Maxime Bernier, who is now full-on MAGA, is running in the Manitoba riding of Portage-Lisgar in a June 19 by-election. He will almost certainly lose. His right-wing People’s Party of Canada appears to be on the wane, done in by populist Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.
Even if Mr. Poilievre were not so popular among Conservatives, Mr. Bernier would probably lose. “I don’t think he has much of a chance here,” says Royce Koop, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba. Prof. Koop notes that the riding has repeatedly voted Conservative and the Conservatives have a strong candidate.
“I just think it’s impossible for him to win.”
In the 2021 federal election, Mr. Bernier’s party won 22 per cent of the popular vote in Portage-Lisgar, the highest vote share for the party of any riding in Canada. Much of the PPC’s support came from voters angered by pandemic restrictions.
But pandemic mandates are no longer a top-of-mind issue. In any case, the Conservatives have a lock on this riding. Candice Bergen, who served as interim leader of the party, won 71 per cent of the vote in the prepandemic election of 2019. Even with the PPC surge, she comfortably won the riding in 2021, with 53 per cent of the vote.
The Tories are running Branden Leslie, Ms. Bergen’s former campaign manager, who opposed mandates and lockdowns during the pandemic.
Since Pierre Poilievre galvanized Conservatives in the leadership campaign and as leader, Mr. Bernier has struggled for support or even attention.
In the first quarter of last year, the People’s Party of Canada raised $409,000 from almost 5,000 contributors. In the first quarter of this year – the first full quarter with Mr. Poilievre leading the Conservatives – it raised $297,000 from fewer than 3,700 contributors.
The party earned 4.9 per cent of the popular vote in the 2021 election. The latest Nanos poll has the party at 3.4 per cent. At this stage, at least, Mr. Poilievre appears to be winning voters away from the PPC.
Perhaps to counter Mr. Poilievre’s popularity, Mr. Bernier is now sounding so much like former U.S. president Donald Trump that he may as well be wearing a red MAGA cap.
At a speech in the riding last week to announce his candidacy, the People’s Party Leader declared that “we are living in a highly immoral time,” that is “anti-life and anti-family and anti-Canadian values,” in a society that has been “overtaken by evil.”
He has also adopted the Republican tactic of attacking and distorting treatment for children experiencing gender dysphoria, part of a broader assault on people who are transgender.
Mr. Bernier believes Mr. Poilievre has betrayed the conservative movement by refusing to condemn “gender ideology, mass immigration, climate hysteria, the cult of diversity or abortion.”
“... Poilievre is going to the left, and it’s only the beginning,” Mr. Bernier asserted. This is not a widely shared perspective.
He complains that those who reject “these pervert ideas” are “smeared as intolerant, racist and transphobic.” Go figure.
There is the small question of why Mr. Bernier, who is a Quebecker and represented the riding of Beauce before breaking with the Conservatives and losing his seat, would decide that he wants to represent a riding in Manitoba.
His response is that Portage-Lisgar reminds him of Beauce, with its rural conservative values.
Mr. Bernier may be hoping that, even though he will not win the by-election, the publicity he generates will translate into increased popular and financial support.
That could happen. But a poor showing, in which he wins a substantially smaller share of the vote than the PPC took in 2021, could do the opposite.
Some people worry that Trump-style nativist populism could be migrating north of the border. But that seems unlikely. If it were, Maxime Bernier wouldn’t have to launch this Hail Mary in Manitoba.
Whatever else happens in the next election, it is quite possible that Mr. Poilievre will end the mini-split on the right between the Conservative and People’s parties. That may or may not alienate more centrist voters, but it won’t be good for Mr. Bernier.