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Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada looking for electoral breakthrough

The People's Party of Canada, led by the outspoken Maxime Bernier, is looking to turn growing support into ballot-box success this evening.
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The People's Party of Canada, led by the outspoken Maxime Bernier, is looking to turn growing support into ballot-box success this evening.

Opinion polls have consistently shown party support hovering at five per cent or higher during the federal campaign, even though Bernier was excluded from national leaders' debates.

Several dozen people turned out early for the party's election night gathering at a Saskatoon hotel.

Jeffrey English, visiting from Vancouver, said he hoped to see the People's Party gain steam.

"I’m not expecting them to be in the top three but hopefully at least gain votes."

Bernier was a prominent member of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, serving as minister in the industry and foreign-affairs portfolios.

He left the Conservatives in August 2018, saying the party had all but abandoned its core principles. Soon after, the People’s Party was born.

Bernier failed to win his Quebec riding of Beauce under the People's Party banner in 2019, but the loss did not deter him.

During this campaign he attracted the support of disgruntled Conservatives, right-wing ideologues and people who oppose COVID-19 vaccinations and lockdowns.

"A year ago, I would have been surprised," said Tamara Small, an associate professor of political science at the University of Guelph. "But I'm not surprised, given the context of this election, where we are today."

The People's Party supports repealing vaccine mandates and regular testing for federal civil servants and workers in federally regulated industries, as well as proof-of-vaccination programs across the country.

In June, Bernier began a three-day tour of Manitoba to denounce lockdown policies, but was arrested after taking part in a rally — a move the party said violated his charter right to peaceful assembly.

"Bernier's appeals in 2019 were certainly outside the mainstream," said Richard Johnston, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia.

"But he seems to have decided to allow everything else out there on the fringe into his rhetoric this time."

In becoming a voice of the movement against restrictions to fight COVID-19, Bernier has employed a tried and true right-wing, populist approach — "take the concerns of the people, in this case, especially, the angry people, and make them your own," said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University. 

"There is a lot of danger there," Perry said, noting Bernier has adopted an anti-science stance and amplified conspiracy theories. "That's really problematic from a public health perspective, as well as from a democratic perspective."

The People's Party also advocates slashing immigration levels and quizzing prospective newcomers to ensure they align with Canadian values and societal norms. 

It proposes eliminating the deficit by the end of a first mandate through cuts to corporate subsidies, foreign development aid, the CBC and equalization payments.

The party also favours ending all funding to multiculturalism programs, making it easier to build pipelines, scrapping the federal carbon tax and phasing out supply management for agricultural products. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021.

By Jim Bronskill and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press