Former leadership candidate Maxime Bernier is facing a showdown with fellow Conservative MPs for publicly commenting on issues of diversity and immigration without the party’s blessing, but there appears to be significant grassroots support for keeping him within caucus.
The Globe and Mail called two dozen Conservative riding association presidents across the country before party members gather in Halifax on Thursday for their biennial policy convention and the Conservative caucus meets to deal with Mr. Bernier’s political future.
For 10 days, Mr. Bernier has been tweeting about diversity issues and what he called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “extreme multiculturalism,” which he said will divide Canadians “into little tribes that have less and less in common,” and advocating for lower immigration numbers, even though he holds no formal role in caucus. He began with criticisms of Mr. Trudeau’s “diversity is our strength” slogan, arguing that more diversity will destroy what has made Canada a great country. His remarks led Leader Andrew Scheer to accuse him of engaging in “identity politics” and to publicly distance the party from Mr. Bernier’s views.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bernier took direct aim at his party’s leadership as his caucus colleagues announced a cross-country tour this fall to consult on immigration issues.
"So, after disavowing me last week for raising the issue and telling me to shut up, my colleagues have just realized that this is something Canadians find important and want to hear about?” Mr. Bernier said. “Great example of strong leadership!”
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel on Wednesday said Mr. Bernier has never spoken to her about immigration issues.
“My colleague has a choice to make. Does he want Andrew Scheer to win or Justin Trudeau to win?” she told reporters in Ottawa.
The interviews with The Globe suggest Mr. Bernier, who came second in last year’s leadership race, still enjoys widespread support in the party. Grassroots members said they all support Mr. Scheer, but some were also critical of him for publicly dismissing Mr. Bernier’s views on multiculturalism and diversity.
“Andrew Scheer’s comments made him look small,” said Bill Eva, president of the Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley riding in Manitoba. “His response to what Maxime Bernier said is making it difficult for people to be a supporter of Andrew Scheer. People have come up and told me that.”
Although some Conservative riding presidents, who are seen to have a grasp of popular sentiment in their communities, said they disagree with Mr. Bernier’s Twitter comments, most said the long-time MP has the right to speak his mind and is still an asset for the party going into the October, 2019, election, especially in Quebec.
“I don’t think you’re going to find that a large percentage of the party disagrees with what he has to say,” said Marjorie Nielsen, president of the Markham-Stouffville riding northeast of Toronto.
But others, such as Manjit Dhillon in Surrey-Newton, B.C., said Mr. Bernier’s comments strike him as “sour grapes” and are not helpful to the party.
“I think somebody should sit down and talk to him. If he keeps this up, the party has to do something,” Mr. Dhillon said.
Sujay Nazareth, who leads the riding of Delta in southern B.C., said many immigrants in his riding are upset about asylum seekers illegally crossing the border into Canada.
“We have a high immigrant population. A lot of them have been applying and coming in legally, and some of them have got family members who are in the queue, waiting in the system, and they see people jumping the line and coming in,” said Mr. Nazareth, who immigrated to Canada from India.
While he said he agrees with some of Mr. Bernier’s points and disagrees with others, “We do accept free speech, and he is entitled to his opinion.”
Laurie MacCuish, president of the Cape Breton-Canso riding in Nova Scotia, also said she is not impressed with Mr. Bernier. “I don’t think he’s really got the message that he lost the leadership. And so I think that has to be checked.”
Some party members – including Dean Baxendale, publisher of Mr. Bernier’s postponed political memoir – will be pushing for changes to the way leadership contests are run, as about 3,000 delegates are set to meet in Halifax for the three-day policy convention.
Mr. Scheer won the leadership race by a razor-thin margin in the May, 2017, contest. The ballots were immediately destroyed after the vote was counted.
The proposal to amend the party constitution, supported by a dozen riding associations, calls for an independent audit of the entire leadership process and says ballots should not be destroyed until at least 30 days after the contest ends.
“I’d like to think that the process was entirely transparent, but I’m not 100-per-cent convinced about that,” Mr. Baxendale told The Globe. “There was no reason to destroy the ballots.”
Tanya Eickhoff, president of the Notre-Dame-De-Grâce-Westmount riding in Montreal, which supports the call for a more stringent leadership audit, said she hopes Mr. Scheer and Mr. Bernier resolve their differences this week in Halifax.
“I really hope that the two of them can get over this, and figure out a way amongst themselves to find a place for Maxime Bernier,” Ms. Eickhoff said. “They’ve got to find a place for him somehow, because they need him.”
The constitutional proposal is sponsored by Mr. Eva’s riding as well as Argenteuil-La Petite-Nation in Quebec, which lists Mr. Bernier’s former director of communications, Maxime Hupé-Labelle, as its financial agent, although Mr. Hupé-Labelle told The Globe he has since moved to a different riding.
“I was really concerned of the fact that the margin was so small, and we couldn’t double-check,” said Gisèle DesRoches, riding president of Montcalm, which supports the proposal.
When asked whether the Conservative Party supports the proposal, spokesman Cory Hann said, “The last process was properly audited,” and linked to a signed declaration from accounting firm Deloitte LLP.
Other policy proposals include phasing out supply management, the system that regulates prices for dairy and poultry, which Mr. Bernier has repeatedly said Canada needs to give up in the North American free-trade talks.
“I know definitely a lot of Conservatives – whether they want to admit it publicly or not – would align with him on that as well,” said Jacqueline Dobson, vice-president of the Etobicoke Lakeshore riding in west Toronto.