then you can often enjoy the experience and get more exposure than you ever imagined – or frankly, deserved.

Welcome to Mad Max Bernier’s world.

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Mr. Bernier leads the People’s Party of Canada. This is his second federal campaign as front man of a political entity he founded in the wake of a failed bid for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2017. (He lost by a hair to Andrew Scheer.) But this time around he’s attracting far more attention than he did in the 2019 election.

The pandemic has not been good for much, except, perhaps, Mr. Bernier’s political fortunes. It’s not the kind of bump with which most people would be happy to be associated, but then, beggars can’t be choosers. Many of the deplorable anti-vaxxers who have been protesting outside hospitals and angrily confronting Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail have found a home in the PPC. (A former PPC riding president was recently charged with assault with a weapon after allegedly pelting Mr. Trudeau with gravel at a campaign event.)

They have been drawn to the party’s emphasis on freedom and liberty and its “governments-have-no-right-to-tell-us-what-do” credo. A passionate, if not flakey libertarian, Maxime Bernier is capitalizing on the intersection of a pandemic and a federal election. His party has given voice to those who believe vaccine mandates and passports are an infringement of their constitutional rights.

Prior to now, Mr. Bernier and his party have mostly been an easily ignored sideshow. His questioning of human-caused climate change and his horrible mocking of climate campaigner Greta Thunberg were enough to make most normal-thinking people tune the party out long ago. The sketchy nationalists the PPC seemed to attract were a concern, but not any threat to our security. If he wanted to hold meetings and quote Ayn Rand, fine. If he wanted to be an outlet for the country’s conspiracy theorists, okay.

But what he’s been doing on the campaign trail is not kosher. Not by any measure.

Mr. Bernier recently wrapped up a three-day tour of Alberta, where, according to polls, the PPC enjoys more support than almost anywhere else in the country. He held a few well-attended events, including at a church at Spruce Grove, just outside of Edmonton. Hundreds, virtually all without masks, crammed inside the church hall to hear Mr. Bernier ramble on about how horrible it is that governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to restrict people’s rights.

“Because we know that without freedom, there’s no human dignity, equality of rights and economic prosperity,” he told his audience. “And we know that freedom is the foundation of our Western civilization.”

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He pulled out a quote he uses often: “When tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty.” It’s a line familiar to many far-right militia organizations.

Here’s the biggest problem: Mr. Bernier is giving cover to all those out there who are refusing to get vaccinated, not because of some underlying condition, but because they simply don’t want to. This phenomenon is stalling our pandemic recovery. Alberta, for instance, is in a crisis, with hospitals overrun with COVID-19. The province’s intensive care units are now treating a record number of patients sick with the virus, the vast majority of whom were not vaccinated. Imagine.

Meantime, Mr. Bernier is out there promoting the kind of nonsense that is fuelling anti-vaxxer rage and making the jobs of governments trying to tame the fourth wave that much harder. This will be the PPC leader’s greatest legacy and his greatest shame.

To this day, many of Mr. Bernier’s former colleagues in the Conservative party remain dumbfounded by what they are witnessing. They did not see this coming. Mr. Bernier was always a libertarian, but one who didn’t take himself too seriously. He had a playful sense of humour. He could be relied on to assume serious positions in government, if not always without incident.

But after he came up just short of winning the CPC leadership four years ago something changed, and not for the better. He seemed to become embittered and intent on doing as much damage to the CPC as he could.

There’s no question he’s sucking some support away from his old party in this election. It remains to be seen, however, if it will be enough to cost the CPC a shot at government.

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Regardless, when the story of this election is written, Mr. Bernier will remain a historical footnote. And a disgraceful one at that.

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