How Maxime Bernier Lost His Seat
Canada’s nationalist People’s Party has run a familiar populist playbook — and ended up a joke.
The international club of nationalist politicians is big, diverse, and still growing.
Matteo Salvini, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Jimmie Akesson, Geert Wilders—they may not be national leaders, but their populist approach has bent the rules of politics in their favor.
Maxime Bernier wants to add a Canadian name to that list.
As the head of the People’s Party of Canada, Bernier sings from the hymnal of modern populism—illiberal, anti-immigrant, skeptical of climate change, socially regressive, anti-establishment. His movement is buoyed by white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. He campaigns against the very idea of Canada’s multicultural state, vowing to obliterate its immigration levels and roll back the clock on transgender rights, among other things.
What makes Bernier unlike his compatriots throughout Europe and the United States is that he has failed miserably.
Canadians went to the polls on Oct. 21 in a contentious federal election, in which voters were broadly disenchanted with establishment candidates. In most places, that’s been a recipe for success for nationalists and populists. And yet Bernier performed so poorly that he lost his own riding — one that he held for 12 years, and that his father held for 13.
Bernier’s failure isn’t just a Canadian story. It’s a tale of how populism can fail—or be stopped.
At 56, Bernier has already lived many lives in Canadian politics. All of them have been interesting.
He was first elected to Parliament as a Conservative Party candidate in 2006, to represent the rural Quebec district of Beauce, which had in the past oscillated between electing centrist liberals and an eccentric mix of anti-communists, right-wing populists, and independents. In the 1980s, it was Gilles Bernier, Maxime’s father, who captured it for the Conservatives.
“If Maxime is half as good as his dad, he’ll be Member of Parliament for awhile,” a resident told the newspaper La Presse in 2006. He was elected without much trouble.
The Conservatives formed a government that year. Bernier was the cosmopolitan Quebecer in a party of prairie and oil-industry populists. Less than two years after being elected, Bernier was made Canada’s foreign minister.
But Bernier’s career nearly ended just as quickly. He had left a confidential briefing book of NATO documents at his girlfriend’s house—a girlfriend, it emerged, who had a history with a criminal biker gang and had herself been surveilled by federal police as part of a drug investigation. He was summarily fired as foreign minister.
His career was torpedoed, but not quite sunk. Bernier started a blog, wrote a book, and toured the country giving speeches. He carved out a niche for himself as a libertarian, coming out hard against conventionally popular positions, such as market protections for farmers and spending federal money for a new hockey arena in a political battleground.
He slowly climbed back up the rungs of power. By the time the Conservatives lost to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015, Bernier had rehabilitated his career and had made his way back into cabinet. He had made a name for himself as an iconoclast. He billed himself as socially progressive, marching in a gay pride parade in Toronto, but a fiscal hawk.
So when his former boss Stephen Harper resigned as party leader, Bernier was quick out of the gate to run as his replacement.
His party struggled with its identity—chiefly, should it push hard on immigration and social issues, or continue vying for votes in the center?
Other old-school conservatives around the world were struggling with the same questions. In the United States, the Republican Party had opted for Donald Trump not long before. The Australian Liberal Party was still mired in internal fighting over same-sex marriage and immigration policies. Brexit, supposed to confirm the renewed, modern conservative vision of Prime Minister David Cameron, had just accidentally cemented the U.K. Conservatives as reactionary Euroskeptics.
Three candidates were front-runners in the Canadian Conservative leadership race: Andrew Scheer, the former House of Commons speaker who represented the traditional Tory base; Kevin O’Leary, the Shark Tank mogul who pitched a socially progressive pro-business vision; and Bernier, running on a more ideologically conservative platform of slightly reducing immigration, slashing taxes, and promoting competition.
O’Leary, to everyone’s surprise, vaulted to first—only to drop out of the race at the last minute, keener on staying a TV star than being prime minister. He endorsed Bernier, and it seemed to be all over.
And yet it didn’t happen that way. At the 2017 leadership vote in Toronto, which went on for hours, over a grueling 13 rounds, Scheer eked out a victory.
It was quickly clear that Bernier wouldn’t play second fiddle. He began working on a book about his time in politics and released a preview chapter that laid the blame on special interests for his leadership defeat. Scheer demoted him immediately.
That’s when Bernier suddenly discovered two things: Twitter, and his hatred for multiculturalism.
While he Bernier spent some time talking about race and religion before, suddenly they appeared to be his only concerns. “While a statue of our country’s founder is being removed in one city, a park was recently named after Pakistan’s founder in another,” he tweeted in 2018, defending early Prime Minister John A. MacDonald and his ugly history of attempted genocide of indigenous people. Bernier decried a motion, known colloquially as M-103, that condemned Islamophobia in light of a domestic terrorist attack on a Quebec City mosque. He began to crusade against what he called “extreme multiculturalism.”
“Having people live among us who reject basic Western values such as freedom, equality, tolerance and openness doesn’t make us strong,” Bernier tweeted in August 2018. “People who refuse to integrate into our society and want to live apart in their ghetto don’t make our society strong.”
Comments like that earned quick condemnation from Scheer, still wobbly in his leadership after a bruising election campaign.
It was clear that Bernier wouldn’t survive long in the party. So, as his Conservative Party met for its 2018 convention, he abruptly announced he would be quitting to start his own organization: the People’s Party of Canada.
It’s been an odd and rapid route for Bernier. Alexander Gauland founded the Alternative for Germany party, split off from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, more than five years ago. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen took over from her father, who led a previous incarnation of the far-right French party. The Sweden Democrats go back decades, with roots in Nordic white supremacist movements of the 1990s. Others, of course, have taken hold of existing power structures, as in Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
But Bernier’s ideological cues came from global nationalists, even if his structural approach didn’t.
Bernier’s prime ministerial platform calls for a dramatic slashing of immigration levels—from about 300,000 people per year to as low as 100,000—which would correspond to a cut in refugee intake as well. He would build a fence along parts of the U.S.-Canadian border, cut all funding that promotes other cultures, withdraw Canada from all efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, end international development aid, and revoke funding for any university or college deemed insufficiently supportive of freedom of speech—a veiled threat aimed at universities that have refused to host controversial right-wing figures.
As the election approached, Bernier proved himself well-organized—he had a significant roster of candidates signed up to run under the People’s Party banner, and he scheduled rallies across the country to kick off his campaign. He got ample airtime, in part thanks to his new party and in part thanks to his incendiary tweets, such as one calling the climate campaigner Greta Thunberg “mentally unstable.”
Judging by other countries, this should have been enough to capture plentiful political space. The issues on which Bernier focuses do have natural Canadian constituencies. As Bernier himself loves to note, a majority of Canadians polled say they want a reduction in immigration levels. Like Americans, Canadians tend to overestimate the number of immigrants and refugees the country takes in every year and misunderstand where they come from.
Bernier has seen fawning support online, where he’s affectionately called “Mad Max,” with a number of far-right online activists either supporting Bernier openly or running for the People’s Party itself.
Far-right groups, such as the Canadian chapter of the Finnish group Soldiers of Odin and the Quebec-based La Meute, have generally gravitated toward Bernier. At a far-right rally on Parliament Hill earlier this year, where anti-immigrant groups and self-styled militias such as La Meute and Soldiers of Odin came together to protest their conspiratorial understanding of a United Nations migration compact, Bernier was slated to show up. (If he had, he would have spoken after the leader of Stram Kurs, a far-right Danish party committed to banning the Quran, which just missed breaking the threshold to enter parliament in its first election this summer.)
The right-wing Rebel Media has also produced friendly coverage of Bernier—the outlet has become notorious internationally by giving a platform to homegrown racists such as Faith Goldy, Gavin McInnes, and Lauren Southern, as well as imported ones, such as Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins. There’s a raft of other, smaller right-wing video and media platforms that have also expressed an affinity for Bernier. Even in the mainstream press, there have been spirited defenses written of Bernier. The right-wing media personality Dave Rubin held an event with Bernier during the election, and Bernier has received praise from the super-popular writer Jordan Peterson in the past.
Given Bernier’s name recognition, his media ties, and the anxiety around his core campaign issues, he seemed destined to do well.
That didn’t happen.
The People’s Party has never broken 5 percent in the aggregate of federal polls taken since it was officially registered. While Bernier qualified for both official debates—one in English, one in French—his performance was combative and often drifted to conspiracy theories about the U.N. According to one poll, just 3 percent of debate-watchers considered him the winner.
Bernier was also the least popular of the candidates, with a -36 net favorability rating—just below the incumbent Trudeau, who languished at -33 amid ethics controversies and a blackface scandal.
In the final days of the campaign, Bernier decamped back to his district, where polls showed him at risk of losing the seat he’s held since 2006 to his old party. In the end, he was beaten by more than 5,000 votes.
It was a campaign that never caught fire, but it’s not obvious why Bernier failed where his foreign counterparts succeeded. Some of it is that he is simply not an efficient communicator. While he can be a forceful speaker in French, he is awkward in English—he speaks with a heavy accent and seems to be forever searching for his words.
But social media has previously been a great equalizer for candidates who might not be polished speakers. And Canadians are usually forgiving of a leader’s verbal infelicities, so long as they can speak one of its two official languages fluently—former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was famously incomprehensible in English, once telling reporters: “A proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof it’s because it’s proven.”
Some of it is specifically Canadian. Canucks generally loathe any politics that can be described as “American,” and the ascendancy of Donald Trump probably helped scupper Bernier’s chances. Politeness and tolerance have always been traits Canadians are happy to ascribe to themselves, and the country’s carefully cultivated idea of multiculturalism is broadly popular.
But that isn’t the whole story, either. Quebec passed legislation banning many civil servants from wearing religious symbols this year and passed a ban on niqab-wearing women from accessing some social services. Ontario elected as its premier Doug Ford, the brother of the former Toronto mayor caught smoking crack on the job and a populist in his own right. Alberta recently elected Jason Kenney as premier, partly on a conspiratorial pledge to investigate foreign meddling supposedly funding environmentalist groups. Even in this campaign, misinformation targeting Trudeau has been shared tens of thousands of times, with some far-right agitators attempting to file criminal charges against the Liberal leader. There’s no magical Canadian formula for tolerance.
A more tangible reason is Canada’s campaign finance laws. Campaign donations are capped at around $1,600 per person per year. Third parties can spend, but they can’t do so in coordination with the campaigns and face donation and spending caps as well as reporting requirements. That keeps small parties from getting big thanks to checks from invested donors. Contrast that with the United States, where, thanks to political action committees, campaign contributions can be virtually limitless, and Europe, where the limits are tighter but the sources of donations can be murky.
Then there’s the role of a media that’s proved more responsible than some of its foreign counterparts. While Bernier has gotten plenty of airtime for some of his outlandish statements, journalists and columnists generally haven’t given much oxygen to his thoroughly unworkable or preposterous policy proposals, such as slashing immigration levels. Bernier has received roughly the amount of coverage deserving of a politician polling at 2 percent, not the $2 billion in free coverage Trump received.
The media did, however, aggressively cover the more troubling aspects of his party—like when one candidate called for a total ban on Islam or when it was revealed a founding member of the party was a former America neo-Nazi who has been very active in organizing for anti-immigrant causes in Canada. There was ample coverage when Bernier himself was photographed with members of the far-right Northern Guard and noted white supremacist Paul Fromm, and when he took a phone call from an anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ fringe party to ask for their support.
Even the party itself seemed to push back. There were a number of resignations from those worried about racism in the party. Bernier even fired one candidate after he demanded a denunciation of hateful elements within the party. Bernier probably didn’t need much help torpedoing his own chances of an electoral breakthrough, but it seems his former rival decided to help him along just the same. On the Friday before election day, the Globe & Mail reported that someone hired former Liberal Warren Kinsella to “seek and destroy” Bernier, per documents handed over to the newspaper. The wheels appeared to come off that plan fairly quickly. One goal, to keep Bernier out of the debates, failed outright. The Globe’s source said it was the Conservative Party who hired Kinsella — asked to confirm the report multiple times on Saturday, Scheer repeated “we don’t make comments on vendors that our party does or does not hire” more than a dozen times.
Setting up a new party structure, as opposed to cannibalizing an existing organization, also appears to have stunted his opportunity for growth. Much of his political strategy appeared the work of one of his longtime aides, Martin Masse, and many of his candidates were rough around the edges at best. He had no real ground game and started his campaign with no money in the bank.
But Bernier’s flop may also be a sign that the growth of the far-right has its limitations and its appeal may be waning. Far-right parties have fared poorly in nearly every election held in the past year. May alone saw right-wing and Euroskeptic parties fare worse than expected in European Parliament elections, and the People’s Party’s Australian cousin, the long-running One Nation party, garnered just 3 percent of the vote in that month’s national election.
Bernier’s attempt to sing karaoke with the greatest hits of anti-globalists worldwide appears to have been transparent to voters. With the luxury of a few years of hindsight, Canadians were happy to take a pass on the sort of politics that has become mainstream elsewhere.
It doesn’t help that Bernier has become a bit of a joke. The Rhinoceros Party, a satirical party whose first leader was a rhino from a Quebec zoo, is running a candidate in Beauce against Maxime Bernier named Maxime Bernier. “Don’t take a chance, vote both!” The party said in a statement.
Bernier’s dismal failure may be a sign that springtime is over for nationalists everywhere.
Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.