Maxime Bernier says a likely loss in his by-election race won’t deter him from pushing ahead with his new party.
Mr. Bernier, Leader of the People’s Party of Canada, is running in York Centre, a Liberal stronghold in north Toronto. He is campaigning to re-enter the House of Commons a year after losing in the Quebec riding of Beauce, which he held for four consecutive elections under the Conservatives but lost when he tried to capture it under his new party’s banner.
The defeated Conservative leadership hopeful and former cabinet minister launched the People’s Party of Canada in 2018. While the party has no elected members of Parliament, its fundraising is keeping the party in the black and covering Mr. Bernier’s $104,000 salary and six other staff.
Mr. Bernier spoke to The Globe and Mail from Montreal on his way to Toronto, where he said he rented an apartment for the duration of the Oct. 26 by-election campaign. “I’m pretty realistic. It would be very difficult for me to win that by-election, but it’s very important to be out there," Mr. Bernier said on Monday.
“People must know that we exist – that’s our biggest challenge,” he said.
The right-wing People’s Party opposes the shutdowns that provinces have implemented in COVID-19 hot spots and is calling for a moratorium on immigration during the pandemic because of domestic unemployment. The party also advocates for slashing foreign aid, reducing the number of refugees that Canada accepts, building fences along some areas of the border to prevent asylum seekers from crossing in from the U.S., and dramatically limiting immigration levels after the pandemic.
“We want to focus to help Canadians first,” Mr. Bernier said about his party’s policies. “We’re not opposed to immigration; we just want to have fewer immigrants.”
In last year’s election campaign, the message from the People’s Party didn’t hit home with Canadians, and the party won just 1.6 per cent of the popular vote. Despite the lacklustre performance, Mr. Bernier said he doesn’t regret splitting with the Conservatives, whom he described as “Liberal-light.”
“If I’m not winning this by-election, I will run in a general election,” Mr. Bernier said. “I’m pretty optimistic that I will be able to win back my riding in Beauce.” He placed second in the riding in 2019 with 28 per cent of the vote, compared with 39 per cent for the Conservative winner.
York Centre was left open after the departure of Liberal MP Michael Levitt. Liberal candidate Ya’ara Saks is running against Conservative Julius Tiangson, New Democrat Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, the Green Party’s Sasha Zavarella and Mr. Bernier.
But his decision to run in the long-shot York Centre riding poses a risk for Mr. Bernier, said Nik Nanos, the chief data scientist and founder of Nanos Research.
“Every time a leader loses, it’s a strike against them," Mr. Nanos said, adding that the potential for Mr. Bernier to damage his own brand would also leave the party weaker.
The latest tracking from Nanos Research shows that the People’s Party of Canada has a substantially smaller voter pool to draw from than the other federal parties. Only 8 per cent of voters say they would consider voting for Mr. Bernier’s party, Mr. Nanos said. However, the party can still disrupt federal politics.
Last year the party raised $2-million, just shy of the $2.1-million raised by the Bloc Québécois, but well behind the cash raised by the other parties, according to Elections Canada filings. And this year the party says from January to June it received about $302,000 in individual contributions.
Those numbers show “the Conservatives should still be looking over their shoulder,” Mr. Nanos said. "The People’s Party of Canada can be at best a nuisance, at worst a spoiler by splitting the vote.”
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