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People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier speaks during a protest rally outside the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation headquarters ahead of a federal election in Toronto, Sept. 16, 2021.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, failed to win his riding in Quebec, though the party did increase its overall support by tapping into pandemic fatigue and appealing to voters wanting a far-right option that can challenge the mainstream political establishment.

Late Monday night, Conservative incumbent Richard Lehoux was declared the winner in the riding of Beauce, Que. Amid chants of “freedom” at his election rally in Saskatoon late Monday night, Mr. Bernier told supporters the party had made history.

“Canadian politics will never be the same,” he said. “This is not just a political party. It is a movement. It’s an ideological revolution that we’re starting now.” More than one million Canadians, he said, were part of a purple wave that rejected what he described as “COVID hysteria” and “government overreach.”

The PPC grew its support from less than 2 per cent across the country to more than 6 per cent, according to party-preference polls leading up to election day. The PPC, which Mr. Bernier founded in 2018, went into the election with no seats. As of 11:30 on Monday night, the party had captured 5 per cent of the votes counted so far but had failed to win any seats based on early results.

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In an interview with The Globe and Mail just after midnight on Tuesday, Mr. Bernier said he was disappointed to lose his seat but deemed the growth in support for his party a “huge victory.” He noted that because the party got more than four per cent of the popular vote, the PPC will be able to participate in debates during the next federal election campaign.

“We’re the only real conservative option for this country,” Mr. Bernier said. “This party will grow – we’re here to stay.”

During the campaign, the PPC faced criticism for anti-immigration policies that drew endorsements from white-nationalist groups. It was also denounced for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, and attracted voters fed up with pandemic-related restrictions and shutdowns. The party framed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s proposed vaccine passport and other policies as violations of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mr. Bernier went so far as to describe Mr. Trudeau as a “fascist psychopath.”

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The libertarian party opposes mandatory vaccination, and Mr. Bernier isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19. One PPC candidate called for the arrest of B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, saying in a press release that Dr. Henry has coerced people to “take an injection against their will.” The PPC opted to hold its election-night rally in Saskatoon on Monday instead of in Mr. Bernier’s home riding in Quebec because, at the time of planning, Saskatchewan didn’t have mandatory indoor masking. On Friday, however, the Prairie province implemented such a policy.

In a flashpoint during the election contest, protesters threw gravel at Mr. Trudeau as he boarded his campaign bus. The Liberal Leader blamed the incident and other protests on “anti-vaxxer mobs” that are “practically foaming at the mouth” to get him. Mr. Trudeau said the country was seeing a “slide toward some of the divisiveness we’ve been shocked and appalled at from the United States over the past while.” A now-former PPC riding association president was charged with assault after the gravel-throwing incident. The PPC candidate in that Southwestern Ontario riding, Chelsea Hillier – the daughter of Ontario independent MPP Randy Hillier – lost to Conservative incumbent Karen Vecchio.

University of Manitoba professor emeritus of political studies Paul Thomas said the increased support for the PPC could be tied to a cultural spillover from the Trump phenomenon in the U.S. and the impact of the pandemic. “Similar to Trump, Mr. Bernier was ‘weaponizing’ mistrust of government by appealing to, and capitalizing on, public ignorance, fear, anger, frustration and emotionalism to achieve a surprising, impressive surge in popularity,” he said.

The PPC has been embroiled in other controversies. The B.C. Assembly of First Nations called for the removal of PPC candidate Renate Siekmann, saying the Vancouver Quadra candidate distributed a pamphlet that equated the Indian residential school experience with vaccine mandates. “Discrimination is wrong. No vaccine passport,” read the pamphlet, which featured an image of Indigenous students standing on the steps of a residential school.

In its 2019 election debut, the PPC got 1.6 per cent of the popular vote. Without a seat in Parliament, Mr. Bernier was not included in the French or English debates alongside the three major parties, the Greens and the Bloc Québécois. The party campaigned on a promise to help small businesses by encouraging provinces to end all lockdowns and vaccine passports and by shrinking the size of the federal government. The PPC rejects the science of climate change and would reverse all significant government policies aimed at reducing emissions.

Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, said the PPC was attractive in this latest election to those looking for a further-right option than the Conservative Party. Even in the Conservative stronghold of Alberta, the PPC drew sizable crowds. “A francophone leader from Quebec turning out a 1,000-person crowd in Calgary is really kind of astounding,” said Prof. Flanagan, who managed several Conservative Party campaigns.

But electoral success in terms of earning seats isn’t necessarily the PPC’s main motivation, Prof. Thomas said; the PPC is as much a competitive party as it is a social movement. “It appeals on the basis of some intensely held values and a sense of grievance,” he said. “This makes the party immune from ‘defeat’ in the conventional sense and means Mr. Bernier’s followers will likely remain loyal to the cause.”

At the election rally in Saskatoon, Mr. Bernier said the party will be better prepared for the next election and pledged to win the PPC’s first seats. In the meantime, the party will continue to push its ideals. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to continue this fight in Parliament,” he said, “but we will continue to unite Canadians under the freedom umbrella.”

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